How High Can They Climb?

Posted June 2004: A poem and a trip to a local thermoelectric plant in Mexico inspire the students in Cheryl Brickner's Grade 6 class to write poetry. See Lenore Balliro's At All Hours column, "Hats, Keys, and Want Ads," Essential Teacher, Summer 2004 (pp. 14-15).

About halfway up the outside open stairway to the top of the tower at the thermoelectric plant, a few of the students decided they did not want to venture any farther upward. Because I suffer from inner-ear problems and I am not very fond of heights, I quickly volunteered to stay with those children while silently thanking them for their lack of courage.

We walked into the second level of the plant and looked around while the rest of the students trekked to the top with the guide and a few brave parents. Several minutes later, the climbers joined us, and we continued our tour of the plant. Some of the students looked a little green around the gills, but no one complained. The plant, which makes electricity for our city using ocean water, was a perfect example of what the class was studying in science. It was a very enlightening field trip for all of us.

From Field Trip to Poem

All year long I had read poems to the children, and we were at the end of a poetry unit in language class. The children especially enjoyed the poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends(Silverstein, 1974), If You're Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand (Dakos, 1990), and Hailstones and Halibut Bones (O'Neill, 1961). We had talked about rhyme, rhythm, couplets, and quatrain poems, and I felt that the students, sixth graders in a bilingual school in Mexico, were ready to write a more challenging piece of work. What better topic than our trip to the plant?

The following day in class, we wrote down our observations from our trip to the thermoelectric plant on the board. Even though the presentation at the plant had been in Spanish, the students had learned many new words in English. We used the dictionary to check the spelling of the approximately 50 words that pertained to our recent adventure.

I then read "The Museum Door" (Hopkins, 1995) to the students several times, and we analyzed its beat and content. As a class, we wrote our own poem, "What's Behind the Thermoelectric Plant Door?"

Armed with the vocabulary on the board and the pattern from Hopkins' poem, the students went to work on their own. They worked for several days, off and on, polishing their poems, and finally took them to computer class to be published. Two students who were excellent artists drew intricate pictures of the thermoelectric plant to use as the background for the poems, and each student typed his or her own poem on the computer. Their published poems were works of art. All of the students far exceeded even my always high expectations for them.

There Is No Limit

How high can they climb? In 18 years of teaching English to Spanish-speaking children, I have discovered that there is no limit to the heights that students can reach if they have encouragement and guidance.

Here are excerpts from the poems written by four of the students.

What's Behind the Thermoelectric Plant's Door? (Brenda)
All day and night,
Men work at the plant,
Like brave knights,
Giving us light.
What's Behind the Thermoelectric Plant's Gate? (Jesus Roberto)
A noisy generator,
A small smell of gas,
Polluting the air,
At the plant you'll find.
What's Behind the Thermoelectric Plant's Door? (Ana Sofia)
A big generator
With a loud sound,
A new insulator,
With many tubes around.
What's Behind the Thermoelectric Plant's Door? (Oscar)
Old chimneys,
With huge turbines,
Couldn't touch tubes,
Or the control button either.

References

Dakos, K. (1990). If you're not here, please raise your hand. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hopkins, L. B. (1995). The museum door. In Good rhymes, good times. New York: HarperCollins. Retrieved February 10, 2004, from http://dcrafts.com/dinopoems.htm

O'Neill, M. (1961). Hailstones and halibut bones. New York: Doubleday.

Silverstein, S. (1974). Where the sidewalk ends. New York: Harper & Row.

For Cheryl Brickner (cebrick45@hotmail.com), who teaches sixth grade at the bilingual Instituto Mexicano-Americano de Relaciones Culturales, in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, her 18 years of teaching all subjects in English to Mexican children have been the most rewarding experience in 38 years of teaching.