I’m seated at the old computer table, listening to second-graders read. Poetry conferences, we’re having. Revisions and final edits before their teacher sends everything off to publish a class book of poems.
“Is it my turn? It is it my turn?” he keeps asking me, from his seat in the middle of the room.
Actually, he’s not on my list of students that his teacher asked me to meet with. So I say, “Not yet. Not yet.”
He manages, somehow, to sneak between his classmates. I look up from notes I’m making to find his impish face beaming up at me. His tiny body wriggles in the chair beside me.
“My turn!” he insists.
I call across the room to his teacher, who’s also conferring with students: “May I PLEASE work with our friend here?”
“Yes, sure!” she answers. “I’m about to meet with him, but if you want to . . .”
If I want to?
How can I say no?
“Okay, YOUR TURN! Read your poem to me,” I tell my exuberant conferee.
Grinning, he shoves his paper over to me.
There’s nothing on it. Not even his name.
“What, you haven’t written anything yet?”
He shakes his head. He’s still smiling. “No! But my English is bigger!”
At the beginning of the year, I assessed his reading. Just as I was about to console him on his having missed all of the words, he patted my arm and said, “You have big English. Me”— he patted his chest— “little English.”
His perception of everything around him is astonishing. Whether he has all the words for it or not.
I’ve noticed, in the hallways, that he doesn’t greet me as Haley! anymore. Now it’s Hi, Mrs. Haley. That when I say How are you? he says, I’m good.
“Yes,” I say, “your English is a LOT bigger. That’s for sure. Now, this poem. What do you want to write about?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“Well, what do you like?”
His face lights up. The response is immediate: “BASEBALL!”
“Okay, so, what do you want to say about baseball?”
I take the paper and pencil.
“I like baseball,” he says.
“Perfect.” I write down the words. “That’s your first line. What else?”
“I like hitting the ball with the bat.” He acts this out. He’s a boy full of endless energy.
“Great. That’s your second line.” I write it down. “What else can you say about playing baseball?”
He thinks, gets excited, garbles his words. Something about running . . .
“Wait, slow down. Did you say running?”
He nods, bouncing in the chair. “I run like SUPERMAN!”
Superman . . .
The first time I saw him, over a year ago, when he came to the United States, to our school, he had no English at all. Unused to a school setting, he frequently had outbursts because he couldn’t communicate his wants, his needs, his questions, his feelings, anything.
He was a frustrated, forlorn soul.
Wearing a Superman shirt.
My first words to him were, “Hey, you’re Superman.”
I pointed to the S on his little shirt.
He didn’t understand, but he smiled.
Now, he understands.
Within five minutes, the poem is written. I point to every word, reading to him, then he points to every word, reading back to me. I watch him bounce away to his desk to copy the poem over in his own handwriting.
I write, too:
So you run like Superman when you play baseball.
Maybe you really mean that you fly
because you do
because you ARE Superman.
We shall stand marveling in your wake
it’s a bird, it’s a plane
For an earlier encounter with my little friend, read Big English.
For the record, poetry is an excellent way to help English language learners—really, any student—write more. Poems can be brief with less emphasis on conventions. Energy can go freely into capturing images, ideas, emotions, and building vocabulary.