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Poet Laureate Partners With Chicago Public School Teachers

Juan Felipe Herrera.jpg

Guest post by Julie Depenbrock

U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera works with 9th grade teachers in Chicago Public Schools to reexamine how poetry is taught in the classroom. 

Born the son of migrant farm workers in Fowler, Calif., in 1948, Herrera is the first Mexican-American poet laureate.

His poetry "fuses wide-ranging experimentalism with reflections on Mexican-American identity," Jennifer Schuessler wrote in the New York Times.

Herrera is meeting with 35 9th grade Chicago English/language arts teachers over the course of the 2016-2017 year. Between sessions, teachers share their successes with each other through Google Classrooms, said Henry Bienen, president of the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation.

Of the more than 381,000 students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, 47 percent are Hispanic and 38 percent are African-American. Eighty percent identify as "economically disadvantaged."

Herrera "really wanted very much to work with teachers in Chicago to impact the way poetry is taught across the city," Bienen said. "So there was a lot of conversation between CPS and the Poetry Foundation."

CPS, the third largest school district in the nation, has seen a number of educational movements come and go. Now, the focus is "student-driven, exploratory" learning, said Annie Rezac, the district's manager of arts professional learning.

"This is a really great platform for that," Rezac said.

The Common Core State Standards, which CPS teachers are expected to follow, address the study of poetry nominally: "By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems." 

Ninth grade teachers in Chicago, given a suggested framework in their curriculum, have the freedom to choose their own texts.

During his first poetry seminar, Herrera said he advised CPS teachers to take creative leaps in their classrooms.

Placing balls of yarn, masking tape, and Post-it notes at their tables, Herrera told the teachers to get up and move around the room.

"We're going to call this 'clotheslines' or in Spanish, 'tendederos,' " Herrera said in an interview this month with Education Week.

He put a word on each table—like "light post"—and the teachers had to come up with related words to add to the tendedero.

The teachers walked around observing the words and returned to create a poem with the group. 

"The idea there was to touch base with the core of poetry, which is playfulness—which is experimentation," Herrera said. "In this case, it involved group work, which is very important in a school setting and in our lives as well. And it also involved coming up with words that we usually wouldn't come up with."

The point of the exercise, Herrera said, is to get people out of their "45 degree angles," to stop staring into screens and instead, to move around and speak with one another.

"This is something that doesn't even look like poetry, but may be closer to it," Herrera said. 

So far, the poet laureate has held two poetry seminars for CPS teachers. The first based on nontraditional, experimental approaches to poetry—like the clothesline. The second was on how to talk about poetry. 

"If we say this is a form and this is a stanza, we're in the wrong world," Herrera said. "We're not in the poetry world."

Herrera encourages teachers to let students read their poetry aloud and to listen to their voices.

"That's highly important," Herrera said, "acknowledging the voice of the poet."

Herrera knows from experience the impact such acknowledgment can have on a student.

When he was in 3rd grade, Herrera attended Lowell Elementary School in San Diego. Forbidden to speak Spanish and not yet fluent in English, Herrera struggled in school.

Then, one day, his teacher invited him to get up and sing in front of the class. 

"She's the one who kind of pulled me out of that world and said, 'Come on up and sing.' I only knew a few words, a handful. So I sang 'Three Blind Mice' and she said, 'Did you know you had a beautiful voice?' I mean that's like the opposite, you know," he said, "like being on Saturn and arriving on Earth."

It was a defining moment for Herrera. He invited that teacher, Lelya Sampson, 95, to his inaugural reading in Washington last September. 

These readings have been an integral part of Herrera's two terms as poet laureate. Recently, at a reading, a young boy from Los Angeles asked Herrera how he could become a better writer. Herrera asked the boy what he was writing about. 

"He said, 'I'm writing of children who've been abandoned because their parents have been deported.' I brought him up to the stage. I was so moved by him. An 11 year-old boy at task. He chose to take this on. He wasn't complaining. He wanted to be a writer, and he wanted to know how to do that," Herrera said. "He thought this was a deep, important thing for his friends. So they could relate."

Herrera said he is finding more and more young people like this, especially given today's political climate. 

"This goes on and on. People ask, 'What's going to happen to us now? What's going to happen to us now? I'm scared. I don't know what to do. Can you give me any advice?' I say no. You are the advice. You are the advice. You are the one who's going to find a new way. So I'm here to support you," Herrera said. "I don't have the answers, but I am here to support you and to let you know I'm right next to you, standing shoulder to shoulder with you." 

Herrera will meet with Chicago teachers again in February and April, culminating with a reading April 29 at the Harold Washington Library Center. The project is called "Wordstreet Champions and Brave Builders of the Dream." 

Photo: U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera speaks at a 2016 Chicago Public Schools Event at the Poetry Foundation. (Genevieve Lee) 

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