Jumping into Literacy with Spanish Immersion Junior High Students

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2007, Vol. 11, No. 1

By Martha Johnson, Spanish Immersion Teacher, Highland Park Junior High, Saint Paul, Minnesota

Junior high immersion teachers face a seemingly endless list of difficult questions in their quest to take their students’ language and literacy to the next level. How do we get our students excited about reading and writing in the target language? How do we expand their vocabulary in Spanish so they are more comfortable reading in that language and want to read more? How do we jumpstart a self-perpetuating cycle: the more we read the more our vocabulary grows and the more our vocabulary grows the more comfortable we are reading?

There are no simple answers to these complex questions. However, my years of experience in the classroom have taught me that teachers and students must start by building deeper relationships that can foster a sense of community and a willingness to take risks with one another. One powerful way I have found to engage students, build relationships, and help them jump into literacy (both reading and writing) is through poetry.

In the fall of 2006, our immersion team of junior high teachers and students went on a three-day team building and environmental studies excursion to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in northern Minnesota. Together, we completed a high ropes course, cheered each other to the top of a climbing wall, and enjoyed an evening campfire along with environmental education mini-classes. On the year-end course evaluations many students commented that they had learned a great deal and had become closer as a team at Wolf Ridge. The beginning of the year team-building assisted our transition into a more effective learning community.

After our return to school, students engaged in various reflection activities in all of their classes including science, math, English, and social studies. In my class, Spanish Immersion Language Arts, students did two things. They created and produced commercials in Spanish that we intend to use to promote the trip to new students the next time we go. They also wrote haiku poems about their impressions of Wolf Ridge, the team building activities and their experiences with nature. They digitally recorded the poems and shared them across all four sections of immersion classes. I noticed how focused students were while creating the haiku poems. When we listened to the poems the students were interested and excited to hear one another’s work. I saved their poems, and reflecting on their enthusiasm, began developing a poetry unit for later that year. To prepare, I attended a poetry workshop designed and taught by a colleague, a school social worker who has created The Poetry Lab, a program serving urban youth who have been labeled with emotional behavioral disorder.

A few months later the Poetry Lab students at our school held a poetry slam, and I brought my class to create a larger supportive audience. I told my students there would be open mic time at the poetry slam and that they were welcome to bring any poem they wanted to share. Two of my students read their poems in Spanish, one read in English and two others shared a bilingual poem. They were very well received and excited to share their work with others. At the slam, I received a copy of The Poetry Lab Volume 3, a paperback book of student work, and shared it with my students. Almost immediately so many students were interested in checking out the book that I had to start a waiting list. It quickly became the most sought after book in my class.

The Poetry Anthology

After the poetry slam, one of my students, Cecilia, told me she wanted to do the same thing – create a poetry book and hold a poetry slam “using the poems we are writing.” At the time, Cecilia was taking an elective class called Project Enrichment, and she asked her teacher if she could work on the poetry book as an independent project for that class. She soon became the chief editor of the project.
As a class we recruited seventeen students who became the editors for the anthology. Consulting with me, the editors spent hours reading over 1000 poems, choosing the ones to include, editing, and typing them up. Our Amity Intern from Barcelona, Spain devoted countless hours to the layout and graphic design for the project in consultation with the student editors. We used the Poetry Lab Volume 3 as our template. One student created art work for the cover. We invited the French immersion junior high students from our school to contribute poetry as well. The last chapter of the book showcases poems in French. All of the Spanish Immersion Language Arts classes contributed ideas for a title for our book, Un Sabor de Nuestro Mundo [A Taste of Our World]. It was an exciting and engrossing process and through it we evolved into a family of learners! One student wrote on her year-end course evaluation, “Second hour did not feel like a class to me, we were a family. We got to know each other better, especially when we listened to each other and learned from each other. I learned we all have a story to tell and I was amazed to see what great poets we are!”

Earlier in the year my students and I had written and received a mini-grant to develop creative projects to promote literacy skills. We had also written two mini-grants to carry out service-learning projects. We used some of the funds from two of these grants to cover printing costs for our book. We contacted our district’s Graphic Services Department to ask about timing, layout, margins, and cost. We inquired about permission to use student work in a publication and learned about copyright laws.

We had great discussions about whether or not we wanted to sell our book and, if there were any profits, what we should do with the money. We decided every student should get a free copy. With our grant funds in mind and the cost estimate from Graphic Services, we decided we could print 250 copies. One copy of the book would go to each teacher on our team, our building principal, the superintendent and several others. We would then ask for a $10.00 donation for each remaining copy.

Some students felt the money earned from book sales should be set aside to fund the creation of another poetry book in the future. Others felt we really needed to use the money to do something that would benefit society in some way. After a lengthy process, we decided the money would be divided and donated to two organizations that strive to make a difference in our world. For more than sixty years Heifer International has been helping people obtain a sustainable source of food and income; Kiva.org is a micro-lending program that allows individuals to lend money to specific entrepreneurs in the developing world who are struggling to lift themselves out of poverty. One student wrote in her reflection paper, “I love the idea that we are donating our earnings from the book. It is FANTASTIC that we can make a difference in the world.”

The Poetry Unit

The poetry unit included reading and analyzing various poetic genres and, then, using a model poem or some other kind of prompt, creating a particular kind of poem. For example, I adapted a graphic organizer prompt called a Six Room Poem from Awakening the Heart by Georgia Heard (see Table 1 on p. 10). Each of the six spaces, or rooms, on the graphic organizer focuses attention on a different way of deepening our capacity to richly describe a focal idea. For example, as we consider an idea we must think about the sounds associated with it, the way light impacts it, or the feelings it arouses. Passing through the six rooms acts as a scaffold for constructing a new poem. As we started the unit, many students lacked confidence in their ability to write poetry. The graphic organizer for the Six Room Poem allowed them to begin to see themselves as poets.

Next we read and discussed a dialogue poem written for two women (http://www.regrettoinform.org/education/html/ writing02.html has an English version of the poem). In pairs, students wrote dialogue poems using two voices. After we read and analyzed the poem, “Soy como soy y que,” (Red Hot Salsa, pp. 19-21) each student received another prompt - a rock with a different word written on each side. The assignment was to create a poem using one of the words. One day we read a poem written by a former student about her hopes and dreams for the future. Her poem, entitled “Espero que….” (see page 9), was full of verbs in the subjunctive mood. Students were encouraged to write similar poems using the subjunctive. Another day we even cut up words from a Spanish-language newspaper to create poems. (See Table 2 on page 11 for an overview of poetry prompts).

Students always shared - a word, a phrase, or a line of their poem – with the class. If a student chose to share her entire poem, the rest of the class listened for and jotted down a word, a phrase or line they really liked. Afterwards, they would give each other supportive feedback.

In the end, students pulled together a final copy of all their poems into individual poetry portfolios. Together we created a rubric for evaluating the poems, and students used the portfolio to evaluate each other’s work. I did a culminating evaluation using the rubric as well. Lastly, we held a celebration, our own poetry slam, called “Un Festival de Poesía.” One hundred ten French and Spanish Immersion students had an opportunity to share their poems. Student after student proudly presented his or her poem to the Immersion Team at Highland Park Junior High. We held another open mic session and a second “Festival de Poesía” for parents at our annual year end Immersion Celebration picnic. In addition to selling extra copies of the book, we requested a $2.00 donation from everyone in the audience to support our vision of contributing to Heifer International and Kiva.org. To date we have raised over $330.00.

The day we finally distributed copies of the book was truly thrilling! The student editors completed a written reflection of the project for the grant report. Their words underscore the power of poetry in helping junior high students jump into literacy. Here are a few of their comments:

  • I learned that to create a book you need lots of patience.
  • I learned that anyone can write a phenomenal poem!
  • I loved reading all the poems of my classmates.
  • This project is very valuable. It is something where we can express our feelings, share what we think, and it helps us be better communicators in Spanish.
  • I loved this project and I love my copy of the book. I am very proud of our work. We did something fun and at the same time we are doing something to help others. I wonder what we will come up with next year?!


- Anónimo
Espero que cuando tengas muchos años,
las personas ya no vayan a tirar basura en el suelo.

Espero que cuando tengas muchos años,
las personas no vayan a robar y sean muy felices.

Espero que cuando tengas muchos años,
las personas vayan a regalarte muchos regalos y sea una comunidad buena.

Espero que cuando tengas muchos años,
el mundo sea mejor.


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