This is my space to rant and rave, vent and vex about education, my passion. I am calling it "Mining for Hidden Gems" because of the above quote and because as a teacher, my job is to look for those gems. The real valuable ones are not usually on the surface. You have to dig deep to find them.

I am also borrowing from Katherine Bomer's wonderful book Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching From the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing. It has changed the way I look at not just student work but students themselves and all people around me.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Year Poetry Freed Us

I was thirteen when I started collecting poetry.  Most of the time I did not even understand what the poems were saying, but I liked their sound; I liked the way they played with words and used them to stab or caress my heart.  Of course, writing poetry was out of the question.  Poets were born, not bred.  They had extraordinary talents and could talk in a mysterious, veiled form about lofty topics.  At fifteen I moved to the United States and started studying in English.  I could read and understand almost anything in English, except poetry.  I knew the words individually but somehow the way they were put together to make poems made them sound foreign to me.  So I put poetry aside.

Thirty years later, as I studied to be a teacher, I learned to use poetry to build reading fluency.  By then English had moved from being my second language to become the language of my thinking.  I had come to find poets like Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walter Dean Meyers who spoke to my soul. I started teaching third grade and I made poetry a daily routine in my classroom. We learned to read a new poem each week.  Contrary to my fears, the eight and nine year olds never got tired of echo and choral reading poetry with me.  My students all came from Spanish-speaking homes and I came to believe that poetry touched their Latin souls in a special way.  They craved the sounds and they craved hearing the sound of themselves reading fluently.  Still, I never ventured into asking them to write poetry.  I did have a couple of students that brought me the poems they had written on their own and for their own pleasure and I could see how they were borrowing from the ones we were studying.  In my fourth year of teaching, the District placed the poetry unit at the beginning of the year.  Traditionally, most teachers “did” poetry in the spring, making little poetry books and inviting students to write poems using various forms of poetry. My fellow teachers and I were baffled by the decision.  How can we get these struggling writers to produce a personal narrative piece, worthy of passing the state mandated writing test in March, by teaching poetry!  I was told that poetry was an easier genre to start with.  It is shorter and less intimidating they said. There are fewer rules to follow.  I thought:  You are underestimating poetry, if you think it is easier and less intimidating.  In my mind, you had to study poetry for years before you could begin to write a poem.  I continued to teach poetry all year, exposing my students to the genre as much as possible.  I went as far as giving them poetry frames from mentor texts to fill in with their own nouns and adjectives.  But never did it occur to me to let them just write.

Then I came across Katherine Bomer's book, Hidden Gems.  Reading it changed the way I looked at student writing and at students, period. I started to look at what was there instead of what wasn't there, yet. I saw Katherine in a poetry workshop in November and was so transformed by her approach that 1) I decided I and anyone else who wanted to, could write poems and 2) I have to find some kids to try this on!  As an instructional coach, I do not have my own classroom so I asked one of the teachers I work with if she would let me try it in hers and she was gracious enough to allow me.  I followed Katherine's recipe step by step.  I took them poems to look at and to read.  I offered them the poems as gifts.  I read them a couple of my favorite poems and showed them my notebook where I kept my collection of poems.  

After they had had some time to explore the poems, I wrote the question "What is a poem?" on their interactive white board.  The first response was: "It has to rhyme."  I was ready for that.  I had purposely included only one rhyming poem in the poetry collection I had prepared.  So I asked them to give me examples. They searched and searched and came to the obvious conclusion that no, not all poems rhyme.  They also noticed that poems could be as short as two lines or ten words; there didn't seem to be a whole lot of punctuation either!  As they discovered these features on their own, I could see a weight lifting off of their shoulders.  “Did this mean I could write a poem too?” they seemed to be wondering.  As I was leaving that first day, one girl asked her teacher if she could take her notebook to recess to write poetry.  I took that as a good sign!  

I returned the next week and found the kids had memorized some of the poems and brought some new ones from home.  I showed them a clip of poetry contests in Mexico and they came back telling me how their parents had participated in such contests as children.  At our second session, I played them a piece of music.  Katherine had recommended Vivaldi's Four Seasons and I played a movement from that.  Every single one of them wrote something.  No one said: “I don't know what to write about”.  I had given them permission to let their imaginations soar and be inspired by the music and to write what they saw in their minds.  When I asked if anyone wanted to share, one little girl, who I knew struggled with reading, offered hers.  I received it as a poem and read it as if it were a one.  She stopped me to say that that was not what she had written.  I showed her that indeed I was reading from her writing.  For the second round of invitations to write, I chose a piece of Latin Jazz, thinking it might appeal more to their senses.  And I was right! They wrote more, saw more images and described more, of fiestas and quinceañeras and dancing salsa.  More were willing to share.  I read every single one of them with the same respect and dignity I had given the published pieces.  And I reacted genuinely to the gems I saw in each and every one of them.  The two teachers that were in the classroom with me witnessed the same miracle.  

These kids, who under other circumstances, would have hesitated to write and when they did, wrote simple sentences about uninteresting topics, were now taking risks.  They were taking risks with words, with ideas, with language.  I returned for several weeks, using different art forms to inspire their thoughts and their senses.  There was never any shortage of kids willing to share their poems.  All the girls and one boy always had their hands up.  That one boy was David.  School has never been easy for David.  He had to repeat second grade because despite his obvious ability to comprehend, he could not read fluently.  Because he speaks two languages, the Dyslexia testing was inconclusive but he had qualified for special education services.  The day David found out that you neither had to spell correctly or write very much, or write at all (I had told them about oral poets who never learned to read or write) he was freed.  He offered to share his poems and tried to encourage the other boys to do so.  Even though the other boys were not as brave as David, they wrote beautiful, thoughtful pieces in their journals that I would steal when they were not looking.  Here are a few examples:

Los días

Los días vienen y van
Los meses vuelan
Los años corren y corren
Horas en el aire


The days come and go
The months fly 
The years run and run
Hours in the air

Niño, ¿Qué pasó aquí?
Niño ¿Por qué estas así?
Niño, ¿Estas ahí?

Little boy, what happened here?
Little boy, why are you here?
Little boy, are you there?

Las rocas
se mueven
se queda

The rocks move
The Earth
The grass

I continued to return every week to third grade, more for my own benefit than theirs.  I was hooked on being surprised, amazed and moved by the way they would produce magical language:  The girl, sitting on the lonely and sad floor,

Then someone challenged me that this could not be done in Kindergarten.  In February, I invited all the kindergarten, first and second grade bilingual teachers on my campus to go see Katherine Bomer's poetry workshop for K-2.  They were transformed as I was.  The kindergarten teacher went back and started by just reading lots of poems to his students, every day for a couple of weeks.  One day I walked in and asked the kids what they were doing.  They responded chorally that they were “doing” poetry.  I asked: "Have you tried doing a poem yourselves?"  One little guy said: Yes, and went on to recite his.  I copied it on the board because he happened to be one of the few who still did not know his letters and sounds well enough to be able to write it himself.  The poetry bug was contagious.  In thirty minutes, none of the kindergartners wanted to be outdone by the others and each had produced a poem. 

La lagartija

La lagartija es bonita
Se sube a un árbol
Y es bien bonita y
me quiere mucho

The lizard

The lizard is beautiful
It climbs a tree
It is really beautiful
and it loves me

Mi Caballo

Cuando yo fuí con mi abuelito
Ya no quería un caballo blanco
Pore so me lo dio a mí

My horse

When I went to my grampa
He didn’t want a white horse anymore
That’s why he gave it to me.

The last place I have tried poetry this year has been with fifth graders.  I was a bit hesitant and self-conscious.  I had never collaborated with their teacher before on a lesson and she did not know me as a teacher.  The kids, especially the boys, are bigger than any fifth grader I have ever seen.  But they too fell for the magic.  When I asked them to write to music, they all wrote.  When it came time to share their poems they all wanted me to read theirs out loud.  There was no eye-rolling or slumping in chairs.  Once I invited them to chose one of the poems from the packet I had prepared for them to read out loud to the class; one that had a special meaning for them.  One of the boys eagerly raised his hand and read:


Duérmete mi niña,
Duérmete mi sol,
Duérmete pedazo
De mi corazón.



Sleep my little girl
Sleep my sun
Sleep the piece
of my heart.

Now, when they see me in the hallways, they let me know that they have written a new poem and ask when we are doing more poetry.  Their teachers have shared the liberating power of poetry along with me and have great plans for next year, to do more poetry, earlier in the year and all year.  

So as this school year comes to a close, I look at what I did accomplish and try not to focus at all the things I did not.  I rescued poetry from the shackles of form and jargon and offered it to five, six, eight and ten year olds like a lump of silly putty that they can mold and shape into whatever their hearts desire.  I saw all kinds of kids rise eagerly take that lump, fluent and talkative ones as well as shy and struggling ones; those who know how to do school and those for whom school has always been where their weaknesses were on display and their hidden gems buried.  I hope they remember this year as I do; the year poetry freed us.

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