I’m printing out Juan Felipe’s words from a $30 printer that I am hoping doesn’t run out of ink. As paper zips and rolls out, I am scrambling eggs, anticipating how class will go. For this class I am wondering if I am pushing it too far. Will parents call me angrily because Martin Luther King Jr. says the word “negro”? Will my kids even know what SB 1070 is?
My students closely followed the results of the 2016 presidential election, a clear indication that this class of predominantly Hispanic fifth graders not only felt open to discussing politics, they craved it. After the election my students were angry and upset. One student was crying as I entered the room. I knew they yearned to have their voices heard and I sensed they felt that they had no say in the world around them.
So here I am, walking— well, more like power skipping— towards the old metal doors of the school. I sign my name, receive a red and white visitor’s badge and hurry in my black winter boots up the steps. My class is lively to say the least. They are loud, but excited because they see bodies leaning in, discussing in hushed tones, adults looking at the computer. Yes. Maybe Señorita Selena is going to have us watch a video. They thought right.
Front and center with an expo marker in hand, I write “Declarations” on the board. They proceed to shout out that declarations are statements that are true, they have to do with the law. They primarily thought declarations were formal. I prompted them with the question, “Can declarations be funny?” They answered “Yes” in unison, but seemed a little uncertain.
We quickly transitioned to a video of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” I knew my students were getting into listening to him speak. They were quiet, engaged in hearing the eloquent words that Dr. King spoke on race and equality for all. Some of my students even applauded at the end. It truly was a beautiful thing to expose them to the speech – some of them for the very first time.
We moved on to read the work of Juan Felipe Herrera. Herrera, our United States poet laureate, is of Mexican descent and the son of migrant workers. The critic Stephen Burt describes Herrera’s work as “a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride.” Herrera writes about issues and exhibits the richness of Latinx culture. I felt that his poem “Arizona Green” would speak to my students because he shares their cultural background and the majority of students are familiar with his use of code switching. The students found power and humor in his words. Even though they didn’t know the specific premise for the poem, they could understand that Herrera was speaking out against injustice.
After reading, my students began writing their own declarations:
I declare that pizza is good and sushi
I declare no more homework
I declare that Donald Trump is the worst president
I declare we should knock down the Trump Tower and call it Dump Tower
Yo declare que aquì hay one more type of cheese
I declare that I only tengo dos dòlares y fifty cents
Yo declare que los animals endangered species should be protected
I hold these truths to be self evident that all schools should give longer recesses
Yo declare que nadie be judged for their sex or skin color
I declare that nobody be hated for their sexuality
Inspired by Herrera, the students infused humor and code switching in their work. But they also took the strength of the declarations of Dr. King’s speech into their poems. I was so proud to see the fun and excitement they had, they could declare anything. They had power in their lines, they illustrated what they wanted to say. They used their poems as platforms to have their voices heard.
Selena Valencia recently taught an 8-week long poetry residency at a local Tucson public school as part of the requirements for a course called Writing the Community.