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4 Poems for an ESL Classroom

Four poems to help your English language learners build confidence around reading poetry.

Poem from Marco Castillo

By The TFA Editorial Team

April 4, 2014

April is National Poetry Month, and we're celebrating every Friday by featuring four poetry selections from teachers who have participated in the Poet Warriors Project. Interested in getting your class involved? Download the curriculum and email for details!

1. "Soneto XVII," by Pablo Neruda

Most kids struggle with understanding figurative language, but for ELLs—even the most advanced—navigating the waters of simile, metaphor, and personification in a second language can be nearly impossible. Neruda’s “Soneto XVII” is a gorgeous introduction to figurative speech in my students’ first language—Spanish. My seventy Latino students are shocked that we are allowed to read something academic in Spanish, and the multi-lingual process of learning the poem brings difficult nuances of figurative speech across language lines. The love poem hits at the core of every lovelorn teenager in existence, so interest level is not a problem, and its use of language is divine:

“but this, in which there is no I or you, So intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, So intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.”

Translation by Steven Mitchell

And of course, Neruda himself a necessity to any inner-city classroom—the Chilean diplomat used his poetry as a means of political advocacy and he earned, among many Peace Prizes, the title “the People’s Poet” for his work. The combination, then, of poet and poem, makes “Soneto XVII” a must-read.

2. Anything by Ellen Hopkins

Engaging students in poetry can be more difficult than getting them hooked on a novel, largely because most middle-schoolers and high-schoolers are plot-centered people: “Did you hear what happened last weekend?!” For ELLs, a work that focuses itself largely on syntax rather that plot development can quickly descend into gibberish because so many ESL reading strategies fall flat in poetry. Ellen Hopkins’ books, though admittedly a bit melodramatic for my taste, serve as great independent or end-of-class reads to a poetry unit. Her novels, written entirely in verse, are both top-selling and award-winning and deal with issues particularly pressing for young adults: drug abuse, family relationships, dating, etc. Hopkins’ books are high-interest, relatively low-level, and tell an engaging story within the ebb and flow of poetic verse.

3. "Taco Eater, House Cleaner, Wife Beater,” by Shawn Atkinson

“We are native to the south Yes we cross the border Yes we are roof workers But underneath that We bring you love culture.”

Shawn Atkinson

Upon our first read of teenager Shawn Atkinson’s work, “Taco Eater, House Cleaner, Wife Beater” through the Poet Warriors Project, my students rose to their feet in a standing ovation. They couldn’t believe that a teenager could say something about immigration—something controversial­ about immigration—that adults would hear. Nor could they quite fathom that they could sit in a classroom in Memphis, TN and read something another student wrote hundreds of miles away in Oklahoma City, OK. “Taco Eater, House Cleaner, Wife Beater” showed my students the power that lies in their own thoughts and words—that the literary canon doesn’t belong to old white men, but rather that it can belong to anyone who says something that matters and that needs to be said. “Taco Eater, House Cleaner, Wife Beater” gave relevancy to my unit and purpose to my students’ own writing.

4. "50/50,” by Marco Castillo

“My raza is kind We want some justice We don’t have bad minds They only cuff us”

Marco Castillo

Not only does this poem touch on themes intimately connected to my students’ lives—those of identity, justice, race, and perception—but its author connects to my students on a personal level: he’s one of them. This choice of mine may as well be called, “Any excellent poem written by one of your own students.” Marco, a 6th grader in my class, wrote a poem—“50/50”—about his perception of growing up part Mexican, part Memphian. As far as cultural relevancy, Marco’s poem sits at the apex.

Why teach meter and rhyme scheme using William Blake when a 12-year-old sitting in the room can teach us? I believe that there is no reason that student work cannot be held to the same literary criticism as any other poem. And holding student work this high standard—as the Poet Warriors Project consistently does—by teaching students’ work alongside work by Pablo Neruda or Emily Dickinson reinforces the concept that what my students do in my class matters a great deal, the things they believe matter, and they’re good enough to be heard.