Closer Readings Commentary

Cultural Understanding through Poetry at NCTE 2016

Each year over the weekend before Thanksgiving, the National Council of Teachers of English convenes a conference in a major city. This year’s gathering was held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The turnout was spectacular with more than 7000 teachers of English from every level—preschool through college and university—assembled to learn about a wide range of topics under this year’s theme: “Faces of Advocacy.”

Poets creating community

On Saturday afternoon, EDSITEment joined with the Academy of American Poets’ educator in residence Mady Holzer and inaugural poet Richard Blanco to deliver an engaging panel session on our joint initiative, “Incredible Bridges: Poets Creating Community.” This multimedia series enlists the voices of nine contemporary poets reading a poem that fosters a new idea of American community, speaking to both the unity and the differences that define us. Nine companion lesson plans offer a sequence of activities to help students enter and experience the poem.

Our NCTE session posed the essential question: How can poetry contribute to the achievement of new forms of community and cultural understanding in America today?

We focused on one of the poems in the Incredible Bridges series—“Translation for Mamá.” Richard Blanco wrote this poignant tribute to his Cuban mother who came to the United States to create a new life for herself and her family. Using both English and Spanish language translation with the poem, Blanco honors the bridge between his mother’s new identity and the losses she faced in emigration.

It is the hope of EDSITEment and the Academy of American Poets the methods and insights shared in this NCTE panel discussion of Blanco’s poem and those put forward in the Incredible Bridges series, promote cultural understanding and invigorate the teaching of contemporary poetry in your classrooms.

Session highlights

EDSITEment Program Specialist in Literature and Language Shelley NiTuama opened the session by welcoming participants and introducing the speakers. A brief overview of the NEH and the EDSITEment projects’ outreach to teachers nationwide followed, including the 2017 Education Division Summer Program offerings for schoolteachers and college/university professors.

Mady Holzer shared the Academy of American Poets’ resources to help bring poetry into English teachers’ classrooms by infusing their curriculum with its beauty and power. She took the audience through an adaptation of Incredible Bridges lesson, “Translation for Mamá” by Richard Blanco, with the following two pre-reading activities.

Pre-reading activities

Activity 1 asked audience members identify and talk about an object or person they miss by partnering with someone in the audience to share that experience.

Using Activity 2, the partners were directed to use words describing their person or object in a way that shows how they feel. They were instructed to have the listening partner first make a positive comment about some of the details, then make suggestions of other details that might deepen the emotion. They were also to give feedback on details that might not be appropriate to ask, if any. Both partners were given time to share their initial details with each other, as Mady reminded them that they are “showing” how they feel, not “telling.”

Richard Blanco poetry reading and discussion

Next, a photo of Richard’s mother taken before her exile, as a young woman living in Cuba the 1960s, was put on the screen. The assembled teachers in the session were treated to a captivating reading by Richard Blanco. He also shared his inspiration and life experiences that led to writing, “Translation for Mamá.”

The participants were then instructed to read the poem silently to themselves and circle or jot down comments/questions they had regarding it. A lively Q & A with the poet followed, as Richard provided background on how to read a poem. He fielded questions on the many layers of language and teased out the cultural nuances audience members noticed in both oral and silent readings. This led into a large group discussion which raised questions such as:

  • What is being “translated” in this poem, both literally and figuratively? (Some possibilities include: a letter to a poem, English to Spanish, old life to new, etc.) 
  • Why are some Spanish words in the middle of English stanzas? (Some possibilities include: many expressions do not translate—there are no corresponding words in English, etc.)
  • What bridges, literally and figuratively, are being built through these translations?  What evidence is there for this interpretation? Why are these bridges important? (Some possibilities include: bridge between cultures Cuban and American, bridge between generations grown son and older mother, bridge between languages Spanish and English, etc.)

The session concluded by Mady leaving the teachers with a question to ponder: What do students learn from this way of experiencing the poem?

[Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.]