This lesson plan is part of the series “Incredible Bridges: Poets Creating Community," a project developed by the Academy of American Poets in partnership with EDSITEment, the educational website of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), during the NEH’s 50th anniversary year-long celebration.
Funded by the NEH, “Incredible Bridges” responds to the NEH’s initiative The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, which seeks to demonstrate and enhance the role of the humanities in public life.
Richard Blanco, the poet chosen to compose and deliver a poem at Barack Obama’s second inauguration, often writes about his complex identity. “Translation for Mamá” is a poem for his mother, who came to the United States from Cuba to create a new life for herself and her family. In both English and Spanish translation, Blanco honors the bridge between his mother’s new identity and the losses she faced.
“Translation for Mamá” is not only a bridge between two lives; it is also a bridge between two languages. Students whose native language is Spanish and who are English language learners will be able to experience the languages together in one poem. Students whose native language is not Spanish, but is other than English, will experience a model for writing from their own complex identities in two languages.
The following sequence of activities is designed to level the playing field among diverse learners by including multiple ways to enter, experience, and explore the meaning of the poem. Feel free to adjust them to meet the particular learning styles and needs of your students.
A Note About Vocabulary
Ask your students to keep a running list on the front board of the words they read and hear, but do not understand. You can either conduct a separate vocabulary lesson about these words during which students try to figure out their meaning from context and connections, or review the vocabulary as you progress through the other activities.
- Students will identify vivid language in a poem that show how the author feels.
- Students will compare the experience of reading a poem on a page to hearing and seeing a poet read a poem on video.
- Students will distinguish between what a poem is telling us literally and figuratively.
- Students will explore poetry as lens through which we can reconcile complex personal identities.
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
English, English Language Learners
Tell your students they will be studying the poem “ Translation for Mamá” by Richard Blanco and that, before they read the poem, they will engage in some activities that will help them understand the poem better.
Activity 1: Whip Around: What do you miss?
Objective: Students will identify an object or person they miss about which (or whom) they might write.
- Tell your students they are going to write a detailed paragraph that describes either an object or person they miss.
- Go quickly around the room and ask each student to tell the rest of the class where the object or person is from, and what the object or person is. If a student needs some time to think about it, allow her to say “pass” and come back to that student after all the others have had a turn.
Activity II: Turn and Talk—Show, Don’t Tell
Objective: Students will brainstorm ideas for describing their person or object in a way that shows how they feel
Ask your students to turn to a partner, remind the partner of what they shared in the Whip Around, and tell them some of the details they would like to include in their paragraph that show how they feel about the person or object. The listening partner should first make a positive comment about some of the details, then make suggestions of other details that might deepen the emotion and give feedback on details that might not be appropriate to ask, if any. Make sure both partners have time to share their initial details with each other.
Activity III: Writing About What You Miss
Objective: Students will write a detailed paragraph about an object or person that shows their feelings.
Ask your students to write a detailed paragraph that shows that they miss a specific person or object using some of the ideas they developed from their previous conversation with a partner. Remind them that they are “showing” how they feel, not “telling.”
Activity 1: Reading the Poem
Objective: Students will identify words, images, and phrases that jump out at them in the poem, as well as the use of two languages.
- Project “Translation for Mamá” from Poets.org.
- Ask your students to read the poem silently. As they read, they should write down the words, images, and phrases that jump out at them.
- Ask for two students to read the poem—one to read the stanzas written in English, the other to read the stanzas written in Spanish. When they are finished, ask for two other students to read the poem in the same way. While they read, the other students should be listening for new and different words and images that jump out at them.
Activity 2: Watching Richard Blanco read “Translation for Mamá”
Objective: Students will notice the difference between reading a poem on a page and experiencing a poet reading his poem.
- Tell your students that when they watch the video, they will record what they notice when Richard Blanco reads his poem. Ask them to pay close attention to the way he reads the different stanzas and how he pauses. What do they hear differently now? Make sure they record their new perceptions with their other notes.
- Play the video of Richard Blanco reading his poem.
Activity 3: Small-Group Work
Objective: Students will collaboratively synthesize what they have noticed from reading the words and watching the video of the poet reading his poem.
- Ask your students to work in small groups to share what they have noticed. Guide them to talk about the use of the two languages and what they think the importance of this might be. Ask them to talk about how the vivid details in the poem show how Richard Blanco feels.
- Ask them to think about what is “translated” in this poem.
Activity 1: Small-Group Work
Objective: Students will use their synthesis of details from the poem to create shared meaning based on evidence.
Ask your students to share their lists of specific details from their exploration of the poem’s content and structure. Based on their sharing, the group should come up with one list. Tell them one person from each group will report this list to the whole class.
Activity 2: Whole-Class Discussion
Objective: Students will glean meaning from poetic structure and content.
Hold a whole-class discussion, starting with what your students have noticed in the poem, and moving from there to what they think the poem is saying.
Ask each group representative to report the details their group has noticed. Make sure they include the use of two languages, as well as the poem’s content. Record these details on the board. If the later reporting groups have duplicates of what has been said, place a check next to the detail for each repetition. At the end of the reporting session, circle the details with the most checks. These seem to be most interesting to your students.
- What is being “translated” in this poem, both literally and figuratively?
(Some possibilities include a letter to a poem, English to Spanish, old life to new, etc.) Make sure your students cite evidence from the poem to support their answers. The circled details on the board will help them here.
- Why are some Spanish words in the middle of English stanzas?
- What bridges, literally and figuratively, are being built through these translations? What evidence is there for this interpretation? Why are these bridges important?
- What emotions does Richard Blanco express through the use of vivid details? Give specific examples from the poem.
Ask your students to write a poem, using their paragraph (from Section I, Activity 3) as foundation, that describes a person or object they miss. Have them write the poem in either one or two languages (whichever is appropriate for their cultural background). Make sure they include at least two “translations.”
With your students, develop an evaluation tool for their work using the terms exemplary, proficient, developing, and basic. What do they (and you) think are the basic characteristics of an exemplary poem that shows how the writer feels about an object or person they miss? A proficient one? One that is developing or basic? Remind them to include items such as vivid details that help us get to experience the person or object, a translation of one sort or another, and proper spelling and grammar.
- Have a poetry reading in your class where your students read the poems they wrote in either one or two languages. After the reading, ask them to reflect on the experience of reading poems as a community—even if they didn’t understand all the words.
- Show your students some poems in English that are translations from other languages, e.g. the poems of Pablo Neruda, Li Po and Tu Fu, or Octavio Paz. Make sure you have the poems in their original language, as well as their English translation. Ask your students who speak both English and the native language if the translations use exactly the same words as those in the original language. Ask them why there might be a difference between the languages.
- If you have students who can translate poems from another language, give them the poems in the original language. Ask them to do their own translations into English poems that maintain the feeling and sense of the original poem, if not the exact wording.
- Compare “Translation for Mamá” with “The Great Migration” by Minnie Bruce Pratt. How are the poems similar to and different from each other?
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this lesson plan do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.