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Multiculturalism, Language and Poetry: Exploring These Avenues through the Sound of Words

Chelcey A. Williams

Contents of Curriculum Unit 11.03.09:

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¡Hola! My name is Chelcey Williams and I am a second/third grade bilingual teacher in the New Haven Public School system. I am interested in creating a project geared for English Language Learners because I've been working with them for the past three years, and it is clear that English Language Learners (ELLs) have a different set of needs in terms of learning when it comes to working with them in the classroom. I feel that there aren't enough resources available for teachers to use the correct strategies to teach ELLs. Both research and experience in the classroom have shown us that more and more of our students are English Language Learners. To be successful teachers in educating these students with diverse backgrounds, we need know what their special needs are, as well as have the training to teach them in a way that they can learn.

When ELL's come into our classroom, they feel anxious about meeting the new teacher, and they wonder whether if the teacher will understand them. They may be thinking in their native language, and if the teacher is speaking English fast and not giving visual cues about what they are saying, the ELL students will immediately start to feel anxious. If teachers had the training in working with ELLs, then they would teach from day one with these students in mind. They would limit their speech to simple vocabulary and use as many visual cues as possible to communicate their ideas. Doing this would allow ELLs to feel more comfortable, valued and important in classrooms, which would thus lead to greater academic success.

There are many little things that can be done to advance the success of ELLs, such as the teacher slowing her speech. Another small thing that can be done to help ELL's in the classroom is to allow them to speak their native language to clarify understanding. Believe it or not, even today there are teachers who do not allow students to speak their native language in the classroom for one reason or another. Allowing students to speak in their native language to clarify understanding increases learning and ultimately their educational goals. Echevarría, Vogt and Short state that allowing students to speak in their primary language for clarification, as well as provide many other classroom modifications will ensure the academic success of ELLs, and this unit compliments their suggestions. This unit is specifically designed so that students can utilize their native language to compare and contrast different poems and languages. This allows them to use what they know to learn something new. Sonia Nieto states that students use their primary language (or L1) to build their secondary language (L2). Having students do activities that use their primary language to build their second and even third languages are the building blocks of language success.

In addition to this, the United States is the only country that does not require students to learn more than two languages. Yes, the expectation now is that students study a second language by the time they graduate high school, but other countries, such is India require students to learn to read, write, and speak in their primary language, English and a third language! This poetry unit I believe can be a stepping stone into having students strengthen their primary language, learn English, as well as establish a foundation of sounds in other languages. Should they want to be more proactive and seriously take up a third language when they are older, they would at least have experience with activities in this unit to build upon.

Multiculturalism is an important issue to recognize, understand and acknowledge in the classroom to relate with ELLs. Dictionary.com's definition of culture is "the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic or age group". The anthropological definition of culture is "the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another." Now to put everything together, multiculturalism means "the state or condition of being multicultural," and "the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities with in a unified society, as a state or nation." It is very important that teachers recognize and celebrate the different cultures that students come from, and this as a great unit to do just that. Just as it is important for students to speak their native language, it's important for them to be able to make reference to their distinctive cultures as well.

Research done by Daniéle Moore (2006), indicate that students have the ability to use their primary language to comprehend, build and understand a new/second language, however if schools, specifically teachers weren't trained to recognize and utilize this ability, students will not use this skill when it came to learning and comprehending in a new/second language. Moore further states that, "[the study] advocates the promotion of plurilingualism through school education." (2006, p. 136). This study encourages the creation and use of a program such as the one described in this unit.

I had an interesting experience working with a bilingual classroom my second year teaching. My bilingual class walking in the hallway as the regular education class was returning to their classroom. They stared at my students like they were aliens! It was like they never saw students of color before. Don't get me wrong, my students stared at them like they were "aliens" also, but I noticed that encounter and decided to reflect on that, pondering why that had even happened in the first place. The only conclusion I was able to come up with was that both groups of students lacked experience with interacting with others from a culture different from their own. This unit will allow students to experience poetry from different cultures and practice reading, writing and speaking a language different from their own.

The reason why I chose to focus on language specifically, and not focus on multicultural traditions is because language is the number one challenge that English Language Learners have with being successful academically. The need to have a good foundation of the English language in order, to read, write, listen and speak correctly and appropriately in all subject areas. If there is not a strong English language foundation, there will not be much success in having students learn what they need to at each grade level. The reason why I'm choosing to use many different language besides English in this unit is so that students can practice using their primary language to get a sense of understanding of other languages and their sounds. When we teach Kindergarteners how to read and write in English, we begin with letters and their sounds. We will be using that same concept in this unit so that students will become familiar with different languages and their sounds. Now, it can potentially be a bit difficult for some students to make the connection of how sounds make up different languages and how some sounds are both the same and different in their primary language. But even though there is that possibility of confusion between the different languages, it can be a wonderful opportunity to solidify the sounds in their own language so that they are able to better learn a second. Baker (2006) states that students with a strong L1 (primary language) will be more successful in developing their L2 and L3 (secondary and tertiary languages).

One of the important goals of this unit is to build tolerance, respect and empathy for different people and their culture. This is very important because prejudice against certain groups is often expressed as a prejudice against their languages. But if students are exposed to different languages, they will have had experience and hopefully empathy for them because they will realize that even though people speak different languages, there are a lot of similarities, specifically sounds, among them all. This unit would be a very useful tool for English Language Learners and NOT waste valuable class time because they would be practicing the pragmatics of language. Building a strong foundation in language will allow students to transfer their skills into all subjects and be successful.

Poetry is the topic being used in this project. The reason why poetry was chosen as the center of this project, as opposed to science or reading a regular story, is because poems paint pictures with words, and not many words have to be used to paint that picture. ELLs are constantly translating what people are saying to their native language, and the less words used to communicate an idea, the better. Poetry aids with comprehension, memorization, and makes a connection to an expressive form students are already into. What I mean by that is students are into the latest music, dances and rap songs that are on television and the radio, and they can literally repeat all of the songs that are currently being played.

From my experience of studying bilingual/multicultural education, this activity has never been suggested or done before. The reason why I think this would be a good, productive and fun project to complete, is because it never HAS been done before and students are able to use what they know to learn what they don't. Each poem will be presented in its original language and in English translation. The unit consists of 5 poems and can be done consecutively or over a long period of time. The first two poems are Spanish poems, followed by a Portuguese poem about butterflies. The third poem is an Italian poem also about butterflies, followed by a Japanese poem about a snowman. These poems were put in this specific order so that Spanish ELLs could practice working with sound in their primary language, followed by another language that has similar words and sounds. The third poem, an Italian piece is also very similar to Spanish and Portuguese, and also has the same topic of butterflies. Students will be easily able to do compare/contrast activities between the languages. The final language was chosen so that students are able to experience a language that is not similar to their primary Spanish language. They will get to practice saying words in another language and will have fun deciphering the similarities and differences in sound in the Japanese, their language as well as English. The order of all the poems in the unit follows a continuum of similar to different levels of comparison to their primary language of Spanish. Spanish the primary language of focus in this unit because the majority of ELLs in the New Haven public school system are Spanish speakers.

The first poem is called Latinos: Hispánicos, latinos, hispanos by Alma Flor Ada

This poem is shown in the native language as well as in English. This is so that discussions can occur about how the poem in Spanish compares and contrasts. It can also be compared and contrasted to student's native language, which may be a different dialect of Spanish. All 5 poems follow this format. Having students work with poetry in this format will increase their sensitization to sound in different languages.

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This unit can be used in a 3rd-6th grade classroom, during the writing/language arts block. The ultimate goals that students will attain while completing this unit are to expose students to different cultures and language through poetry; and at the same time, increase their vocabulary and comprehension in English, as well as sensitize them to the sounds of different languages. Also, this unit has been created in hopes that when students look at one another from a culture other than their own, they won't stare as if they've seen "aliens" and refer back to their wonderful cultural experience with this unit. The goal is to build tolerance, respect and empathy for different people and their culture.

Content objectives: Students will be able to explore poems in different languages from different cultures to appreciate the sound of words.

Language Objectives: Students will be able to have fun with poems in different languages, practicing pronunciation, memorization and concision with words in English and in another language. They will also read, write, speak and listen to poetry from different cultures and languages.

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Teaching Strategies

As described earlier, this unit is geared toward English Language learners, but all students will benefit by participating in this unit. In order for this unit to be the most successful with ELLs, it is important that the content and language objectives be clearly stated to students before beginning the lesson. The next step would be to activate prior knowledge. This poetry unit is intended to be an introductory activity to the genre of poetry in general. Therefore, this unit should be taught after adventure writing. Because the New Haven Writing Curriculum spends a significant amount of time working with adventure writing, it is important that students are informed of the huge difference between adventure writing and poetry in general. Teachers are free to use whatever devices necessary to reiterate this difference.

Part of activating prior knowledge is having a discussion about what makes writing poetry and what doesn't. Students are able to do this by talking about the components of adventure writing and a poem. They can fill out a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting the two. The New Haven Writing Curriculum uses Nancy Boyle's Adventure writing components which include setting the stage, going to at least two places, doing at least two things, thinking a thought, picturing an image, including dialogue, gestures and finally wrapping up the story. Students can be shown a poem; for example, the Jack and Jill rhyme, and students can talk about how different it is from their Adventure writing. The poetical devices students will experience with in this unit is reading and writing a Haiku, as well as analyze rhyme and rhythm in the different pieces through sound.

Following this, students can offer their own prior knowledge by turning and talking to a partner and sharing their own personal experience with poetry and with the specific poem being shown. I will anticipate, that some students will say they've had experiences with poetry in the prior grade levels, some will say that they have poetry in their native language that they are familiar with, and some might say that they've haven't had any experience with poetry at all. This is a great teachable moment informing students that the music that they listen to on the radio and internet is a form of poetry. Should teachers decide to bring in traditional Mother Goose Rhymes, that they've learned as children, they will be surprised to discover that a number of ELL's will have never heard of those rhymes before in their life. This would also be a good time to value and respect their culture and have them share some childhood rhyming songs from their culture. If need be, a short lesson on rhyming words might need to happen so students can understand what we mean by rhyming. As you may have noticed, we need to make no assumptions and think that our students have the prior knowledge and or experience that you and I have had as children. This is out of respect for ELLs and their culture and being sensitive and understanding the possibility that they might have had quite different experiences with working with poetry. We need to think of our students as being a blank canvas and assuming that they need to be taught how to do everything, even as simple as teaching about what a rhyme is. Even though we consider ELL's to be blank canvases, we need to keep in mind at the same time that they really are not blank slates because they have their own experience in their languages and cultures that can be acknowledged and drawn upon to help them make the transition into English.

The next step will be to introduce important vocabulary that applies to the poetry unit and to the specific poem being shared that day. Remember, our ELLs are a blank canvas and will probably not understand new and different vocabulary words that are not used on a daily basis. We want these students to completely understand what the poem is saying, and in the correct context. That is why it is absolutely necessary to take the time to teach important vocabulary words. It is essential that these vocabulary words be defined to students since they are still learning the English language, and make sure they are learning the new word in the correct context. For example, if we introduce the vocabulary term "block" and not give a visual example, they may think of playing blocks, when really we meant "street block". Because of this simple possible misinterpretation of vocabulary, picture cues as well as realia are excellent ways to teach new vocabulary to ELLs.

The third part of this unit will be to share the actual poetry pieces that will be discussed. Since research has shown that the largest population of ELLs are from Spanish speaking countries, the Alma Flor Ada poem has been placed first. It is a beautiful poem about all the different groups of people who speak Spanish, and the resounding message being proud to be Spanish speakers and they are united by the term Latino. The poem mentions just about all of the Spanish speaking countries and can be easily turned into a social studies lesson by showing on a map exactly where these countries are in relation to the United States. This would also be a wonderful opportunity for students to share where they and their family came from, as well as share their experiences with speaking Spanish and having to move to the United States and learn English. This technique I'm speaking of where students are able to share their experiences with where they've come from and their experiences with moving to the United Sates and learning a new language is called "turning and talking". Students turn to a partner and talk about their personal experiences. This oral language activity increases language and vocabulary which is really important for English Language Learners to practice as much English as possible. The reason why it's really important to increase language and vocabulary is so that they are able to comprehend things in the correct context in all subject areas.

After students turn and talk to their partners, I usually give an opportunity for a few students to share what they said to their partner. Following this, I introduce new vocabulary in relation to the poem. In this case, I will have created a power point with the word and a visual cue so students can understand the poem better. I will have the names United States, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Columbia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay, Cuba, Mexico, Spain, as well as the word 'pride' each with a visual cue on a slide. I will then read the poem in Spanish and then English and have students read it with me in both languages. Then I will ask questions such as:

1. What is this poem about?

2. Why do you think the Author wrote this poem?

3. How are the words the same in English and in Spanish?

4. How are the words different?

5. Are there any sounds the same in both English and Spanish?

6. Are there any sounds different in English and in Spanish?

7. Are there any words or sounds the same in the language you speak?

8. Are there any sounds or words different in the language you speak?

9. What does this poem make you think of when you read and hear it?

10. What do you think is the message that comes from reading this poem?

Now, since we are assuming that our students are a blank canvas, the teacher needs to spend a significant amount of time with each question MODELING how to answer the question. I would take the first question and answer the question out loud while the students are listening so they can get an idea of how to answer the question. For example, I would say, "Hmm? What is this poem about? Well, I think it's about people who speak Spanish. And these people who speak Spanish are happy that they speak Spanish and are happy to be called Latina and Hispano." Then I will give some time for students to think about how they would respond to this question and share their answers. Now, it is very important to give enough time for students to think about their answer as well as give a lot of time to share their answers as well. Baker suggests that the wait time should be 5-7 seconds or more. Remember, they are thinking in their native language as well as trying to translate what they want to say to English. This takes a lot of time for any new English speaker. The more practice they have with this, the faster their answers will come. Ideally, students who don't want to share their answers in English should be able to share their answers in their native language, but this can be problematic especially when the teacher does not speak the native language, nor the other students in the classroom. But there are lots of ways around this challenge. For example, the student can be paired up with another student who speaks the same native language, but is stronger in English and can translate what they said for the student in English.

This brings up another important issue regarding the language acquisition process. When a student learns a new language, there are 5 stages: preproduction, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency and advanced fluency. The preproduction stage is basically a silent period where the student does not speak but communicates nonverbally by nodding or shaking their head to answer questions. They are getting a sense of their new environment and are familiarizing themselves with the sights and sounds of the new language. The next state is the early production stage, where they are saying words in the new language, but have a strong accent. They try to read and write words based on their native language. The next stage is the speech emergence stage where they are able to have simple conversation in relation to every day routine and language. Intermediate fluency stage is they are able to read, write and speak in sentence form and may comprehend in the new language using simple words. The advanced fluency stage is they are able to clearly communicate their ideas and comprehend and express complex and high levels of thinking through reading, writing, listening and speaking in the new language. Each ELL goes through this process at different lengths of time and may regress to earlier stages depending on the level of stress in different situations. Depending on where students are in relation to the Second Language Acquisition process, will vary and greatly affect how they will respond to these different activities.

After presenting the poem, and answering the questions, the next step will be to share their thoughts and ideas in their Poetry notebook. The notebook has a copy of all of the poems in this unit as well as a page where students are able to write new words they've learned in English, or in the new language they've experienced. They have a space to write their thoughts about the poem, as well as a chart to write words and sounds that are similar in the language they speak. At the bottom of the page is space for them to visualize their interpretation of the poem so they can get a better personal understanding and memorization of it.

Following this written reflection of the poem is an optional special activity component that has been created to enhance the new learning experience with each poem. In the case of the Alma Flor Ada poem, the optional activity would be to have the students turn the poem into a song, rap, dance or cheer. The students who are kinesthetic learners will love to complete this activity since they will be able to use their body to interpret the words of the poem. They have the option of using the English or Spanish component of the poem and make it their own. Depending on how far the teacher wants to go with working with this poem, teachers have the option of having a small performance at the end of the week inviting friends and family to come in and see what the students have created. The teacher can ask parents to bring a Hispanic dish to eat all in celebration of the Latino and Hispanic culture. It is clearly understood that time is always of the essence when it comes to getting things done in the classroom, and teachers are free to add, or remove any part of this unit to accommodate their individual classroom needs.

To wrap up the Alma Flor Ada poetry lesson, teachers can always ask at the end of each activity what the students learned and how they will use what they learned to help them with English. Teachers can also get feedback from students by asking them what they liked about the lesson, what they would like to do again and what they would like to change in the lesson to make it more fun and useful in the future.

The second poem is called Mi Escuelita, which is a children's song from Puerto Rico, and it is sung to the tune La Cucaracha:

This poem as well as the rest of the poems is intended to go through the same lesson process as described with the first poem. Then a sound activity will be recommended after each poem, but teachers are free to come up with their own. The sound activity that goes with this poem is to write the alphabet in English and Spanish that have the same sounds. Then have students write a list of sounds that are not the same in English and Spanish. The poem title has been hyperlinked so students can hear the tune to it.

The third poem is a Portuguese poem called Barboleta/Butterfly:

The sound activity for this poem is for students to write what words are the same in Spanish and Portuguese and what words are different in Spanish and Portuguese. Following this, students can draw and paint their own interpretation of what the butterfly looks like.

The fourth poem is an Italian poem called Farfallina/Butterfly:

The title of this poem has been hyperlinked so students can see a teacher saying the poem in Italian. Click to the site and scroll down to where it says "watch video". The sound activity is to go through the alphabet and write which sounds are the same in Spanish and Italian. Then students should create a list of sounds that are the same in Italian and English. Following this, students can create their own poem about a butterfly in their primary language or in English.

The fifth poem in the unit is called Fusen. It is a poem in English and Japanese and talks about a melting snowman. This poem was found a book entitled Japanese Poems About Death, and what attracted me to this poem was all the poems were in both English and Japanese. In my ventures of finding bilingual poems, it was quite difficult to find poems both in English AND in the native language, so I was very excited and determined to use at least one poem from this book. To introduce the poem, the content and language objectives will be shared with students and time should be spent on asking students what occurred in the previous lesson/activity. This is a good segue into this next poem and it can be stated that this poem is not in Spanish, Portuguese or Italian, but Japanese. A bit of social studies can be infused by showing on a map where Japan is in relation to the U.S. Again, before this poem is shared, vocabulary needs to be taught and explained so students can understand the piece. The teacher also should teach what a Haiku comprises of, which is a simple form of poem in English that is usually organized in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. It does not necessarily require syntax or complete sentences. The important vocabulary that needs to be defined to understand this poem is "melting", "snowman", as well as any other vocabulary that you think might be necessary to teach to your students. Visual images, realia, and manipulatives will be best to teach new vocabulary.

Following the introduction to the new poem, teaching new vocabulary, the whole process can be done as previously explained in terms of turning and talking about their experiences with poetry, Japan, and even talking about their experiences with snow and making snowmen. You will be surprised to learn that a number of ELLs will never have seen snow or never made a snowman, due to them living in tropical climates. This will be a wonderful opportunity to discuss this and have students who have had experiences with cold, snow and making snowmen to share their experiences. Students coming from other countries may like to share their experiences with other types of nature, such as rain, hail, and the like.

This poem is a short piece, but since the poem is also in Japanese, you may need to practice saying the words in Japanese on your own before sharing with students. Ideally, it would be great to either find a native speaker of Japanese to read the poem and help us pronounce the words correctly, or find a way to have it recorded so the students can hear the correct way to pronounce the words. This can be done by asking students in the class or around the school if they speak Japanese or if they know of someone who does and can help. The teacher will read the poem in English and in Japanese and have the students do the same thing. Students will then turn and talk to their partner about their experience with speaking Japanese and some will share. The previous 10 questions can be discussed and students will complete a new page in their poem notebook about this poem. The optional activity that accompanies this poem would be to look up 5 words they would like to learn how to say in Japanese and create a class poem in Japanese using all of the words the students in the class found out how to say. Students will need lots of support to complete this activity, and internet resources such as yahoo babelfish, English/Japanese dictionaries will be needed to successfully complete this activity.

The sound activity that can be done with this poem is to write sounds from the alphabet that they hear in Japanese, Spanish and English. A class activity could be to write a Haiku about a snowman.

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It is my hope that both teachers and students enjoy and learn a lot of doing this unit. Students will practice utilizing their primary language to build their second and even third language, and at the same time experience difference cultures through language. The goal is also to create empathy, tolerance and respect amongst different people with regard to their culture and language. A very useful website that addresses different cultural songs is mamalisa.com, where she has just about every country and children's songs linked to it. As always good teacher reflects and evaluates lessons to discern how to make it better in the future. Getting feedback from the students is always most helpful. Finally, this unit does a good job at covering both literacy and social studies at the same time. Have fun with this!

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Appendix A-Poem Worksheet

Sounds/Words that are similar in the language I speak:

Picture of this Poem

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Bibliography for Teachers and Students

Ada, Alma Flor. Latinos: Hispànicos, Latinas, Hispanos. Retrieved from class poster. 2011. This is the actual poem that can be hung in the classroom as a reference.

Baker, Colin. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 4th Edition. Tonawanda, NY; Multilingual Matters. 2006. This book explains in detail the foundation of bilingualism and how the student progresses through the second language acquisition process.

Echevarría, Jana; Vogt, MaryEllen; Short, Deborah. Making Content Comprehensible for Elementary English Learners. Boston, Ma; Pearson, Inc. 2010. This goes into detail about how to implement the SIOP model in to the classroom.

Herrera, Socorro, Murry, Kevin. Mastering ESL and Bilingual Methods. Boston, Ma; Pearson Inc. 2005. This is a shorter version on bilingualism and the second language acquisition process.

Higginson, William; Harter, Penny. The Haiku Handbook/ How to Write, Teach and Appreciate Haiku. New York, NY; Kodansha International. 1985. A small book on how to teach and write a Haiku.

Hoffman, Yoel. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the verge of death. North Clarendon, VT; Tuttle Publishing. 1986. There are a lot of beautiful Haikus written by Monks.

Moore, Daniéle. Plurilingualism and Strategic Competence in Context. Vol. 3. No. 2 International Journal of Multilingualism. 2006. A thorough study on how focusing in and teaching students to utilize their primary language to build their second and third languages.

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Website Resources

Yannucci, Lisa. 2011. Mi Escuelita. Retrieved on June 26, 2011 from:


Yannucci, Lisa. 2011. Barboleta. Retrieved on May 25, 2011 from: http://www.mamalisa.com/?t=es&p=294&c=46

Yannucci, Lisa. 2011. Farfallina. Retrieved on May 25, 2011 from: http://www.mamalisa.com/?t=es&p=874&c=120

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Implementing District Standards


1. Students comprehend and respond in literal, critical and evaluative ways to various text that are read, viewed and heard-Students will discuss orally and through writing their interpretation of each poem.

2. Students will listen and speak to communicate their ideas clearly-The turning and talking portion of this lesson allows students to share their ideas orally.

3. Students express, develop and substantiate ideas and experiences through their writings and artistic and technical presentations-Students will complete the above worksheet to share their ideas and new concept learned from each poem. They also have a complimentary activity to complete to enhance learning.

Social Studies

4. Civic competence in addressing historical issues and current problems requires the use of information, skills and empathic awareness-Students will be taking the time to hear about and learn from poems in different languages to create empathy, awareness and respect.

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