Teaching Citizen Illegal: One teacher’s approach

Today’s post is brought to you by guest author Melissa Tucker, Rock Hill, South Carolina’s 2018 District Teacher of the Year. Melissa is an AP Lit, AP Lang, and World Lit teacher at Rock Hill High School. Grateful and tired mom of two handsome sons, her extended Bearcat family is always invited to her classroom. She continually seeks opportunities to learn with and from her students and colleagues to improve. She constantly reminds students “if you’re not reading, you’re not learning.” 

Going into this school year, I made the decision to switch to choice reading. I focused our units of study around six universal themes: identity, journey, gender and class, beliefs/religion, family, and connection versus isolation. Because I knew that my students would not necessarily be reading the same text as a whole class during these units, I needed a way to quickly establish routines for close reading, annotating, and analytical writing. I also wanted a highly engaging activity that could inspire students to think critically. As a result, we studied José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal poetry collection (Haymarket Books, 2018), ending with a video chat interview with the poet. 

Our class meets every other day on 85-min block schedules, so the bulk of the reading and annotating was performed outside of class. To begin the unit, the students read Concepción de León’s 2018 New York Times interview of José Olivarez, Jose Antonio Vargas, and Julissa Arce regarding their experiences as children of undocumented parents. Because our focus was on identity, our journal prompts included prompts that mirrored some of universal experiences of the speaker in the collection:

  • What are the advantages/disadvantages of having someone else define your identity?
  • What is your most favorite gift and what does it reveal about you?
  • How and why do our values change over time? 

After reading the Times interview, we performed a read aloud congo line of the first poem “(Citizen)(Illegal).” Prior to reading I explained how to use two-column or LEFT/RIGHT annotations where everything that is RIGHT there on the page (e.g. unknown words, poetic devices, stated claims, etc.) is identified, and everything that is LEFT over (e.g. implied meaning, effects of devices, themes, etc.) is analyzed. Students can write questions on the left, but the close read/reread has them go back and develop responses to their questioning. 

Each person read one sentence of the poem. I encouraged students to adapt or revise their reading as they realized the different nuances in tone or when they noticed a deeper meaning. We read the poem several times, including reading it without the words/phrases in parentheses. We paused between the readings to allow students time to reflect and annotate how they felt most comfortable. 

Also, check out Matt Brisbin’s post for more ideas on teaching “(Citizen) (Illegal),” the collection’s title poem. 

IMG_2149The students then read 8-10 poems before each class, using the LEFT/RIGHT annotations. Once we read through part III, I assigned different tasks to focus their annotations on structure, shifts, syntax, enjambments, etc. In the past, I’ve noticed that students will rely on surface-level items to identify; as a result, their inferences become more summary than analysis. Asking them to view the poems from different angles, including analysis to how the poems or section addressed the same journal prompt we used, facilitated deeper understanding of how Olivarez developed meaning. 

I used a modified yarn activity from the #TeachLivingPoets website, assigning stations for analysis. Each small group had 10 min to annotate based on their focus (e.g. tone, style, structure, etc.). At the end of the activity, each student chose one of the five annotated poems to respond to constructed-response, analysis questions. 

In addition to reading and studying the collection, we read Hurston’s (1928) essay “How to be Colored Like Me” and Clifton’s (1993) poem “won’t you celebrate with me.”

Knowing that we would begin the choice reading selections after the poetry collection, I wanted to begin using supplemental texts that reflected similar style and/or content to the poetry collection. Hurston’s unapologetic narration of race and identity supported the transition Olivarez’s speaker has throughout the collection. To be honest, I knew that Olivarez loved Clifton’s work after participating in #THEBOOKCHAT about his collection. I thought it would be fun to share this with the students and ask them to trace how he nodded toward Clifton’s themes and style in his own collection. The students then used these texts and the collection to create questions to prepare for our video chat with the poet. 

As expected, the students were super excited to participate in the discussion. Although each student did not initiate questions from their preparation, more than half of the class joined in. I was proud of their thoughtful preparation questions and their behavior during the discussion. The highlight for me came when one of my most shy students asked Olivarez a question. This is the third year that I’ve had the pleasure to learn alongside her. She is a Japanese-American student who embraces every challenge I give her, but she frequently speaks very softly and pulls back from discussions. She chose to ask a question about Olivarez’s use of Hispanic terms within the collection. Although similar questions had been asked or discussed in class prior to and during the video chat, her question was unique. Olivarez paused and replied that her question was a really great question. He didn’t even notice that. He then said he’d have to  reread it and figure that out. She noticed something that he didn’t notice before.  

I asked the students to complete a reflection afterward, asking them questions about how reading an entire collection versus individual poems changed their understanding of poetry. Many students noted that this was the first time they had read an entire collection; they enjoyed how collections afforded them the opportunity to gain a bigger picture or story of the speaker. They were able to thoughtfully respond to how Olivarez’s collection helped them reflect on their perceptions and experiences, and they all were grateful to speak with the poet.

Thank you so much, Melissa Tucker, for your insights and sharing your experience with teaching this book! Hearing how your student helped the poet to realize something new about his work is incredible! What a cool moment for that student, and for your class.

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with TeachLivingPoets.com? Be a guest author! Email me at msmith@lncharter.org. 

You can follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith and please tweet all the awesome things you are doing in your class with the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag! 

If you want to order a #TeachLivingPoets shirt, check out my awesome sister-in-law’s Facebook store Megan’s Makes. Shirt options are: gray unisex crew-neck S-XXXL, black unisex crew-neck S-XXXL, white women’s v-neck S-XL. All shirts are $20, PayPal accepted.

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