Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dialogue Poems

Picture is from my trip to Teotihuacan in 2007

It has been quite some time since I published a "this lesson/project worked great" post. Although these types of entries used to be a central focus of the blog (and do serve a useful purpose),  I moved away from such because I found it more useful to reflect on complex and thornier issues. I no longer regularly pump out quick posts, but rather use my (informal) writing to think through problems that really gnaw at me. I also try to pass along summaries or excerpts from longer pieces I write for other outlets. Thus, this blog has evolved into a place for deeper reflection on readings, ideas, contextual matters, and practice, rather than a space to quickly share my "wins" as a teacher.

However, I want to break that streak by sharing how I recently used dialogue poems as a summative activity for a sixth grade study of Mesoamerica. I was unaware of dialogue poems until a few months ago, but they proved to be a wonderful mode for students to understand multiple viewpoints of a historical event. This is especially powerful as it works against the privileging of dominant voices normally centered in Social Studies curriculums. Through dialogue poems marginalized voices comprise a (more) equal share of historical inquiry. For this particular unit it meant students "heard" the Aztec, Maya, or Incan versions of conquest, not solely the typical European "exploration" narrative.

Dialogue poems challenge students to complicate moments, events, and perspectives by acknowledging multiple ways to analyze history. They also hold us accountable as educators. Does our curriculum include multiple voices and perspectives? Do students have the resources or guidance to complete such a task? Whose stories do we privilege? In a fantastic monogram about dialogue poems Tedick writes, "A dialogue poem offers an excellent opportunity to assess students’ understanding of different perspectives on cultural themes. A dialogue poem reflects a dialogue between two people who represent different perspectives on a particular theme, issue, or topic." As the examples below illustrate, my students represented a Mesoamerican perspective on history that is typically overlooked in narratives about the "New World." Mesoamerican groups are not merely a footnote in the study of World History, they were full of achievements and problems, complexities and contradictions.  Furthermore, those cultures continue to struggle, thrive, and exist today. The structure of the poems, the centering of their voices, stresses the dynamic creation and activity of these people, rather than the passive descriptions often reproduced in textbooks.

Dialogue poems provide a path for integrating the arts into different subject areas. Furthermore, the structure of dialogue poems creates a low-entry and high-ceiling type of assessment. This means that even those who claim they are not "poets" can create meaningful prose, while those who wish to dig deep have the ability to do so.

This connection to the arts was stressed during the unit on Mesoamerican culture. In particular students dug into The Colloquies (1524), which are recorded words of resistance from the tlamatinime (translated from Nahuatl as "wise men"). Speaking about The Colloquies, the blog Tlacatecco shares, "The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de SahagĂșn. The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith. These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire." One version of The Colloquies includes Nahuatl text in addition to the English translation. I also shared a trilingual children's book and an animated short movie produced in Nahuatl. Thus, the hope was for students to see that this culture has not been erased. This aided students in moving beyond simplistic depictions of Mesoamerican cultures. I have seen this happen as teachers uncritically push a narrative of blood and human sacrifice, rather than explaining the Aztec emphasis on arts and education.

The dialogue poem lesson/assignment was part of the conclusion to our MesoAmerican unit. I divided it roughly into three stages that I list below. I created it for sixth graders. You are welcome to copy and adjust to fit your needs.

Part 1: Analyzing The Colloquies
Part 2: Dialogue Poem Organizer
Part 3: Final Drafts (examples below)

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