What is Gained in Translation: Sarah Michaels and Jie Park on Teaching with Poetry Inside Out

Kids could really learn by doing both poetic, creative work and translation-based language work.

Poetry Inside Out is a cross-cultural literacy program designed to engage students from elementary to high school with collaborative literary translation. It was developed by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, California, and is now used in schools across the United States. The process begins when students receive a “poetry package” containing a poem in a foreign language, a picture and biography of the poet (written in English), and a “translator’s glossary” that provides meanings for the words in the poem. Students then split up in pairs to translate the poem “phrase by phrase.” Once they agree on a translation, they meet up with another pair of students to compare translations and to work on it further to “make it flow.” Lastly, all groups share their translations and discuss the similarities and differences across each group’s translation as well as the poem’s possible meaning. I first encountered Poetry Inside Out in a teacher workshop and was struck by the intensity of the process and by the sophisticated thought processes seen in videos of sixth grade students engaging in Poetry Inside Out.

Sarah Michaels and Jie Park, both professors at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, recently received an “Engaging New Audiences” grant to develop a curriculum and a seminar for ESL teachers to learn and use Poetry Inside Out in their classrooms. Both have been observing and documenting the implementation of Poetry Inside Out at Worcester public schools for more than six years.

Barbara Thimm (BT): Poetry and translation are unlikely subjects and skills to be taught in elementary and middle school. When and why did you get interested in Poetry Inside Out?

Sarah Michaels (SM): I first heard about Poetry Inside Out from Marty Rutherford, who was working at the Center for the Art of Translation and really revamped and energized it. We got Marty to come out here and give a workshop to a bunch of us teachers and do a Poetry Inside Out lesson in one of the schools that we collaborate with. I picked it up as part of a first-year intensive seminar with undergraduates: we did Poetry Inside Out in an after-school program at the same school where Marty had done her first lesson. That got undergraduates working with sixth graders.

Then Jie arrived, and she brought it to some teachers she was collaborating with in another school—teacher researchers who taught ESL. Probably the majority of kids at that school who speak English speak a language other than English at home, so there were lots of English learners and lots of bilingual kids in these regular classrooms.

Jie Park (JP): I was introduced to Poetry Inside Out six years ago when I got to Clark, and it really resonated with me as someone who looks at language and literacy with immigrant multilingual youth. But to answer your question: The teachers I work with would all say that translation makes so much intuitive sense when you’re working with multilingual youth because it is something these kids already do at home, for family members, for friends, at school, for classmates, for their teachers. That is, we are building on a tool or practice that they’re already confident and quite familiar with, and they have lots of ideas about the powers of translation but also the responsibilities, the dangers, or the stress. This feeds into what we’re trying to do, which is to build on the assets that kids come into the classroom with, not seeing them as lacking in something but to ask what they already have that we can leverage to help them. That’s why I think translation makes so much sense.

Poetry is a subject most teachers are either afraid of teaching or have a very formulaic approach to: “I’m going to teach metaphors and similes or rhymes,” or “We’re going to do found poems with magnets.” But when we ask teachers to conceptualize their approach and philosophy for teaching poetry, a lot of them say, “Well, I haven’t been supported to think fully about that.” The teachers we were working with wanted to be better at teaching poetry and bought into Poetry Inside Out. It is student-centered, so it was not that kind of transmitting facts about poetry or poetry terms. Rather, kids could really learn by doing both poetic, creative work and translation-based language work.

Teachers also shared with me this notion of poetry as “dense with meaning,” that is, you are working with a text that is four lines long and the kids could spend multiple days unpacking a single word.

SM: I would add that Marty Rutherford talks very eloquently about this: there’s translation that the kids do all the time, in translating from their native language to making sense in English, helping others, but she thinks of that as interpreting. Poetry Inside Out is related to that, but it is closer to what translators do: sit with the text, work with dictionaries, try things in many different ways, worry about rhyme and meter, change things around. You rework and rework. That is, Poetry Inside Out is a new version of something these students do all the time, yet it is different in that one student gets to hear what the others think. They talk and look at resources.

Regarding “why poetry”: People translate poetry all the time and it is impossible in a way. There is a sense that there is no single right answer. Poetry is dense in meaning. You go deep into many dimensions of language, but it’s a puzzle, it’s not as if anyone has the single official right answer. There is a low entry threshold because anyone can play around, but then there is also a high level of possibility, a potential you can reach for.

It is liberating in that it is not about getting the right answer, it is about getting an answer that is satisfying to others. You have to be able to argue and justify “why this word and not that word?” That is also rewarding. In a sense, you are writing the poem. It is a very interesting object that turns out to be wonderful for dialogue, and for thinking together with others, and for listening. Then, of course, poetry is poetry, so it is often amazing and deep, and Poetry Inside Out practice begins with world-class poets. Kids are essentially getting a master class in working on a poem or a set of poems before starting to write their own. That is, they have been introduced to this project of writing a poem through just amazingly talented poets. All these aspects come together when they are working with and translating a poem.

BT: There are also, of course, not a lot of wrong answers.

SM: That’s something we could argue about. Yes, perhaps, but some things are better than others, so what does that mean? Often when the poet repeats a phrase or a word, kids will translate them differently, and I want to say, “Wait a second, the poet could have used different words, but the poet chose the same words.” There are better and worse choices, and that’s also part of the game.

BT: One of the teachers you mention in your paper, Jesse, feels it’s not quite working in his classroom. He has some theories about why that is the case. When you look at variation across classrooms, is it something the teacher does, or is it the composition of the students, the age range, maybe gender?

JP: I would say “everything is at play” because teaching and learning are always contextual and situated. Let me give you a more concrete example. The teacher you referenced, Jesse, was working with newcomers, youth who had just arrived in the country. They had just been enrolled in his classroom, and he quickly found out that he was asking them to translate a language that they don’t know, Japanese, into a language they don’t know, English. When we’re thinking about “asset and resource-oriented teaching,” the kids didn’t really have anything to hold on to or leverage in breaking down the language of the poem. Jesse adapted his approach so the kids were translating from Japanese to Spanish, their dominant language. Marty Rutherford talks about teachers in similar settings who have come up with different strategies. A teacher she worked with makes the students come up with a dictionary for all the terms they don’t know. That is, the kids are creating dictionaries of all the terms they are going to encounter in the translator’s glossary, because the translator’s glossary doesn’t make sense if you don’t know English.

I do think the curriculum has assumptions built into it, and over the years we and the people at the Center for the Art of Translation have been open to interrogating those assumptions: what do we assume the students already know or bring? Language definitely plays into it, the fact that at Claremont (a secondary school in Worcester, MA) a lot of the youth are either undocumented or come from very challenging environments and home countries. They are fleeing gang violence. They all work, many of them long hours, and one issue the teachers I work with struggle with is that some of the youth may see poetry as a privilege. They are already questioning what school will do for them in this new country where they don’t feel respected and don’t have a lot of power. If they see Poetry Inside Out as just another school curriculum, there will be resistance. That plays a role.

SM: In addition, we are involved with youth researchers who have come to an after-school research club voluntarily to document Poetry Inside Out on their own. We know what these youth researchers think about Poetry Inside Out, and they interview classmates to get a sense of what other kids think about it and why it works, how it affects their understanding of poetry and each other.

That’s another important aspect: that something seems to happen where kids see each other as more interesting, having interesting things to say and helpful ideas for understanding the poem. It is a group effort, and then there are the other groups’ translations. I always sense that there is a kind of genius about the curriculum that is carried in the poem page packet, the poem, the biography, the image, the translator’s glossary. Then the phrase-by-phrase translation, just breaking in with a partner, it’s still negotiated in a way, and then those two meet up with another pair, and then together they come up with their translation. There’s something very social and collaborative in producing a translation, but then you hear six other translations of the same poem, so there’s something more than just going through the steps. It’s an easy curriculum to pick up. It wasn’t designed for English learners, but it still recruits a lot of linguistic resources from the kids. We’ve been using it with English learners and we’re at a point where we’re actually going to run a seminar with ESL teachers using Poetry Inside Out, implementing it with their students and documenting how things go.

JP: I think that with the range and variation in classrooms, it would be most successful with the teachers who don’t rush the process, who are comfortable with slowing down and honoring the intentionality and care that go into translation. One factor I’ve noticed in classrooms where it’s more successfully implemented is that the teachers don’t have this two-day timetable where they rush through the program. The other thing I’ve noticed in more successful classrooms is that the teachers believe in the strengths and ideas of their kids, and the kids believe that the teachers respect their thinking. Teachers who use it because they think it’s an easy curriculum that’ll engage kids, but then walk around saying things like “Oh, that’s not the right word!” there’s already a sense of distrust from the students. Then, despite the brilliance of the curriculum, it really doesn’t accomplish what it was meant to do. I would say those two things—slowing down and trusting that students have interesting brilliant things to say and share—are the two key elements I have seen.

BT: Is there a difference between translating a poem from a language none of your students speak and working with a language that some or many of them speak? Is there a difference when they know the original language, and what is that difference? I suspect it to be more difficult when you know the language because you’re not willing to consider as many options?

JP: The youth researchers have already grappled with this question, and (in their small-scale qualitative research) what they found actually resonates with what you said. They said that when they were translating with their classmates or their friends, or translating a Spanish poem into English (being Spanish speakers), it’s harder because their brain is moving almost too quickly. That’s the phrase I remember one of them sharing with me, that they have this impulse, they want to put in the word, the first word that comes into their mind, and it may not be what flows with the structure and rhythm, or it may not be what other people in the group want. They become very quickly committed to this one word based on their own language repertoire. They say that, in the context of Poetry Inside Out, it’s more challenging and sometimes frustrating to translate a poem in a language they already know.

SM: We’ve also seen cases where only one kid in the class speaks that language. Marty encourages teachers to find a poem in a language that just a few kids speak, because then they have resources that are valued and appreciated. I wouldn’t say, in a class where three quarters of the students speak Spanish, that you shouldn’t translate a Spanish poem. There is some value for the other kids who don’t speak Spanish in appreciating that, even though it might be harder at some level. I still think it’s valuable to draw on languages that are spoken. And sometimes you have multiple Spanishes, and so there are conversations about that. It’s a kind of open set of resources and there are trade-offs.

JP: One benefit of Poetry Inside Out is that it serves a range of pedagogical goals: if your goal is to cultivate a sense of confidence in your one student who speaks Japanese, then picking a Japanese poem makes sense. We have also seen that, in a class with predominantly Spanish speaking students, the introduction of a famous poem written by someone from the Dominican Republic, for example, gives students from the Dominican Republic a sense of who they are, where they come from.

BT: Bringing something to the table that American kids may not be familiar with.

JP: We’ve got students who say, “We studied this poet in the DR, and he’s a nationally renowned poet. Here, you never hear about him.” So I think Poetry Inside Out serves lots of really cool pedagogical goals. That’s another thing we’re working on with teachers: to be really explicit about what they’re trying to do with this curriculum.

SM: With one group of youth, we’re really trying to think about the payoff and the kinds of things that happen to students when they do Poetry Inside Out. They talked about things like building confidence in your own voice, learning to listen to others, delving deeply into language, sometimes talking about taboo topics you don’t typically do in school, like love, death, or religion. I think there are multiple benefits, but teachers should be thinking about what it is they would like to promote.

It also helps if you’re the kind of teacher who can ferment productive discussion, but a lot of teachers don’t typically do that. They might have recitations, or they ask a question and somebody answers and they move on, and so Poetry Inside Out becomes a practice ground for teachers to build their own muscles, their own capacity to foster productive talk and get kids to listen to each other in small groups and really build that kind of talk culture in whole group discussions. Teachers who work on and care about productive talk and what they can do to support it do better than teachers who are not skilled at doing it.

BT: I know this is a fairly young project, but have you had an opportunity to see if the skills students use and develop in Poetry Inside Out practice get transferred to other academic or non-academic contexts?

JP: Yes, from the very limited interactions we’ve had. I think one thing I can say with a degree of confidence is that the students have taught us that Poetry Inside Out has helped them cultivate a confidence in their own voice that they carry with them across classroom contexts and even to the world outside of school. And the second thing is this notion of listening and being able to engage in dialogue with people who bring different selves, different cultures, and different values, and that has actually helped them to understand the multiplicity of reality and viewpoints and navigate their life after high school.

Sarah Michaels, Ph.D., is a Professor of Education at Clark University. A sociolinguist by training, she works on issues of classroom talk, multiliteracies, and new models of professional learning. For the past thirty-five years, she has worked with and learned from teacher researchers and, more recently, with youth researchers, investigating the central role of productive talk in teaching and learning.

Jie Park, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Education at Clark University, and the Director for the Center on Gender, Race, and Area Studies (CGRAS). Her research focuses on immigrant youths’ literacy and language practices in school and out-of-school settings.

Barbara Thimm is a writer, educator and translator. She is also the Assistant Director of Asymptote’s Educational Arm. Her translation of Ror Wolf’s story “A Discovery Behind the House” appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Asymptote.


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