Poetry in the Lives of Children and Young Adults

 

By Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

“Before you go further,/ let me tell you what a poem brings,/ first, you must know the secret,/ there is no poem/ to speak of, it is a way to attain/ a life without boundaries”

— from “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings by Juan Felipe Herrera

I have been teaching creative writing to middle school and high school students in and outside of traditional classroom spaces for about five years now. For the most part, I have found that despite the need for these creative spaces, they are too hard to come by. My purpose in each teaching space is to create a safe space where youth can use their lived experiences, their communities, and their imagination as inspiration to find their voices—alongside teaching them a skill or two about creative writing. My favorite part of teaching creative writing is the opportunity to listen to youth tell their stories. When I start my classes, I always let youth know that I was undocumented when I was their age, and with high school students, I might reveal that I grew up around domestic violence. I don’t share these personal facts for any shock factor but because there’s still a dangerous misconception that people like me—and like my students—are not writers. The lack of representation and diversity in books available in K-12 classrooms impacts whether children and young adults understand their experiences as valuable and whether they can see themselves as agents of their own stories. In other words, not seeing ourselves represented in what we read while in school influences the value we give to our personal experiences and whether we consider ourselves worthy enough to write our own stories. Most of the work that I do in each teaching space is about undoing the fallacies of who can be a writer and what stories can be told.

I enjoy teaching poetry most of all because, at first, youth are very hesitant about reading and writing poetry because it’s “too hard” to understand or there are “too many rules” to follow, but they are then surprised and even excited when we read poems by the likes of Francisco X. Alarcon, Pat Mora,  or Juan Felipe Herrera. I’m sure what surprises them is that these poems are about tortillas, abuelas, or about barrios like the ones in which they live. The idea here is not to essentialize their Latinx experiences, or their experiences as children of color for that matter, but stories about cultural foods, grandmas, immigration, class, and the like still resonate with children and young adults of color for a reason. Even if they are exposed to writers of color in their classrooms, students and teachers alike are constantly battling the negative messages youth receive about their cultural, ethnic, and class background. Because of this, it’s refreshing and empowering for youth to hear stories they can relate to in hopes that they do will want to share their own stories.

Poetry usually becomes the favorite outlet for many of my students, especially after I tell them that they can write poetry without needing to follow any rules. Poetry has become a safe way for my students to unleash their dreams, their pain, and their imaginations without necessarily revealing the truth about any of the above. Imagery, metaphors, similes, and symbols are very powerful tools for youth to process their experiences without needing to name their afflictions if they don’t want to. On the other hand, poetry is the perfect vessel for them to say what they want with little stress from conventional English grammar rules. Believe it or not, complete sentences, subject-verb agreement, and punctuation can be real bummers. I have had the most hesitant of 6th grade boys write poems about video games, boogers, balls, or about how stupid 6th grade is. And I encourage those types of poems because those, too, are important stories. There are certainly other students that can relate to poetry about video games and the dreadfulness that is 6th grade. In the same vein, I have had students reveal that they struggle with depression, that they don’t like the color of their skin, that they are embarrassed by their parent’s broken English, that they or a family member are undocumented or have been deported. I don’t ever ask students to write about their deepest, darkest secrets. I often give them the option to make something up if they don’t want to write about themselves. But more often than not, students share these personal stories without prompting because they need to. In my poetry sessions[i], I try to give students the opportunity to say what they can’t say aloud in hopes that they may “attain a life without boundaries.”

How to Use Poetry in Latinx Children’s Literature to Encourage Children and Youth to Read/Write Poetry

For elementary and middle school students, I often start off with Francisco X. Alarcón’s poetry for children because they are fun, culturally relevant, and bilingual (English/Spanish). Alarcón has many wonderful books of poetry for children but I use the “The Magical Cycle of the Seasons Series,” which includes Iguanas in the Snow: And Other Winter Poems, Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Spring Poems, From the Bellybutton of the Moon: And other Summer Poems, Angels Ride Bikes: And Other Fall Poems, because it allows me to use the five senses to describe how each season manifest itself in a student’s community.

   

For example, Alarcón’s poem “Dream,” in Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Summer Poems, is about gardens everywhere and everyone helping to plant gardens. When teaching this poem, I first ask the youth to read the poem aloud. I like to ask different students to read the same poem several times so that we can hear different intonations and discuss if emphasizing different words in the poem changes its meaning. I do the same with the Spanish version of the poem. I then talk about which of the five senses the poem uses to tell the story. I ask students to point to specific lines in the poem to support their arguments. We then move into a group discussion about gardens, their purposes, where we might see them, and if they have one of their own. Depending on the group, I might ask them to write in free verse about the gardens in their homes/communities or to imagine their own garden. If the youth or group needs more structure, I might ask them to write an acrostic or cinquain poem about gardens or a garden related subjects. To close out the session, I often ask students to share their poems, or we might try to mime or sing the poem. When there’s not enough time to go into that much detail with the poem, I read the poem with the youth, ask them what they think the poem is about, and ask them to write their own poem about their garden, a garden they’ve seen, or why there should or shouldn’t be more gardens in their communities. Maya Christina Gonzalez’s beautiful illustrations also present an opportunity for students to create additional garden paintings, drawings, or an entirely new poem based on the illustrations.

For older students I often refer to Juan Felipe Herrera’s novel in verse Downtown Boy. More often than not, we focus on the young main character Juanito to discuss issues such as discrimination in school, immigration, gender roles, masculinity and femininity, diabetes, family, and more. If I have an opportunity to teach the entire novel, then I often create poetry portfolios with my students where we pick a broader theme like identity, culture, and/or community that will thread throughout all their poems.  If I don’t have enough time to cover the entire novel, then I usually pick the poems that will best represent the student population or the poem with which they can connect to the most.

For example, Downtown Boy opens with Juanito’s cousin trying to coerce him into boxing Sweet Pea Price. Juanito is new to San Francisco and wants to make friends but his father has advised him against fighting. Juanito will need to decide if he will fight or not. When teaching this poem, I ask students to read this poem aloud; we then discuss Juanito’s character traits and the overall voice of the poem. I brainstorm with my students about times they might have been in a similar predicament. Because this poem uses dialogue, I encourage my students to include two different voices. If the youth have finished their poems, I might ask them to share their work. With older students, I like to encourage revisions and workshopping each other’s poems in order to improve our writing and to learn from one another.

Poetry in Action

The following poems were written by young poets in my creative writing classes. Kimberly Alvarez is currently a sophomore in high school in Riverside, California. Naomi Lara is currently a 6th grader in an elementary in Chicago, Illinois. Jennifer Alvarez is currently a senior in high school in Riverside, California. I’m grateful for their words and for their permission to share them here.

Dream[ii].

by Kimberly Alvarez

At Night,

I look up at the ceiling.

Bare.

NO DREAMS

Anywhere.

At midnight,

I’m sound asleep

In Paradise

Floating.

Free. Away.

I don’t want to wake up.

Until my eyes just…

Open,

Like a curtain beside me

When the wind comes through

At 5:00 a.m…

I hear my dad getting ready for

Work.

I can tell he didn’t choose that

Job or this life for himself

Or my family.

I see through him

Through his eyes,

To his soul.

It may seem…

COLD

but in reality

I can feel,

Feel the warmth

When I look into his eyes,

To his soul.

They change color. His eyes.

With him. His mood.

¿Porque? Why?

Can’t he be as warm as his soul is..

Dream.

I always do

Of him,

Of my family,

Finally happy together.

Put back together

Like a puzzle.

I always wonder

What my family would

Be like without

Dreams.

At morning,

When I get up

It all flows down

Goes down like a giant wave

Drowning my dreams

And pulling them down

At night,

I look up at the ceiling

All of my dreams,

Are floating

Up, wandering

On the ceiling

Waiting for the rest

Of my dreams to

Join them

And

Soon…

They will

Become

One BIG dream.

Un Gran Sueño.

 

It All Changed

By Noemi Lara

Happy girl, good friends

Big house

She should have cherished those moments

For they would be gone too soon

She looked up at the moon

Little did she know everything was about to change

Her mom and dad were acting strange

They told her they needed to arrange a meeting to see new houses.

Their new house has mouses

The neighborhood was foul

She couldn’t help but growl

She grew older

And things got colder

Her friends were bolder

Her parents would fight

It gave her a fright

She fought with all her might

But all she would see was the night

Oh how it all changed

 

My California[iii]

By Jennifer Alvarez

My California is fun times at Lake Perris.

Running into the water but jumping back when you feel the ice

cold water.

In those rare but amazing visits to see my “best cousin forever”

in Fontana.

Laughing, fighting, hugging, and talking until the next three

months when we reunites.

It is those two times going to Big Bear.

Snowman on the roof of my dad’s car, attempting to bring it back

home to show it to my friends.

It is the  multiple times driving to Moreno Valeey to Walmart with my sister.

Music blaring, singing along with smiles on our faces.

It is the sisterly bonding we had going to the Moreno Valley

Mall.

But mostly, my California are memories with the people I love.

 

[i] Currently I teach poetry as a Teaching Artist with ElevArte Community Studio, an arts organization in Chicago. “Word Up,” is a pilot program funded by ElevArte and the Poetry Foundation to create a safe space for underrepresented youth to learn about and write poetry. I visit a local elementary school once a week to teach, read, and write poetry with two 6th grade classes. I have worked closely with their awesome teacher, Ms. Delta Cervantes, to create a poetry curriculum that also meets common core standards. The 6th graders are presently working on spoken word projects.

[ii] Dream was first published in 2012 in a youth anthology, R’side of the Story, out of the Youth Opportunity Center in Riverside, California

[iii] My California was published in 2013 in R’side of the Story

 

FullSizeRender (1)Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez’s research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She also teaches poetry to 6th graders and drama to 2nd graders as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her middle grade book. Follow Sonia on Instagram @latinxkidlit

Life-Changing Teachers: On Juan Felipe Herrera’s Reading in Chicago

 

By Sonia Alejandra RodriguezJFH_1

The notes from his harmonica carried us from poem to poem as he recounted stories of his childhood and brought us to the present and the tragic realities of Ayotzinapa and Sandy Hook. On October 7th, 2015 Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino US Poet Laureate, read from his most recent book of poems, Notes on the Assemblage, at the historical Herald Washington Library in Chicago.  The event hosted by the Poetry Foundation, and cosponsored with the Library of Congress and the Chicago Public Library, created an intimate setting from which to enjoy Herrera’s humble and quirky personality. I sat front row center with his newest book in one hand and a notebook in another ready to soak up his brilliance. I was invited to the event as a guest of Irasema Gonzalez, Development & Communications Director at ElevArte Community Studio[1] in Pilsen Chicago. ElevArte partnered with the Poetry Foundation to bring, create, and share poetry with at-promise youth[2] in Chicago, and I am currently their poetry Teaching Artist. I had met Herrera once before when he taught at the University of California Riverside and am familiar with his work because I wrote about his children’s illustrated books in my dissertation. Nevertheless, I was excited to meet him as the US Poet Laureate. Herrera walked onto the stage in a yellow button up shirt and was greeted with a standing ovation. He brought his harmonica to his mouth and greeted us back.

After briefly speaking about his upbringing as a migrant farm worker, Herrera read “Border Bus,” a poem in Spanish and English about two (im)migrant women being transported to/from a detention center. The poem switches from Spanish to English and back as the women converse about their situation. I found it powerful to hear Herrera recite poetry in Spanish and speak to the perils (im)migrants face when they journey north and those they may experience in detention centers. I was overwhelmed by a great sense of pride at hearing Herrera read this poem in particular. I’ve never been an avid follower of any US Poet Laureate until Herrera. I had a similar feeling when Sonia Sotomayor was appointment to the Supreme Court. When I was younger, I wanted to be judge, and I still want to be a writer. It’s empowering and amazing to see Latinos hold these prestigious positions.

JFH_2After his reading, Herrera answered a few questions about his inspirations for becoming a writer and about his desire to make poetry available to everyone. During the brief Q & A, he mentioned the teachers that pushed him to speak up. He spoke about Mrs. Sampson, whom he also wrote about in his children’s illustrated text The Upside Down Boy, and how she helped him find his voice. Mrs. Sampson was present at Herrera’s US Poet Laureate inauguration ceremony. He also spoke about Mr. Schuster (spelling might be incorrect), his 7th grade music teacher, whom Herrera had lied to about his ethnic identity saying that he was Hawaiian. Herrera explained that he didn’t know what to say when Mr. Schuster asked him what he was anyway; he panicked and responded with a lie. Herrera closed the event by reading and dedicating the poem “Half-Mexican” to Mr. Schuster. “Half-Mexican” captures the complex and rich histories that congregate when using Mexican as a marker of identity: “You are Mexican./ One half Mexican the other half/ Mexican, then the half against itself” (87).

It was truly a great evening with the Poet Laureate. The moments that stuck with me the most, though, are those when he talked about the impact his teachers had on him. Herrera said that teachers like Mrs. Sampson and Mr. Schuster “shook him” and “pushed him” forward.  I think back and teachers like Mrs. Roethke, my Spanish high school teacher, and Dr. Richard T. Rodriguez, my Latina/o studies professor in college, propelled me to pursue higher education and find my voice. Teachers like these are significant not only because of the impact they have on young minds, but also because they challenge dominant narratives that tell young students of color that they do not belong. Herrera mentioned that speaking Spanish was still punishable in classrooms when he was going to school. When I was younger, “undocumented and unafraid” did not have the same momentum it has now. Today, there are several reasons that make it difficult for students of color to feel safe, encouraged, and whole in US classrooms. The discrimination that students of color face in classrooms is another testament to how amazing it is to have someone like Juan Felipe Herrera as the US Poet Laureate.

JFH_3In general, the “life-changing teacher” is a common character in Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. Herrera’s own The Upside Down presents Mrs. Sampson as a character that helps little Juanito settle into his new school and encourages him to sing in front of the class. Ms. Diaz, in Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks, has an active role in helping the lead protagonists come to terms with their inner struggles. In René Colato Laínez’s Waiting for Papá, Miss Parrales encourages Beto to share his story of being separated from his father because of existing immigration policies. In Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name, Mr. Aponte teaches América to use poetry as tool for healing. Ms. Abernard, in Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces insists that Gabi keep writing and sharing her poetry. And then you have the characters that serve as a “teacher figure.” The abuelita in Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl and the abuelita in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Prietita and the Ghost Woman teach their granddaughters about the power and strength of plants, herbs, and nature. The abuelita in Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano teaches young Evelyn to have pride in her Puerto Rican culture and history. And then there are the adults that serve as mentors like Sonia, the lawyer that the young characters in Gloria Velasquez’s “The Roosevelt High” series often turn to for help.

There are definitely more examples of teachers, in the broad sense of the word, throughout Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. These teacher characters often stand in opposition to dominant narratives that seek to oppress the young characters. Furthermore, these teachers serve as role models and mentors that filter, translate, and transform the world for and with the main characters. In other words, these teacher figures show and remind the main characters that their possibilities are not limited by what society dictates. It is important to note that these teacher characters are not always adults but can be the main characters’ friends, siblings, or it can even be a book or an art form.

I felt a bit like I was a part of some history in the making simply by sitting in that auditorium and listening to Juan Felipe Herrera perform. And by the end of the event after listening to him talk about the teachers that pushed him to find and use his voice, I couldn’t help but think that Herrera is now the nation’s poetry teacher and that he will shake us and push us to write, speak, share, change, and love.

 

[1] ElevArte is a community-based organization which uses the arts as a portal for creative youth development. The organization offers a range of programs including youth led projects like the “We Are Hip-Hop” Festival designed to give young adults an opportunity to be active community leaders and organizers. They also offer in-class programs like “Art of Change” which focuses on teaching science through the arts to elementary and middle grade students. They offer after-school activities like sewing and stitching. They also organize and offer many community events like their annual Pozolada fundraiser. For more information on ElevArte visit their website at www.elevartestudio.org and follow them on twitter @ElevarteStudio.

[2] At-promise youth is a term used by ElevArte as a way to challenge negative language like “at-risk” that sees what youth lack rather than their potential. ElevArte seeks to create a space where youth are encouraged and empowered throughout every aspect of their engagement with one another.

 

FullSizeRender (1)Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez received her PhD in English from the University of California Riverside. Her research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She is also teaches poetry as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her first children’s picture book.

Juan Felipe Herrera Plans Epic Poem to Reflect “Voices from People’s Hearts”

 

By Cecilia Cackley

Juan Felipe HerreraJuan Felipe Herrera says that “It’s been a long walk from the fields of Central California…from my mother’s songs…from my father’s stories of crossing the border.” Herrera is the nation’s first Chicano Poet Laureate, and he has big plans. He makes it clear that this is a long way from where he started as a child. “You don’t have plans when you’re a migrant” he points out. “You’re moving, you’re trying to get to the next place.”

Herrera grew up in various small California towns, moving from place to place with his parents, who were migrant farmers. He attended UCLA, where he was involved in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement and later earned master’s degrees from Stanford and University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. He currently holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Creative Writing department at UC Riverside.

Herrera’s first project as Poet Laureate was announced at the National Book Festival in DC last month. It is a participatory website called “La Casa de Colores” and has several different sections. The “Familia’”section is a space for people to contribute lines, rhymes or poems, including video of signed poems in ASL. Each month will be devoted to a different theme and style, until the poem grows into an epic that Herrera says will reflect “voices from people’s hearts.”

The second section is called “Jardín” and will be a space for Herrera to share inspiration that he finds in the Library of Congress collections. It might be a print or photograph, a piece of music or film or artwork, hiding on a shelf or in a file. Herrera will write poems responding to the images and sounds, and he will invite participants to do the same.

It’s pretty clear from this project that Herrera is passionate about making poetry an art form for everyone, not just for the classroom, not just for English majors and especially not just for adults. The author of several books for young readers, Herrera has won an Ezra Jack Keats Award and several Pura Belpré Honors for his work. He recommends that young readers check out works by Gary Soto, Jorge Argueta, Fransisco X Alarcón and Alma Flor Ada, but even more strongly encourages teachers to tell their own stories to their students to encourage writing and storytelling. Herrera’s favorite story-starter is a family album shared between teacher and student—“The album” he says, “becomes the story-machine.”

When asked about the importance of poetry to children, Herrera is eloquent and poetic. Poetry “is at the heart of being a child” he says, “something that reflects exactly who they are.” While creative writing is often asked to take a back seat in the classroom due to our current testing culture, Herrera is adamant that “If we start playing with words at a young age, we’ll learn how to use language very well. People will enjoy thinking—the kind of thinking that you can’t find a formula for.” He also makes the point that poetry can be a refuge for a child going through tough times or teenagers trying to figure out their identity. Poetry, he says “gives children a place to rest, a place where it’s just me. It’s a personal surfboard where you can just go along with the waves, you’re free…you have to put your thoughts and feelings somewhere. [Poetry] balances you…you learn how to walk a tightrope.”

Books by Juan Felipe Herrera for young readers:

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Cackley_headshotCecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

Book Review: Super Cilantro Girl by Juan Felipe Herrera

 

1016493By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: What happens when a small girl suddenly starts turning green, as green as a cilantro leaf, and grows to be fifty feet tall? She becomes Super Cilantro Girl, and can overcome all obstacles, that’s what! Esmeralda Sinfronteras is the winning super-hero in this effervescent tale about a child who flies huge distances and scales tall walls in order to rescue her mom. Award-winning writer Juan Felipe Herrera taps into the wellsprings of his imagination to address and transform the concerns many first-generation children have about national borders and immigrant status. Honorio Robledo Tapia has created brilliant images and landscapes that will delight all children.

MY TWO CENTS: Upon learning that her mother has been detained at the border, Esmeralda Sinfronteras transforms into a superhero to rescue her mother from ICE. She uses the power of cilantro to grow taller than a house, with hair longer than a bus, and skin so green it could have only come from cilantro. Super Cilantro Girl flies to the border, climbs the dark and dreary detention center to her mother’s window, and simply picks her up and puts her in her pocket and they fly home.  The ICE agents are so mesmerized by the power of cilantro that they do not notice or prevent Super Cilantro Girl from rescuing her mother.  The next morning, Esmeralda makes a huge discovery about her and her mother.

Author Juan Felipe Herrera and illustrator Honorario Robledo Tapia have created a magnificent children’s book about the transformative power of imagination. Esmeralda is emblematic of the many children who have been separated from their families due to unjust and xenophobic immigration laws. Herrera and Tapia go beyond common debates about immigration to give a face and a voice to the children impacted. Esmeralda gains the power and courage she needs to confront ICE from the environment around her. Her grandmother and the land serve as vessels for alternative knowledge that guide Esmeralda through her journey. Furthermore, Herrera’s and Tapia’s reclamation of the color green juxtaposes Esmeralda’s power with the cultural and social power of the “green card.”  In Esmeralda’s imagination, her power is much stronger than anything ICE or a green card could ever have.

There are several ways to read race, gender, and class into this story in order to come up with a thorough analysis of how immigration impacts Latina/o children and their families. What I appreciate most about Herrera’s children’s book is that hope and empowerment are central to the narrative. Giving Esmeralda superpowers reveals the possibility for change that manifests from a child’s imagination. Super Cilantro Girl encourages children to dream, hope, and fight for their rights even if it means going against an entire state apparatus like ICE.

TEACHING TIPS: Super Cilantro Girl can be taught thematically by focusing on issues of (im)migration.  The story’s emphasis on alternative healing methods is resonant of Gloria Anzaldua’s Prietita and the Ghost Woman and Friends from the Other Side. All three texts pay particular attention to holistic healing methods that include using nature as a resource. This is especially important because it allows the children protagonists to gain empowerment from their environments—much in the same way that Esmeralda finds power in cilantro.

Focusing on the superhero theme presents an opportunity to connect art activities with reading. Yuyi Morales’s Niño Wrestles the World prompted the creation of Niño masks to accompany the story—something similar can be done with Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl.  The relationship between social justice and superheroes in this story can be addressed by asking students to draw and imagine their own superhero. Students can imagine what a superhero in or from their community might look like or students can find inspiration from their community to create a superhero. Xavier Garza’s Charro Claus and the Tejas Kid is another excellent example of a child protagonist using his culture and community to be heroic.

There are several Latino kid’s books that focus on lucha libre that will pair wonderfully with Super Cilantro Girl. Lucha libre connects superhero-like characters with fantasy and reality and that can generate a powerful conversation about superheroes in our communities and culture as well as how children and youth can be their own heroes. Morales’s Niño Wrestles the World and Xavier Garza’s Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask are a few examples that tell stories about children and luchadores.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Super Cilantro Girl,  visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.orggoodreads.comamazon.com, and barnesandnoble.com.

 

headshotSonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.