A Compassionate Point of View in Poetry — World Refugee Day

Wednesday, June 20, is World Refugee Day, and I wanted to share a poetry-writing activity I did with 3rd-8th graders in case you’re looking for a writing activity with one of your summer programs (or in years to come). Almost every year, I teach at Success Beyond the Classroom’s Young Authors Conference at Bethel University in Minnesota. This year, the theme was Connecting the World: One Story at a Time.

Young Authors Conference

Each morning, keynote speakers from Green Card Voices, including two young adult immigrants, started off the day. They were incredible. For kids to hear someone not that much older than themselves talk about the struggles and joys of coming to another country was so powerful.

Students ready to write!

Green Card Voices Keynote

Green Card Voices speaker
One of the awesome keynote speakers


Then I taught three sessions each day. Inspired by Irene Latham’s wonderful post a few months ago, I built my lesson plan around a form in one of my favorite poetry-writing books, poemcrazy.

Here’s what I did. I introduced the “Bring Me Magic” form (see my handout at Salas_Handout_2018_bring me magic_rev). Volunteers read the samples out loud. I talked through the process of writing my sample. Then we wrote a group one together just orally or on the whiteboard.

Then we chose an image, usually choosing from a canoe, a pencil, and a camping tent. The students individually wrote their poems, with me walking them through some pre-writing brainstorming and then going line by line. (We did this super-fast, as each session was only about 40 minutes of instructional time.)

Then I talked about asylum-seekers, sharing the journey of the family living in a refugee camp with whom I had lunch recently. I shared a few statistics on asylum-seekers (from the UNHCR) and also some photos from news sources–nothing graphic, but fairly shocking in their simplicity.

I made it clear it was a complex situation, and I was not talking about politics or policy or religion or anything like that. We were just trying to connect with other young people whose life experience so far was very different from most of the students in the room.

Then we talked about empathy, and we wrote another Bring Me Magic poem on the same topic as before. But this time I showed an overcrowded boat of asylum-seekers or a tent in a refugee camp. The pencil image remained the same. I asked the kids to imagine themselves in a situation where they were in that boat or using that pencil in a refugee camp or sleeping in that tent. What would they wish for? The goal was to have first drafts of two poems on the same topic, but from two different points of view.

They did such an amazing job! Many students shared their work, and it was awesome. One girl also shared that her parents had been asylum-seekers, and her family ended up here in Minnesota. I think she felt so good just being acknowledged. Publicly saying the experience her family went through was real. And the reality is that most of the students probably encounter people who have been through it, but the students just don’t know it.

Here are a few of their poems. The student pov poem is first, followed by the asylum-seeker pov poem. Here are a few sets of pencil poems. (These were written on travel-themed scrapbooking paper, so the patterns were on the back of the poem.) All of these are shared by students who volunteered to let me take pics of their poems to share online.

And here are a few boat sets.

This short exercise really worked well, and I was so proud of the students’ poetry AND thinking. If you try something similar, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!

Also, a couple of weeks ago, I shared a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye about refugees and asylum-seekers that you might want to share with your students, too. Here’s a photo exhibit that broke my heart. You can find a few other poems I’ve written as I thought about refugees here. None of the resources in this paragraph were part of my Young Authors Conference presentation–no time! But they might be useful if you’re creating a lesson for your own students.

8 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing such an impactful writing experience. I will definitely tuck this one away for next year.

  2. Wow. These students are amazing. Thank you for sharing your lesson and their words.

  3. Very moving, Laura. Thank you.
    (Okay, I guess I’ll go buy PoemCrazy now…third time I heard about it today!)

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