How do you take a group of immigrant students ages 16 to 20, from India and Latin America with limited education backgrounds and turn them into poets within a week’s time?
This was the challenge I had created for myself last Spring when I applied for a grant from the NYS Council on the Humanities to support a weeklong workshop that would introduce English as a New Language (ENL) students to the genre of poetry, and specifically the poetry of Walt Whitman. These eleventh-graders will be taking the 11th grade New York State English Regents Exam at the end of the school year, and they will be expected to have enough familiarity with poetry to analyze a poem and write about it despite that fact that not one of them had ever read a poem, much less talked about or written one.
This was a tall order for them and for me!
I believed that my workshop would accomplish several things at once. It would be one of the several initiatives undertaken during the year to reflect the Walt Whitman Birthplace Site’s (WWBS) focus on “diversity” in the year 2017. It would expose underprivileged llth grade high-school students to ideas and skills they need to pass the Regents and graduate from high school. It would encourage English as a New Language (ENL) students to develop a voice in their writing that would give them the confidence they need to move forward as students. And finally, it would give the students an opportunity to become more visible in their school community.
Having applied for and received, by early fall, a small grant from the NYS Council on the Humanities, I got to work. A local school district, its ENL administrator and an ENL teacher agreed to collaborate with me. The summer came and went. We resumed our connections in early fall as I began to plan how we would introduce Whitman and his poetry to the students.
I came up with the idea of “insider and/or an outsider” as a way of engaging students in a discussion of Whitman, who was regarded in his time as both.
Following our discussion, students would be asked to reflect for a few moments on whether they themselves felt like insiders or outsiders and to write a few sentences about their feelings.
Day one was very challenging. The students were noisy, rude, disrespectful and didn’t do any work that day. We barely got through the worksheet I described. I thought about giving up. After a brief pow-wow with my co-ENL teacher, we agreed to forge ahead, with stricter behavior controls. In retrospect, I realize the students, who had never met me and knew nothing about me, were “testing” me.
Because none of these students had prior experience with poetry, we had a lot of ground to cover in a short time. After two more sessions of one-to-one writing support and feedback with the students, most of them had produced what could be called a poem written in the style of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Salut au Monde” (selected by the WWBS as their theme poem for the year) which begins…
SALUT AU MONDE!
O TAKE my hand Walt Whitman!
Such gliding wonders! such sights and sounds!
Such join’d unended links, each hook’d to the next,
Each answering all, each sharing the earth with all.
To facilitate their work, we lifted two lines from the poem which began “I see….” and “I hear” to create a scaffolded worksheet. Limiting the scope of the poem to details from their daily lives that they see and hear would enable them to write “in the style of” Whitman’s poem.
“What do you see Walt Whitman?
Who are they you salute, and that one after another salute you?
I see a great round wonder rolling through space,
I see diminute farms, hamlets, ruins, graveyards, jails, factories,
palaces, hovels, huts of barbarians, tents of nomads upon
I see the shaded part on one side where the sleepers are sleeping,
and the sunlit part on the other side,
I see the curious rapid change of the light and shade,
I see distant lands, as real and near to the inhabitants of them as
my land is to me…”
“What do you hear Walt Whitman?
I hear in the distance the sounds of children and of animals early
in the day,
I hear emulous shouts of Australians pursuing the wild horse,
I hear the Spanish dance with castanets in the chestnut shade, to
the rebeck and guitar,
I hear continual echoes from the Thames,
I hear fierce French liberty songs,
I hear of the Italian boat-sculler the musical recitative of old
I hear the locusts in Syria as they strike the grain and grass with
the showers of their terrible clouds,
I hear the Coptic refrain toward sundown, pensively falling on the
breast of the black venerable vast mother the Nile…”
On the fourth and final day of the workshop, the students took a field trip to the actual birthplace site to deliver their poems to an audience comprised of teachers and administrators from their school, other educators and, of course, each other.
They were first given a short tour of the Whitman birthplace which fascinated them. They were curious about the household objects used in the Whitman household and asked many questions about them.
After a quick lunch, they delivered their presentation. I held my breath as each student walked up to the podium and delivered his/her poem.Their fellow students were amazingly quiet and respectful of their peers and each poet was given resounding applause. Their delivery was quite touching and the audience was visibly moved. The students were beaming with relief and self-satisfaction.
During the Q and A session that followed, members of the audience gave the students nothing but positive feedback and encouragement for their bravery. Before they left to return to school, souvenir programs were given out, hugs were exchanged, and as I said goodbye to each of them, I had tears in my eyes. A miracle took place today; each student shared his/her observations of their personal experiences as an immigrant in their new country, and by so doing each student became an “insider” and a first-time poet.
I am hopeful that their success in meeting the challenges of this assigned task will make a difference in their self-confidence, help them to develop a “voice” with which to tell their own stories, and allow them to see themselves, perhaps for the first time,as capable of academic achievement in their school community and their lives.