Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Power of Poetry and the Immigration Experience


Photo by Crystal Coleman

Emily Dickinson famously wrote "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”  By that measure, poetry is powerful. It transforms the everyday details of lives as something intimate, shared and simultaneously worldly. Poetry of the immigration experience is vastly rich and diverse in its use of images, sounds, and expression – and powerful too in its ability to captivate readers and listeners of all ages and to encourage understanding and empathy.

In celebration of National Poetry month, we curated some poetry activities and resources to read, write, and learn about immigration experiences through the transformative lens of poetry.

Write a “I’m From” Poem with Students

Explore your students’ diverse family heritage and build community by having students write “I’m From” poems. The original poem by George Ella Lyon has sparked many lesson plans for middle school and high school students as well as empathetic insights into student lives and cultural backgrounds. When I wrote “I’m From” poems with tenth grade students, I wrote my own first draft as a model in addition to Lyon’s poem, then asked my students to begin writing their own poems, not caring about spelling and punctuation for a first draft. I specifically asked them to tell me something about their family and culture, be it food, music, or nationality.  If they got stuck, they could write from the sentence stem “I’m From” again. After drafting and finalizing their poems, I then asked students to select their favorite lines to make a communal class poem that described all of us and where we’ve come from. We played around with the order, the look on the page and made strategic choices as to line placement, syntax, and imagery. Everyone had a voice on the page, both individually and collectively, and everybody had a piece of America’s immigration past to share. 

Use Multicultural Poetry Picture Books as “Mentor Texts”

Students learn to write well by imitation and frequent modeling and poetry is no different. Introduce students to great poems and poets with the expectation that they too can write like that.

Colorful and diverse poetry picture books make an impact on younger students, and older students can also draw inspiration from them for more critical thinking.

Below are recommended immigration-themed poetry picture books from children’s book publisher Lee & Low. Many of them are linked with accompanying lesson plans.

From the Bellybutton of the Moon/Del Ombligo de la Luna by Francisco Alarcón where an excerpt from the title poem reads “Mexico says my grandma means: from the bellybutton of the moon don’t forget your origin my son,” encourages readers to reflect on their heritage.

Laughing Tomatoes/Jitomates Risuenos, Angels Ride Bikes/Los Angeles Andan en Bicicleta, Iguanas in the Snow/Iguanas en la Nieve, and Poems to Dream Together/Poemas Para Soñar Juntos by Francisco Alarcón are bilingual poetry books that encourage young readers to reflect on their own family heritage, traditions, and culture.

Pat Mora’s poetry delights adults and children alike, but her most recent books of poems Water Rolls, Water Rises/El Agua Rueda, El Agua Sube is “a poetic ode to the beauty of the natural world as expressed by the movement and moods of water on Earth.” Complement it with Marilyn Singer’s A Full Moon is Rising which follows the moon as it travels across different countries and traditions.

Some of the poems found in these books lend themselves for students to imitate in the style of odes.  Scholastic has a great lesson for teaching the elements of poetry through odes for young students and Nancy Atwell’s In The Middle also contains ode-writing lessons geared towards middle school students.

Harness the Community-Building Power of Poetry through “Read-Alouds”

Invite students to read-aloud poems from the books above or poems they have written.  Use these tips from former Poet Laureate Billy Collins to teach students how to read poems aloud.  Not only does this help improve speaking and listening skills, you can also guide students in a class discussion on the power of poetry and its ability to communicate culture and experience.

Reflect on the Intersections of Immigration and Poetry for Writers

There are numerous poets who write about their immigration experiences, either their own or their families, including Li-Young Lee, Richard Blanco, and Rafael Campo demonstrating that it is rich material to generate poetry.  Looking back in history, Chinese immigrants detained at the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island carved poetry onto the station walls in order to “combat isolation, alienation and silence.”

Poet and immigration attorney Sherna Spencer’s journey as an immigrant provides a pathway for her work as an attorney and poet. In celebratory and critical lines on America’s immigrant past, she writes in her poem, “YOU are America” included in her book Musing Aloud Allowed:

Your blood runs deep in the New York subways
it stands tall in the turrets of the San Francisco Bay Bridge
it dampens the grounds in the farms and in the orchards
and creates the vines in the valley of the wine.

Bearing witness to the immigration experience through poetry can be empowering and powerful for students and is an opportunity not to be missed this April.  Have more ideas on teaching immigration and poetry with students?  We’d love to hear them.  Email us at teacher@immcouncil.org and follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration.