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“¡Otra vez!” My students were so used to hearing these two words (another time) in between choral recitations of our daily poem that it had unfortunately become a bit sing-song as they mimicked me. Pick your battles; I thought . . . here I stood, in front of 26 eighth graders as we recited a poem (in Spanish) by Rosalia de Castro, the nineteenth century romantic poet. Half the class had it memorized, some kept the paper out for reference, but knew most of it, and a small percentage struggled with remembering the poem and used the paper. This was their second year of Spanish study, but over the course of the year, these students would learn, memorize and recite six to eight poems.
The evolution was always the same, year after year, on the very first day of class I told my students that they would be memorizing 6 poems, in Spanish and were expected to recite, alone, in front of the class. Some students looked like deer in the headlights, “Miss, I can’t do that in English!” Another smallish group shook their oppositional heads and indicated that there was no way they would ever do that.
I am a firm believer that students have every right to ask, “Why do we have to do this?” As a teacher I better have an answer. So when this question was asked about my penchant for poetry, my response was always the same: “1. You aren’t asked to memorize very many things these days and its good mental exercise. 2. In the first couple of years of learning a language, all you learn to say are short, clipped phrases. Through poetry you can hear the music of the language. 3. What a great party trick! To be able to bust out a 19th century Spanish poem to impress people!” Not too many kids fell for the last argument, but I got most of them with the first two. More importantly, after the first poem recitation experience, the students enjoyed the process. It is important to note and to keep in mind that I have spent my career in urban schools. I once taught a class of students with severe intellectual disabilities and I studied poetry with them as well. Never tell me, “Well, that’s nice, but my students can’t/won’t do it.”
Students weren’t the only ones to question my use of poetry. My colleagues would often ask me the same question, “why poetry?” In addition to the answer I gave to my kids, I told them about how I used the poems as management technique. When I am ready to start class, I call out the first line of the poem we are currently working on. Within the first two lines, all side conversations cease, students who had been out of their seat go to their place without bidding. If someone comes to the door of my classroom to speak to me and I’m worried about my students going off the rails while I’m distracted, I toss the first line of a poem over my shoulder and I have bought myself a few minutes. Whenever I leave sub plans, I always leave two students in charge of leading the class in the poem. This sets the same tone for the class, whether I am there or not. Finally, I love poetry (specifically 19th century French and Spanish poetry) but I adore middle school students more. I’ll never (nor do I want to) teach an advanced placement class of French or Spanish literature. I learned that I don’t have to teach the high levels of language to share my passion of poetry with my students.
It’s important to mention that the memorization and recitation is the product of a 4 – 6 week process. Here is how I set my students up for success:
Day 1: Hand out the poem to the students (in the target language). The students search for cognates (words that are recognizable from English) and other words they may know. Students try to predict what the poem is about. I lead the students through a choral ‘repeat after me’ recitation of the poem . . . word by word, phrase by phrase, and line by line. This takes at least 15-20 minutes.
Day 2: Lead the class through a line by line choral ‘repeat after me’ recitation and then say the poem twice with the students, “Don’t go faster than me. Don’t go slower than me . . . say it WITH me.”
For the next couple of weeks: Class opens with all of us saying the poem together. After a couple of weeks I will see that students are relying less on the paper and are able to say the poem from heart. Once I see that most of the kids are close to having the poem memorized, I set the recitation date for a couple of weeks away.
A question for the readers: If someone introduces themselves to you as a Spanish teacher, what is your reaction? The response I get the most it, ‘Oh, I took five years of Spanish and I don’t remember a thing.” Depending on how cheeky I feel at the moment, my reply is usually, “Thank-you for invalidating my career choice.” However, when I run into my students in the mall or on the street, they will usually bust out a line or two from their favorite poem.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]