A Community Literacy Narrative for National Poetry Month - National Council of Teachers of English
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A Community Literacy Narrative for National Poetry Month

This post is written by NCTE member, Steven Alvarez. 

Steven AlvarezEleven-year-old Felipe created a poem portfolio fashioned as pages stapled into a small, self-published book for a fifth-grade English language arts literacy unit which incorporated student poetry and creative wordplay exercises. Felipe wrote thirty poems as homework for his project. Among Felipe’s poems, expressive verbal and typographical play appeared as stylistic nuances, reminding me of avant-garde poets experimenting with the visual shapes of poems. Felipe’s poems directly intuited the sounds of growing up in New York City, one of the most heterogeneous multilingual cities on earth, and writing became an opportunity to cultivate his translingual gifts.

Felipe conducted his daily experiences bilingually, but in literacy assignments he was English dominant thanks to the monolingualized orientation of his schooling. Felipe told me during an interview that he read and wrote exclusively in English, and that reading and writing in Spanish were “very difficult”: “I don’t use that much Spanish for writing. Or for reading. Only when talking.” Felipe’s remembered bilingual pre-school classes that transitioned him into “regular” English-only classrooms. “When I started doing more English, my mom and dad helped me less. But my older sister helped me more.”

Felipe brought the book to the after-school program where I tutored him. During a homework help session, I invited him read aloud some of his work to me. Felipe showed me his portfolio. Elaborately, he decorated the covers with various designs and figures that included a Batman sticker, and the word “poems” with his name “Felipe” in different shades of blue marker. He earned an A for the unit and his energy and enthusiasm found audience with me. I expressed my joy and encouragement with a high five. “Let’s check some of them out,” I said. “Show me one of your favorite ones.”

“Okay,” Felipe said. “Read this one. I like this one. I just wrote it.” Felipe opened his book to a specific unnumbered page.

Felipe handed me the page, to the following poem,

Felipe's Poem


I read the page aloud with an English professor’s accent (the best I could effect with several semesters of graduate student elbow grease) performed at a relatively quick pace:

My community / is quiet / and / peaceful / tóo. They care about / every ońe / and friendly tóo / it is / clean / as / Manhattan’s / skíes and / néw / people / say what’s / néw / around / here / fólks

With some awareness of meter, I stressed the vowels on the words “too,” “one,” “too,” “skies,” “new” twice, and “folks.” There was a steady rhythm in the first lines and the clever alliterative clicking Felipe adopted for his poem’s language. Felipe asked me to read it aloud one more time, and I did. I noticed how Felipe’s attentive expression configured differently both times I read the poem. Felipe raised his eyebrows when I sped up reading “Manhattan’s skies.”

“It sounds different when you read it,” he said.

I invited Felipe to read the poem in his own voice. As Felipe read aloud, his voice sounded the qualitative meter slower, at a much softer pace. Felipe articulated steady syllable weight in multiple metric variations, which I accent below for emphasis:

My cómmunity / is qúiet / and / péaceful / tóo. They cáre abóut / évery óne / and fríendly tóo / it is / cléan / as / Manháttan’s / Skíes and / néw / péople / say whát’s / néw / aróund / hére / fólks

The poem’s initial steady iambs led to a subtle trotting rhythm by the poem’s end. Though we stressed the same words, Felipe added an extra foot between each stress. I overlooked this musical element of the poem in my first two readings because of my tempo. I needed to slow down, to listen to the poem, but more importantly, to listen to Felipe read his poem at his pace.

“Your reading slowed it down so I could hear it better now,” I said to Felipe.

“Because it’s my poem,” he responded. “I know how it sounds.”

Felipe’s literal enactment of ownership was grounds for me to smile. He shut his book, and I noted his name across the cover.

“Why did you use Manhattan for your community?” I asked.

“Because Manhattan . . . everyone knows that’s America. . . . Because America is my community, and it is a good place.”

“America” was Felipe’s nation, though he would sometimes identify himself with being what he called “both,” that is, Mexican and American, but, he said, “more American.” Without doubt, though, he said he was “all New York.”

The American Felipe identified in himself was not only nationality, but also the part of his identity that permitted him to claim for himself patriotic values associated with the popular political discourse of U.S. citizenship, like liberty and opportunity, which he did not readily associate with Mexico. Felipe acknowledged his Mexican roots and spoke Spanish as a cultural affirmation, though he read and wrote only in English. When it came to the nation he identified with, its customs and culture, Felipe imagined his local New York City skyline.

The community in which Felipe lived, a Mexican ethnic enclave in New York City, was best understood by how identity and language interact in the U.S. and Mexico, and the rhetorics of power behind English-only acculturation, generational loss of Spanish, and claiming community space. Perhaps Felipe identified as “more American” because of his U.S. citizenship status, which—thankfully for him—he shared with his parents, but which wasn’t the bargain for some of immigrant families, as he and others typically knew. In circumstances relating to legal status, Felipe was quick to distinguish himself as mostly American and less Mexican than some. With regards to literacy and language ideology, I recognized that Felipe composed all the poems in his book in English. I also recognized that none of his poems addressed his Mexican identity, neighborhood, or family. Part of my duty as a poet and writing tutor was to encourage Felipe to explore these aspects of his identity, and to offer readings in voices he could recognize for models and study, such as Mexican American poets like Juan Felipe Herrera, Pat Mora, Eduardo Corral, and Nuyorican writers like Tato Laviera and  Nicholasa Mohr. For budding writers like Felipe, it’s important to be exposed to voices of writers who speak to diverse lived experiences, to devote resources for ethnic studies that promote and engage students of all races about the home cultures of our nation’s rich diversity. After-school programs are positioned well to do this, but after-school programs should not be substitutes for ethnic studies curricula in K-12 schools.

As the NCTE Position Statement in Support of Ethnic Studies Initiatives in K-12 Curricula states, “more work remains to be done if both teachers and students are to recognize the beneficial contributions of various ethnic backgrounds to crucial curricular components of K–12 institutions nationwide.” I applaud the creativity behind Felipe’s poetry assignment, and also how the project literally sparked Felipe’s creative and critical ownership of his words. There is so much potential in encouraging more language arts assignments that engage poetic explorations, but I propose that such explorations grounded in using poetry to explore the histories, languages, and cultural practices of local communities, including their own, address expressive aspects of literacy practices and knowledges students bring to classrooms as gifts from their communities that are relevant to their lives. Indeed, there is always much work to do, but recognizing the dignity and plurality of our students’ voices, their poetic voices, is where we begin to learn to teach with care. Schools and after-school programs share in this work and love for sustaining plurality in educational spaces and encouraging critical and creative reflection—beyond National Poetry Month. Understanding students writing about their communities is always the priority, and, for me, the aspect of teaching writing that makes the biggest impact.

Steven Alvarez is assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. His research explores the languages and literacies of Latino immigrants in New York City and Kentucky.

To read more of Steven Alvarez’s works, please visit Translanguaging Literacies and Community Ethnographies