As a child, I learned the names of my favorite foods in Chinese and Korean; my Chinese grandfather taught me to count in Cantonese; and my mother (inadvertently) taught me a whole range of insults in Korean. I can’t really speak those languages, though — and now I wish I did. But I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s, when overt racism was still common. And one of the first responses to prejudice is to throw off things, like language, that identify us as “other.” As a child, I understood that I couldn’t change my eyes, but I could give “them” (the taunters) one less thing to make fun of, if I refused to speak the Asian languages of my heritage.
How many children in America lose their native languages in order to feel safe and “included” in this country? How can we, as educators, honor the many voices in our students’ lives?
Use Poems to Discuss Current Events
Poetry creates universal messages from our personal experiences, showing us that we are not alone, making our voices heard, and giving hope. And poetry, more than any other written genre, can connect us instantly to current issues with accessible images. A perfect example of this is the poem “Border Kid” by David Bowles, published in Here We Go: A Poetry Friday Power Book, an NCTE Poetry Notable and NNSTOY Social Justice Book by Sylvia Vardell and myself. Here is an excerpt from “Border Kid”; you can find the whole poem here and also in David Bowles’s forthcoming book They Call Me Güero (Cinco Puntos, Fall 2018):
an excerpt from
by David Bowles
It’s fun to be a border kid, to wake up early Saturdays
And cross the bridge to Mexico with my dad.
* * *
We have breakfast in our favorite restorán —
Dad sips café de olla while I drink chocolate.
Then we walk down uneven sidewalks, chatting
With strangers and friends in both languages.
* * *
Waiting in line at the bridge, though, my smile fades.
The border fence stands tall and ugly, invading
The reeds at the river’s edge. Dad sees me staring,
Puts his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, m’ijo:
“You’re a border kid, a foot on either bank.
Your ancestors crossed this river a thousand times.
No wall, no matter how tall, can stop your heritage
From flowing forever, like the Río Grande itself.”
Poem copyright ©2017 David Bowles
Poetry gives us a way into conversations about tough topics — especially poems like “Border Kid” with immediate relevance and a strong point of view. In addition, having students engage with poems about current issues is a way to combine language arts and social studies in a quick, manageable cross-curricular lesson. And you can follow a poem with a response poem or mentor poem and writing prompt to take a poem-reading to a whole new level. For example, here is my response poem to “Border Kid,” written in the voice of the character Jack, a friend of David:
"You're Welcome" by Jack
Share Poems about Family
Poems about family are especially effective in nurturing and inspiring us to write poems and stories of our own that honor our heritage. One stellar example is “Family Day”/”Día familiar” by Francisco X. Alarcón. (For more family-related poems from the late Francisco X. Alarcon, see his bilingual collection, Family Poems for Every Day of the Week/Poemas familiares para cada día de la semana, posthumously published by Lee and Low Press and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez.)
"Family Day" by Francisco X. Alarcón
Play this poem for your students in both English and Spanish at Sound Cloud, where 35 poems from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations are available for free listening. Your students can follow along in the Children’s Edition of the book, while you use the mini-lessons for each poem in the Teacher/Librarian Edition.
Continue the focus on family literacy with “At Our House” / “En casa” by Virginia Euwer Wolff or “Children’s Day, Book Day”/ ”El día de los niños, El día de los libros” by Pat Mora — then invite children to write and share their own observations, memories, and stories about their families.
"Children's Day/Book Day" by Pat Mora
One Minute a Day
One minute a day, every day, read a poem aloud. Read a poem when starting a language arts or social studies lesson, or even science or math. Choose a poem that celebrates diversity and inclusion, especially poems with words in another language. This is not just so your students can hear their home languages, but also — especially — so that all children will be reminded of the validity of all languages, all cultures, and all people. When you read words in another language, don’t worry if your accent isn’t perfect. It’s good for your students to witness your willingness to honor other languages, especially languages you don’t know well. You can find some suggestions for multilingual poetry exemplars from the Poetry Friday series here.
A Call to Action
You’ve read this far, so you clearly understand the power of poetry, but we need to reach your colleagues, the ones who might not be aware of how important — and easy — it is to infuse poetry into your teaching day. Spread the word and get your whole school celebrating the voices of our students and their families with poetry — and multilingual poetry, in particular. To borrow from David Bowles’s “Border Kid”: let’s chat with strangers and friends in all our languages.
We have a GIVEAWAY!
Pomelo Books will give a free book (a copy of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations or a copy of Here We Go: A Poetry Friday Power Book) to the first ten teachers, librarians, or schools that post a short (1 minute or less) video clip on Twitter of teachers and students performing a multilingual poem. Try one of the poems mentioned in this post — or write and perform an original poem of your own. You can even “enhance” a favorite monolingual poem with additional or substitute words from different languages — be creative! Just make sure to tag both @pomelobooks and @ColorinColorado on Twitter so we’ll see your post!
About the Author
Janet Wong is the author of 30 books for children, including Apple Pie Fourth of July and You Have to Write. She and her colleague Sylvia Vardell, professor at Texas Woman’s University (PoetryforChildren.blogspot.com), are the creative forces behind The Poetry Friday Anthology series and the Poetry Friday Power Book series. Learn more about their award-winning books at PomeloBooks.com and from their interviews on Colorín Colorado and Reading Rockets!