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Poetry: The Final Frontier

By Anne Silva

My apologies to all the Trekkies out there, but language learners know that poetry is the REAL “final frontier.”

Hear me out: poetry is unexplored, uncharted territory for someone who is just learning to walk in their new language. Metaphors? Figurative language? Fluid word order, antiquated expressions and neologisms? Jeez. For a language learner, these things might as well be in Klingon, for real.

I’ve witnessed my husband, who is not a native English speaker, try to tackle Dr. Seuss while reading aloud to our daughter. Needless to say, these books are not his favorites. I have felt the same way trying to pick my way through Golden Age Spanish poetry in college. The subtle brushstrokes of these talented poets lose everything when you clumsily look up every other word, trying to keep track of which meaning the dude could possibly have been going for in each word and phrase.

So maybe it’s not so odd that poetry is that last hurdle we conquer when learning a new language. If learning a language is a little bit like learning the steps to a country line dance, poetry can be like an interpretive dance class or something. All those rules you just learned? Well, let’s break half of them. (But, you know, only a certain half.)

But does that mean that poetry should be reserved for only advanced speakers? Of course not! In fact, if we do it right, we should be playing with poetry from the very beginning. Is there any other kind of text where cultural and historical background is so inherently infused with language? Where the motivation for writing is as culturally engrained as the form of expression itself?

When I was in high school, that whole “subjunctive vs. indicative” thing threw me for a loop. I was baffled by the idea that a slight change in a verb’s mood could convey so much. It was really the first time I was encountering a grammatical rule that wasn’t really a “rule” at all—that there could be situations where both structures could be correct, depending on the subtle shade of meaning the speaker wanted to convey. My very concrete brain had a hard time grasping that we had moved into territory where the speaker could use the language in more subtle ways than my plonking-along Spanish had been until then. But yet, my Spanish became richer because of it.

The same thing can happen if we introduce our students to poetry from an early stage. From the beginning, we can present that the Spanish language doesn’t have to be a strict formula with just one way to be put together. Early on, our students could learn about things like musicality, tone, rhythm, figurative language, word choice, onomatopoeia, and all kinds of other poetic techniques. It would engage both sides of the brain. It would tie in culture effortlessly. It would improve critical thinking while reading and writing.

“Ok, fine,” you say, “but my kids know so little Spanish! How will I find poems that are interesting, yet level-appropriate for them?”

Well, my friends, you are in the right place. Not only will we be spending the whole month of April exploring poetry, but you have here a whole community of Spanish teachers, and a perfect setting to share ideas, ask questions, find resources, etc.

So let’s get the ball rolling! What have YOU done in your classroom to incorporate poetry? What poems or poets are your favorite? What activities have worked well? What has worked TERRIBLY? 😉


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