Illustration: Scott Bakal
Allá en las montañas, There in the mountains,
para entrar no necesitas to enter you don’t need
papeles, estás libre. papers, you are free.
Adriana’s steady gaze accompanies her sharing of her poem during our Aquí/Allá (here/there) poetry unit. Her words are met with silence and sighs, nods and bright eyes. She gets it, I think. In this verse of her poem, Adriana suddenly pushes beyond a contrast of the smells of pine and the cars of the city streets. She voices her critique of the world through her poem, contrasting two important places in her life—the city and the mountains.
The opportunity and space to find our voices—to see, name, analyze, question, and understand the world—is an invitation I work to create again and again in our 5th-grade dual language classroom about 30 minutes south of Portland, Ore. Labels and statistics define our school as 80 percent Latino, 70 percent English language learners, and more than 90 percent free and reduced lunch. My students spend 50 percent of their academic day in Spanish and the other half in English. Cultures, however, are not so easily equalized. The dominant culture—one in which much of my own identity was formed—can too easily shutter and silence the multifaceted, complex cultures of students’ lives. My daily challenge is to pull up the details and experiences of their lives so that they become the curriculum and conversation content of our classroom.
Our Aquí/Allá poetry unit did just that. It surfaced the layers and parts of lives often overpowered by a common classroom curriculum. It created spaces where students could analyze and name the details of their lives.
In the past few years, the bilingual poetry and stories of Salvadoran writer Jorge Argueta have been an invaluable resource in my classroom. I’ve used poems from Talking with Mother Earth for homework and class analysis during a study of ecosystems, the story Xochitl and the Flowers to lead into persuasive writing, and Bean Soup to teach personification, similes, and beautiful poetic language. As I scanned books for a poem that would raise the level of vivid imagery in my students’ narrative writing, I returned to this trusted source. Argueta’s poem “Wonders of the City/Las maravillas de la ciudad,” from his book A Movie in My Pillow/Una película en mi almohada, has the potential to pull the everyday details of students’ lives into a place of power. It is a tightly packed representation of the tension of bridging cultures and places, something most of my students negotiate on a daily basis.
Wonders of the City
In El Salvador
Here chickens come
Las maravillas de la ciudad
Aquí los mangos
En El Salvador
Aquí las gallinas vienen
Allá se dormían
“Wonders of the City” has a simple and accessible structure, particularly for language learners, a category that fits all of my students at one time or another during our 50/50 day. (See sidebar, p. 26.) The introductory stanza hints at the irony of the poem: “Here in the city there are/wonders everywhere.” The second stanza surprises the reader with a puzzling observation: “Here mangoes/come in cans.” As the reader wonders why someone would eat a mango from a can, the third stanza calmly counters, “In El Salvador/they grew on trees.” The repetitive contrast pattern and concrete details are simple windows to the profound dissonance of longing for one place while living in another.
Breaking Down a Model, Building Up a Draft
After reading the poem out loud a few times and discussing the meaning, we read the poem again, this time as writers. I prefaced this reading with our usual writers’ questions: “What do you observe or notice about the writing?”
“The author is contrasting two places.”
“There is repetition, a pattern—here, there.”
One Spanish language learner, Ben, surprised me by noticing the parallel language structure: “When the author talks about ‘here,’ he writes in present tense. When he talks about ‘there,’ he uses past tense.”
When the responses to the open-ended question began to dwindle, I probed for more. “What does Jorge Argueta do to show the contrast? What details does he choose to compare?”
“He contrasts food.” Students had a harder time naming the author’s content choices. I pointed out the use of everyday details, like the comparison of the packaged wonders of the city with mangoes and chickens in a more natural environment.
We ended our discussion of the poem’s meaning with the questions, “What do you notice about the author’s attitude toward the two places?” “What feelings does Jorge Argueta convey in the poem?” “Does he seem to like one place more than the other?”
Students noticed the irony: “He likes El Salvador more.” We talked about how the culture that is labeled by the world as “more advanced” and full of technological wonders is often missing the richness and connections to the natural world that are an integral part of indigenous cultures.
After discussing the poem’s irony, I asked students to think about contrasts in their own lives, suggesting possibilities that would open the assignment to all: home/Grandma’s house, the United States/another country, school/nature, Oregon/another state. Miguel’s eyes lit up when he received an affirmative answer to his question, “Can I contrast life in school and video games?”
Once students had chosen their topics, they began using a two-column Aquí/Allá list to generate ideas for their poems. We looked back at the poem to notice how the author contrasted mangoes in both countries, how he compared mango to mango, and not mango to melon. I shared my own list of ideas comparing school with nature. While I, too, wanted to write a poem contrasting two countries, I knew that many of my students had lived their whole lives in our community.
There is nothing “mini” about a brainstorming session in my classroom. I find that the more ideas we share during the prewrite stage of the writing process, the more excited, confident, and successful my students are as they begin their writing. We shared lists once students had a few ideas down. “Here in the United States we celebrate Halloween; there in Mexico they celebrate Day of the Dead,” read Juliana. While validating the observation (especially since we were listing ideas on Oct. 29), I realized that our challenge to show, not tell, had followed us across genres.
“How might you show the reader how people are celebrating Halloween or Day of the Dead so that the reader can see the difference? What do you see on Halloween? What do people do to celebrate El día de los muertos?” I asked. Students eagerly shared their experiences of families gathering to honor ancestors and loved ones. Ana Maria suggested, “Maybe you could say, ‘Here we knock on doors in our costumes/There families gather at the cemetery.’”
As students shared some of their ideas, I tried to push them to critique and value. I tried to explicitly value the allá: “I wish more people here celebrated Day of the Dead. What a powerful way to remember loved ones.”
Students continued to share ideas: “The money is different,” said Carlos. “You play different games.” “The stores are different,” Mayra observed. “Here I need to speak two languages to be understood, and there only Spanish.” “In Florida it is hot, and in Oregon it is rainy.”
I responded with questions that would generate word pictures: “What does the money look like? How could you show the reader the difference in appearance or value?” “How are the toys different? Where and what do children play?” “How do people dress or what do they do that might show us the difference in weather?” “What do you see and hear in the market?” As students headed off to write their drafts, I reminded them to write with vivid images instead of generalities.
Some days during writing workshop you can hear pencils scratch and thoughts flow directly from the brain to the page. Not on our first Aquí/Allá drafting day. The clamor of questions and conversations continued as pencils carved thoughts in the white spaces between blue lines. “Alejandra! What do you call the toys the kids play with in Mexico?” asked David. “Which toys?” “The ones that you spin, the ones . . . ” “Oh, yeah, ” I heard Roberto murmur from across the room.
Noticing, Naming, and Applying
At the end of the initial drafting session, we gathered in a circle on the floor. Students read a few of their favorite lines or their entire poem to the class. This in-progress read-around motivates students by providing an immediate audience, allows them to borrow and adapt ideas from others, and helps me develop revision mini-lessons. We all work together to notice and name what students are already doing so that others can try the technique in their own writing.
The bulk of my teaching about writing happens once students have a working draft that can be revised. Although all the students had easily applied the “here/there” structure to their poems, most students were struggling to show details instead of telling them. Their energy until this point had been focused on identifying the contrasts instead of crafting an image.
The next day began with a series of revision invitations that I listed on the board as I introduced them. “When Erica writes, ‘Aquí dicen trick-or-treat,’ she inserts dialogue in her poem. You might try the same technique in your own writing today.”
Next, I used a student poem as a revision possibility. “Dalia uses personification in her poem when she says, ‘Over there in Mexico there is brilliant yellow lightning/that cuts the sky like a cake.’ Go back and find a place where you might add personification.”
Later, as I conferenced with individuals, I noticed David’s “Aquí dicen hello, goodbye/Allá dicen hola, adios.” He also wrote that children play with “wooden tops that dance.”
Eva revised her lines about paletas:
paletas dulces y sabrosas
“ay que ricas, que deliciosas”
Allá en México
hay paletas picosas
color fuego ardiente
“ay, ay, ay, me pica me pica
Here they sell
sweet and tasty paletas
“oh, how yummy, how delicious”
There in Mexico
there are spicy paletas
burning fire color
“oh, oh, oh, it’s hot, it’s hot
give me water”
Fernando moved from “They are different” to:
Aquí los zapatos son famosos
por la marca y cómo se mira
Allá no les importa mucho
de cómo se mira
nomás les importan
si duran y están baratos
Here shoes are famous
for the brand and look
There it doesn’t matter a lot
what they look like
it only matters
if they last and are cheap
Luis used a subtle form of personification:
Aquí hay trabajos de sudando
y de dolor de pie a cabeza
Here there are jobs of sweating
and ache from foot to head
Toward the end of our work on the poems, students met in small response groups. They shared their poems with one another, writing down favorite lines and images, describing cultural contrasts, trying to name what they noticed. In one group we paused to think about how much more sense it makes to play with a top or a ball than it does to buy a $200 video game system. In another we marveled over the personal relationships and interactions involved in buying tomatoes and onions in the market.
Students read their favorite lines from others’ poems during a whole-group share. As I passed from one group to the next, Alex exclaimed, “Wow, you should read Juliana’s poem. It is really good”:
Aquí cuando llueve
sólo caen gotitas pequeñas
que bailan en el piso
Allá los truenos caen
y casi te desmayas del miedo
los relámpagos caen
pueden romper a la mitad un árbol
Here when it rains
only tiny drops fall
that dance on the floor
There the thunder falls
and you almost faint from fear
it can break a tree in half
The Bilingual Stories and Poetry of Jorge Argueta in the Classroom
Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con madre tierra
Xochitl and the Flowers/Xochitl, la niña de las flores
Bean Soup/Sopa de frijoles
Taking It Beyond Our Walls
Alex wasn’t the only one who thought our poetry was “really good.” When I shared our poems with Catherine Celestino, a 2nd-grade teacher whose class my students knew as “reading buddies,” she responded with an invitation: “Could your 5th graders teach the poem to my 2nd graders?”
The plan to teach our reading buddies to write Aquí/Allá poems blasted fresh energy and relevance into our work. “When I plan a lesson for you, I always think about the goal of expressing our lives and views through the writing of a poem, as well as the skills I want to teach you in your writing. What are our goals as we teach our reading buddies?” I asked.
Students broke into groups of three or four to create a list of the important skills they had learned while writing their poems. We shared ideas with the whole group and then, together, determined which were most important. We decided that the prewriting and revision goal would be to use a list with commas, sensory details, and similes. The students defined the most important editing goals as taking out unnecessary words and deciding where to use line breaks.
“Who doesn’t have a partner? Raise your hand.” As we entered Mrs. Celestino’s 2nd-grade classroom, students formed pairs and settled into work.
“What does your grandma’s house look like? What kinds of things do you find there?” I heard Adriana ask her partner.
I saw students develop new strategies to scaffold learning: “We’ve decided that I will write one line for my partner and he will write the next.” “I’m writing down whatever she tells me on this paper, and then my partner is copying the words onto hers.” Jessica, Michelle, and Alex were dividing the Aquí/Allá columns horizontally and adding categories: food, names, toys, activities.
“Aquí we speak Spanish, allá we speak another language,” I heard 2nd grader Alma explain to Mayra. Most students who had compared the United States and Mexico focused on the English in the here and the Spanish in the there.
“Can you teach us some words in your other language?” I asked in Spanish as I lowered myself to the rug to join the conversation. Alma smiled with the confidence of an expert as she told me the words for tortilla and water. Mayra and I repeated the new words, practicing and trying to learn the sounds. I moved across the room, and Mayra helped Alma move from oral idea to a new line in her poem: “Here we say tortilla and agua, in Mexico we say ‘sheck’ and ‘nda’,” she wrote.
When we returned to the room after our first teaching session, I heard about successes and frustrations. “My partner picked Mexico and she can’t remember what Mexico is like.” We talked about the importance of picking a place you know and remember well, and brainstormed some possible local choices. “My partner just sits there.” “We’ve already written a whole page!”
Stepping Back and Learning Forward
I feel fortunate each time we shake to the surface parts of students’ home lives, traditions, languages, and cultures, as well as their views of the world around them. I can’t completely know and understand the allá of every student’s life, but I can join Jorge Argueta in his critique of the “wonders” of aquí. I can create space for students to name the details and cultures of their lives in the classroom curriculum. I can help students question the aquí and value the allá. Next year I will ask even more questions, probe for more details, and leave more spaces for talking and sharing and critiquing the contrasts of our lives.
Students often follow me as we head out to the playground, eager to share a thought or experience that they weren’t comfortable enough to share in class. We head out to mid-morning recess after drawing and labeling detailed diagrams of crickets during a study of ecosystems. Andrea hesitates for a moment as some of her classmates sprint off, eager to join the game of tag or secure the best swing.
“We eat crickets at home. You know, they are really good with a little bit of lemon and salt,” she tells me, staring off in the distance as she stands at my side. “Really?” I ask, turning to face her. “What do they taste like? How do you catch them?” Andrea continues to talk, and, as we line up to head back to the classroom, we share her cricket connection with the class.
How can I continue to open spaces so that rich moments of linguistic and cultural revelation are not chance conversations on the peripheries of the playground and hallway, but a central core of the classroom curriculum? How can I help students bridge the conflicting cultures of their lives?
“Wonders of the City,” by Jorge Argueta, is reprinted from A Movie in My Pillow/Una película en mi almohada with permission of the publisher, Children’s Book Press, San Francisco, Calif. (www.childrensbookpress.org). © 2001 by Jorge Argueta.
All conversations and student work in this article were originally in Spanish. Student work was translated by the author.
The words “sheck” and “nda” come from the Oaxaca Amuzgo language, spoken in the village of San Pedro Amuzgos in Oaxaca, Mexico. The spelling of the words is taken directly from 2nd-grade student work.
Alarcón, Francisco X. Iguanas in the Snow/Iguanas en la nieve. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 2001.
Argueta, Jorge. Bean Soup/Sopa de frijoles. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2009.
Argueta, Jorge. Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con madre tierra. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2006.
Argueta, Jorge. Xochitl and the Flowers/Xochitl, la niña de las flores. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 2003.
Elizabeth Schlessman (email@example.com) teaches 5th grade in a Spanish dual language immersion classroom in Woodburn,Ore.