Sounding the Skies: Oral and Aural Poetry Landscapes for ELL


Sound is such a huge part of poetry, although I often forget about it in my own work, in reading, and even in the classroom. But sound, rhythm, tone, assonance, and consonance can connect us to the most playful and powerful sites of poetry.

In any classroom, there is a lot of noise. Middle school seems to amp up this noise, but then there’s all that’s said on the sly, under one’s breath. I watch middle schoolers come into their most articulated thoughts out of a desire to be heard, and I think middle schoolers also often feel deeply unheard. How as teachers and collaborators can we help students create sites for communication? This is especially important with ELL students who, rightly so, can be frustrated about feeling misheard, or misunderstood, having only a few “legible” words at their disposal to express a multitude of human (but especially adolescent!) feelings.

During my time at Doolen Middle School this semester, I was floored and uplifted by how many languages were spoken in the two classrooms I taught in. Walking into these diversified soundscapes was like being on the busiest streets of Queens in New York City. I quickly wanted to find ways to celebrate this multivocality, and discovered that a loose command of a language lends itself to flexibility and creativity. This is not to say that poetry is just throwing a bunch of words together — for example, my excitement at a phrase a student came up with, like “arms loosed”, needed to be explained and walked through, so as not to create a confusing experience for students who are focusing on learning grammar.

One activity that worked really well to free up the idea of poetry was to have students speak in their own languages as part of the class itself, not just outside classroom time. For one lesson we read aloud Khaled Mattawa’s Genealogy of Fire, which has the word falak in it—the Arabic word for orbit, or sky. Those of us who didn’t speak Arabic talked about how we might guess that the word meant sky, or orbit— how we saw the word fall and thought of movement, but we landed in a sharp k sound for something still, like an orbit or star.

Then students broke up into pairs, each one getting a picture that they had to describe to their partner in their own language. They stood back-to-back so they couldn’t see each other’s pictures. One student described their photo in Swahili, for example, to their partner, who then described their own photo in Arabic or Spanish (it worked best when the partners didn’t speak the same language). While they were speaking, I had them listen for vowel sounds, consonants,  rhythms, and words that might sound similar in their own language, and asked them try and describe what the picture was. This activity got noisy, but as long as students could hear each other, it was fun.

Both classes I did this with were excited, and we broke into a free-write in English after. Unstructured free-writes with these groups were rarely successful, but something about the exercise, finding their own agency, and playing with words made pencils really fly.

Throughout the semester, I recorded students reading their poems when it was time to share and uploaded them to a podcast website with their permission. This allowed them to celebrate sound, hear their own voices, and add in words they were maybe unsure of how to spell or even words in their own languages. This was also a really great technique for getting the room to listen while someone was sharing, and for the reader to work on being loud and clear in their own voice. With the podcast archive, they are now able to go back and replay their work, and listen to classmates’ poems.

Carolyn Ferrucci is a poet from New York City whose work revolves around the weather and relation. She currently teaches language arts at the Idea School and volunteers with Mariposas Sin Fronteras, and is to complete an MFA in Writing from Bard College in the summer of 2019. Carolyn has been a teaching artist with non-profits such as Materials for the Arts, Socrates Sculpture Park, and Writopia Lab among other organizations and public schools in New York and the Bay Area. Her work can be found in No, Dear poetry journal, and she’s read and performed at the Poetry Project, the New York Poetry Festival, Bergen Bibliotek in Norway, The Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco, and other realms.