This is the fifth installment in a series at #TeachLivingPoets. The Poet Laureate Project features a different U.S. Poet Laureate each month during the 2019-2020 school year. Guest author Ann Cox highlights one or two of their poems, suggests activities to use these pieces in the classroom, and touches upon their contributions to the promotion of poetry in America. Ann Cox has over 20 years of experience teaching high school English, including AP Lit, Creative Writing, and Speech. She also spent several years as a teacher consultant for the Illinois State Writing Project.
This month’s featured poet is Juan Felipe Herrera, who served as Poet Laureate from 2015-2016 and was the first Latino to hold this position. In addition to poetry, Herrera has also written children’s literature and young adult novels. He has won numerous awards for his work.
Herrera’s poetry focuses on the historical, cultural, and political aspects of his Chicano heritage, and he is known as an activist on behalf of immigrant and indigenous communities as well as at-risk youth. In light of this, I’ve chosen to spotlight his poem “Borderbus,” which focuses on the immigration issues currently facing our nation.
Ways to Introduce the Poem
Some students may already be familiar with the immigration debate. If not, reading an article such as Scholastic’s The Great Immigration Debate may be helpful. The New York Times Learning Network has an extensive collection of articles, graphs, charts, and more to help students and teachers explore these issues. I also recommend Teaching Tolerance’s lesson on Immigration Myths, which addresses common stereotypes and misinformation students may have about immigrants.
Another impactful way to introduce “Borderbus” is through photography. Check out Janet Jarman’s project called Marisol and the American Dream, which follows the path of one U.S. immigrant over an eighteen-year period. Many of the photos could generate rich classroom discussions about the lives of immigrants, both before and after leaving their native countries.
Working with the Poem
Since this poem is a dialogue, you could ask two students to read it aloud. This would be the perfect opportunity to ask your bilingual students to read, since the poem is written in both English and Spanish. You could also play a recording of Juan Felipe Herrera reading “Borderbus.”
The thing I love about this poem is that it humanizes immigrants. So often lately immigrants are portrayed as statistics–or worse, criminals–instead of individuals with hopes, dreams, and fears like anyone else. “Borderbus” portrays these thoughts and emotions through a dialogue between two immigrant sisters. After reading the poem, instruct students to annotate for indirect characterization, specifically by looking at the women’s words (which in this case also reveal their thoughts), their actions, and other people’s reactions to them. Ask them to gather evidence, then discuss or write a character sketch showing what they learn about the women through the poem.
“Borderbus” also has a unique style, as it is written using both English and Spanish. Encourage students to consider why the poet made that decision. Also ask students (especially those who do not understand Spanish) how they felt trying to decipher a poem in another language. How might that feeling relate to what the speakers in the poem are feeling? You might also ask students to consider the lack of punctuation throughout the poem and what effect Herrera is trying to create by omitting it. How does the removal of punctuation contribute to the mood of the poem?
Pair “Borderbus” with other modern poems about immigration. Consider another Herrera poem “Everyday We Get More Illegal,” Joy Harjo’s “Crossing the Border,” Julia Alvarez’s “Exile,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Mediterranean Blue,” or Lori Bedikian’s “Prayer for My Immigrant Relatives.”
Pair Herrera’s poem with the classic poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. This sonnet is engraved on the Statue of Liberty and would open up a discussion about the history of immigration in this country and why so many people want to come here.
Pair the poem with songs about immigration. Two that come to mind are Neil Diamond’s classic Coming to America” and the more recent “We Are All Illegals” by Outernational. Students can listen to the songs and compare the lyrics to the poem.
Pair “Borderbus” with a novel about the immigrant experience, such as Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Christina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, or Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel The Arrival.
Consider adding a writing component to this lesson by asking students to reflect on their own or their family’s experience as immigrants. Students could interview family members or conduct genealogy research to create memoirs, poetry, or even opinion pieces on what it means to be an American.
I hope you found my Juan Felipe Herrera suggestions helpful. Join me again next month, when the featured Poet Laureate will be Tracy K. Smith.
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