Writing poetry for most of us can be a pretty daunting challenge. But writing poetry in another language, then reciting it out loud is a formidable task, especially for teenagers in a new country.
Hue Le, 17, learned this when she started her American education last September.
Arriving in Seattle from Vietnam, she was directed by Seattle Public Schools to the then-Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (recently renamed the Seattle World School), where she was happy to find fellow Vietnamese students equally daunted by the task of learning English.
To help improve her writing skills, Hue joined the After-School Writing Club, a group that met twice a week, sponsored by the Vietnamese Friendship Association and run by a World School instructional assistant Kim Hua.
Starting with writing persuasive essays, 15 students (all Vietnamese) worked to express their ideas in English. But they struggled with the language, especially with reading their work out loud.
Two vocal coaches from Jack Straw Productions stepped in to help, visiting the class twice a week. They took a couple of students at a time and worked with them reading aloud, with special attention to sounds that were difficult.
With so much attention and support, these naturally shy students began to grow in confidence. Their writing improved as well, as they were given editing help from Jack Straw writers. The writing exercises were designed to be creative, to allow students to play with language rather than to be critical or overly academic.
In May, the students went to the Jack Straw studios in the University District to record the poems they’d worked so hard on. Jack Straw staff created an anthology, with a CD of the recitations in the back, and distributed it to all the students.
When the students moved from expository essays to creative writing, they didn’t like it much because it required some inner searching and a greater thought process. This is where the artists from Jack Straw helped immeasurably by getting creative juices to flow and helping students to overcome their shyness in presenting their work before an audience of their fellow writing students.
Le said it was very difficult for her to get up in front of the group to speak in English, but when Jack Straw staff broke the students into smaller groups, she found it easier to read out loud.
“At first, I was very shy,” she said, quite shyly. “But after a lot of help, I got better at saying the English words.”
Le was encouraged to think about the imagery of poetry and found her cell phone-sized translator invaluable as a means of getting from her first language to her new one.
Along with the 14 other newly arrived students, Le slowly began to blossom.
“I had to use my imagination to search for different ways of looking at a subject,” she said. “After I got used to the difference between that and writing something I’d already learned, I found it fun.”
By Hue Le
I am the wind, blowing through the field
I am a bird, flying freely in the sky
I am the snow, playing with everyone
I am humor, making everyone laugh
I am the dawn, beginning a new day
I am a small fairy, stopping time
I am an artist, creating many songs
I am the spring, bringing luck to life
I am a photo album
containing many memories
I am a strong girl, confident in life
I am a baby, not worrying a
I am a picture, letting
everyone look at me
I am a drop, symbolizing precious things.
he Seattle World School is the Seattle Public Schools’ first stop for secondary students who arrive here from different parts of the world with limited or no English skills. It is the site of many activities designed to help young people adjust to life in this country.
From the school’s trophy-winning soccer team to its award-winning multimedia class, this is a place where young people are challenged to be the best they can be. For more information, visit www.seattleworldschoolfriends.wordpress.com.
For more information about Jack Straw Productions, visit jackstraw.org.
DIANE STEEN is a volunteer at the Seattle World School.
Jack Straw Productions’ Joan Rabinowitz, Laura Gamache and Kathleen Flenniken and Seattle World School’s Kim Hua assisted with this story.