Threading Poems – tying it all together

Today’s post is by guest author Valerie A. Person. A veteran teacher at Currituck County High School, Valerie teaches honors and academic English II as well as AP Literature and Composition.  She agrees passionately with Virginia Woolf’s “teaching without zest is a crime,” striving to find engaging and meaningful ways for her students to learn.

Recently, my sophomores read, discussed, and analyzed Jose Olivarez’s poetry collection, Citizen Illegal. After learning of this strategy of making connections from a presentation Melissa Alter Smith did at the NCETA Fall Conference, I thought I would try it as it provides a hands-on method for students to discuss both intertexuality and intratextuality with Olivarez’s poetry.

For context, here’s a brief snapshot of what we did before students worked on the connection charts:

We began with an analysis and discussion of the cover of Citizen Illegal which served as excellent anticipatory thinking. We then read the first poem in the collection, “Citizen Illegal,” and had a Paideia Seminar on it where we spent an entire class bell. I then gave students a good chunk of independent reading time in class for two days to read all of the collection and to annotate for things they were curious about or wanted to discuss. Each student had to submit one poem from the collection that they would like to have whole class discussion on, so we spent a couple of days working through those inquiries.

Once we completed these discussions, I placed students in groups of 3 to 4 people. In these groups, students were given the bulletin board paper with one poem “Citizen Illegal” already centered. Then they were presented five additional poems, one of which they had to discard. I purposely chose the poems we had not discussed in class already and that would lend themselves to quality discussion and foster connections. One note: I asked each group why they discarded the poem they discarded; as a result, I learned interesting things that will help inform my future instruction.

For example, two groups discarded a poem that has very non-traditional linear structure. Both groups spoke of how it was challenging to make sense of the poem because of the lining, and one student remarked that she figured it wasn’t as serious of a poem because of that lining. This is helpful to me for future lessons on how to approach student perceptions on intentionality of lining.

After students discarded one of the five poems, they taped the remaining 4 poems to the corners and began the work of making connections between any and all poems.

Students looked for connections in three categories: Motifs, Figurative Language (simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, imagery) and Thematic Ideas. Students annotated their connections on the chart and then the groups presented their charts to the class. 


Yellow = motifs

Pink = figurative language

Blue = thematic ideas

Once the presentations were over, I had students complete some reflection writing where they had to support their recommendations for other students to read this collection. One other question asked students what they would like to ask or say to Jose Olivarez. I’m sharing some of their feedback here. The discussions students had in their groups about the connections was some of the very best I’ve heard this semester in their class. For example, one group braided their blue and yellow line on a connection because they saw very clearly how the motif was supporting and developing a theme. These students went there in their discussions without me prompting that realization.

I will use this again, tweaking here and there, depending on the age and needs of the students. For example, I picked up rainbow yarn in my local thrift store the other day, thinking about the weaving together of colors and ideas students could demonstrate with that yarn. I may have students add some three-dimensional foldables or pop-ups at a few places on the chart to go into more depth of the SO WHAT on some of the connections. I’m thinking of it as sort of like a hyperlink but a 3d one. We’ll see.

Student Feedback: When asked would you recommend Olivarez’s poetry to peers?

I would tell them yeah because it wouldn’t be a waste of time. – Niah
I would say to definitely read Citizen Illegal. Citizen Illegal talks about real life problems in easily readable text. In my opinion, poems are more intriguing than just long paragraphs. There is a lot of meaning behind every poem Jose Olivarez writes. – Gabe
I would say yes because it includes many relatable scenarios like trying to impress parents, school bullies, childhood memories, and standing out. – Jayla

When asked what would you like to ask or say to Jose Olivarez?
I enjoyed reading his work. A part of me can relate to his struggles because racism can occur in any place at any time. Although the poems are small and simple, all of them have meaning and depth. – Shaine
Was the use of the lowercase i throughout the whole book intentional? – Brycen
This is an amazing book but how did you come up with the poem titles? – Braden 

Help support Valerie’s Donor’s Choose project: 

Thank you for sharing, Valerie! I love doing this hands-on activity in class that encourages rich discussion and analysis of poetry. I’ve used Poem Threading with Citizen Illegal too, as well as Safia Elhillo’s The January Children.

I also love Valerie’s Tone Bottles – another fun, hands-on way to get kids exploring poetry in innovative and creative ways.

Thanks for reading! Follow Valerie at @vperson and me at @MelAlterSmith and please share your thoughts, comments, and questions with us.

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