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When You Have No Idea What It’s Saying…

I’ve written about Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” here before, and I have a full lesson on it here. It’s a great story, and it’s one I teach frequently to people learning English.

But, there’s a problem I’ve seen again and again.

It starts early, by the second paragraph:

Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomb-like building was still open.

The first paragraph is fine; Leonard Mead enjoys walking out alone at night in this world of 2053 AD. Got it. Even the first sentence above — he’d walk “for hours and miles,” sure. But then, look at the next sentence. Do you see the challenge? Many times by this point, a student says, “What?” Are we in a graveyard? What are “glimmers of firefly light” or “flickers”? “Phantoms,” “manifest upon inner room walls”?

The issue is not just vocabulary, though some of these words may not be common or immediately known. Vocabulary can be dealt with in context. The challenge here is poetry.

The language itself becomes poetic. We’re in a simile, a comparison. Walking on this street “was not unequal to walking through a graveyard,” meaning: Walking on this street was equal to, was “like” walking in a graveyard. The flickers of light are described like fireflies, and ghosts (phantoms) seemed to appear. We maybe hear “whisperings and murmurs,” and a building is described as “tomb-like.”

All of this is hypothetical — maybe, usually. And there is so much figurative, not literal description here. What’s happening literally? It’s dark. It’s creepy. There are no people around. It feels like everything’s dead. There are small “flickers” of light coming from the houses, but very little sound.

So, what do you do when you’re reading a text like this and you have no idea what it’s saying?

One strategy is to “dig in.” I see students do this a lot, especially while reading in a second language. You already feel unconfident in your reading, already anticipating those words you won’t know. The underlying thought is, “I should know more vocabulary.” or “My English isn’t that good.” or “I should work more on my English.”

So when you come across these passages, you’re frustrated. You find the dictionary and look up every word, write definitions above the words on the page. I can see the intensity in your eyes. You dig in and try to solve the puzzle like a watchmaker fixing every tiny part of a watch’s gears with the tiniest screwdriver. Your eyes are strained and tired; you have a headache. You back away from the story and need to take a breath.

Here’s another way: You realize, “This is poetry,” and so you read it that way. You step back from the words. You see the whole paragraph like looking at the Earth from space, the whole, round image of it. You picture what you do know from the words, the images that you see without any intense digging. You take a breath and let your mind and heart and body take it in. Look for the words you do understand. You might be surprised at how much you see without understanding every word.

Then go back to the text. Pinpoint a couple of phrases that are really mystifying. Look up a word or two, still with the goal of seeing the whole image, not getting hung up on every meaning like you’re decoding a legal brief or reading a real estate contract.

A story is poetic, a creative piece. Remember the author is not arguing a point or trying to communicate logical information from A to Z. Remember the author is describing something, creating a mood, a feeling, showing you a world, a person. Your goal as the reader is to see, feel, hear, take in those images and feelings and senses — not to pick apart every word.

The meaning goes beyond the words; the words are only the signs on paper that create a whole world. Your job is to understand the world. Reading poetry is feeling, sensing, seeing — different from logical understanding.

Now, I know that if you really don’t know those words, you’re not going to see the images, not going to understand enough to picture it. Yes, that’s true. So there’s a balance between the “big,” Earth-level view and the intensive, picky, “watch-maker” view. The key is to remember that balance and let yourself shift between ways of reading.

And remember, even native speakers read literature and struggle to understand everything. Native speakers read literature and don’t know every word, sometimes many of the words. In our native language, we tend to skip over what we don’t understand and don’t even realize it. I’ll ask native-speaker students, “Do you know the meaning of ______,” whatever word is in the piece, and many times, they realize, “Oh, no, I don’t.” When we talk about it, they understand the passage differently, get a different “shade” to what they understood before. This is a normal process of reading, whether or not you’re reading in your native language or a second one.

So, give yourself a break. It’s important to find texts that verge on challenging but not frustrating. Texts are enjoyable when you can read much of them easily but encounter new words, ideas, structures. I try to strike that balance with students, listen to where they struggle and understand their reading level in choosing texts.

But the “level” of the text is only half the battle; the mind that reads the text is the other. The more you understand how your mind engages with a text, that you’re engaging in normal “struggles” any reader would have, or can equip yourself with reading strategies, you can not only use reading to build your language, but you’ll enjoy reading more.


Interested in doing this kind of reading work? Send me a message and let me know what you’d like to work on, how I can help! I offer private lessons and small group courses.


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Creative Writing Prompt: Art as Inspiration

“East River Divers” by Aruthur Leipzig. Source: MFAH

Here’s a creative writing prompt inspired by art. Looking at art can stir the senses and serve as an inspiration for words. Read more about my own inspiration and this photo below.


1) Sit with this photo for at least one minute: just look and take it in.


2) Set a timer for 3 or 4 minutes.

In that time, write all the words or phrases you think of that relate to the photo.
Think of the 5 senses: sight (shapes, colors), sounds, smell, taste, feel. Yes, even sounds and smells — what does the photo make you imagine? Really explore and write down everything you imagine without judgement.


**3) Extended version: Now, think of just one image or association you have with the photo. Write for 3-4 minutes just on that one image, exploring it even further!


4) Now look over your words and phrases. Circle the ones you really love, that are most vivid for you.


5) Make a 5-7 line poem with those words or phrases. Put them together in a way that feels good to you — they don’t have to all make sense or flow logically. The idea is to find interesting contrasts and associations between the images you created.


**6) Extended version: Edit your poem even more!

With a thesaurus, explore some of your word choices to see if you can find words that “fit” even better. For example: If you wrote “run’ in your original poem, type in “run” on thesaurus.com or other site.

Sit with, think about each option. Do you see how all these synonyms have slightly different meanings, or give different feelings (connotations)? Do you see how it would be different to say “race” vs. “jog”? Or “rush” vs. “fly”?

You can do this exercise with your own word choices. Maybe just try one or two for this poem. You can not only express yourself more precisely, you can also learn more vocabulary in the process.


I would love to see your poem if you do this prompt! Feel free to comment below or on Facebook.

This is just a small example of what I offer in one-on-one lessons or classes.

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More about this photo & prompt …

I personally find art very inspirational for my writing. (Writing in response to art is called ekphrasis — or ekphrastic poetry.) Often, when I see a painting or a photo like this one, I’m flooded with images, ideas — something is sparked.

Years ago, I saw this photograph at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and that kind of “flood” happened. I had been kind of bored that day and decided to take the afternoon for myself. I needed inspiration. So I went to the museum really to look and see what I found.

And there I was, with my notebook, standing in front of Arthur Leipzig’s painting, all these memories and associations coming to me. The photo felt like my grandfather. It felt like the story of a man I’d talked to a few years before and had been wanting to write about. He was a steel worker, and like other workers bound in by the salary, the healthcare, the union. He knew what he would be giving up to quit, and yet he knew he was breathing in these chemicals every day. Somehow, in my mind, his story and this photo connected.

Seeing the photo allowed me to write what I hadn’t been able to put into form. It drew out of me the words to set the story down — to put it into a bigger context — of all workers, of what it means to build bridges, to make anything, to be part of a moment of history.

Keep looking around until you find art that inspires you. There are many organizations who have made their collections open and online during the pandemic. I hope you find art that prompts your own words, or gives you something meaningful to write about in English.

Literature as Vision in “The Pedestrian”

In Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian, Leonard Mead is the last pedestrian in a city of millions in 2053 AD. He walks just to walk, to breathe fresh air, to see. He walks every night in the desolate streets while everyone else is inside watching “viewing screens. Leonard walks, “occasionally picking up a leaf as he passed, examining its skeletal pattern in the infrequent lamplights as he went on, smelling its rusty smell.”

I love this image of Leonard smelling a single leaf, himself the single lit soul remaining in a world made lifeless by screens.

Bradbury wrote the story in the early 1950s as the first TVs made their way into American homes; the story, therefore, projects 100 years into the future. In my lesson on the story, I talk about analyzing setting and character. The real conflict in this story derives from a character (Leonard) so at odds with his own society (2053 AD).

I give some guidance for developing statements of theme. The story brings up so many thematic questions: How does technology impact a society? What happens when an individual chooses to live differently from their society? What does it mean to live? What is necessary for human life? Bradbury’s poetic writing and his loving and tragic portrayal of Leonard, who loves nothing more than to walk and to breathe in the smell of a skeletal leaf, has imprinted in me. As many times as I read the story, I feel it again or I see something anew, every time I read it. I’m so grateful to Bradbury for writing it.

I suppose the story imprints its pattern upon me, or I feel this gratitude, because sometimes I, too, feel like Leonard Mead walking my solitary walk a bit at odds with any society I’ve lived in. I’m a poet, and I love nothing more than to write some words in a notebook which may never see a printing press. I’m a teacher of literature and love nothing more than to guide other people into a story or poem which I believe can change a life. Yet sometimes I still doubt the value of it all. I struggle to justify the hours spent on these most important tasks when there are bills to be paid and current events to act on, and when a day must be useful, productive. I get lost again in those loud cultural messages to do, to earn, to buy, to go, to produce.

So Bradbury, in writing this story years ago, connects to me here today. I read Leonard’s story. and I feel the solidarity and connection in living a bit at odds with my surroundings, in being a poet of words and of life. At one point in the story, Leonard is asked, “Do you have a profession?” And when he answers, “I’m a writer,” the character answers, “No profession.” He gets a similar quiet judgment when he says he’s not married. But Leonard smiles. He knows his own values. I can’t help but think Bradbury must have felt similarly to Leonard. I saw in an interview recently that Bradbury never owned a car or learned to drive. I imagine him walking just as Leonard walked, as people raced home to flick on the TV; I see him smiling a bit when people asked if he had a “real job.” He didn’t. And how valuable his work was.

This connection I feel through this story (and many, many others) Bradbury had the gall to set down on paper despite the demands of his society and of even well-intentioned voices urging him to be a bit more “normal,” is the kind of connection I hope to offer as a writer and a teacher. I can only hope that something I write, or a lesson I give, can continue that chain of support, of value for life and its questions. Even in my doubt, I trust the value of words and stories, and I want to give a bit of that faith to others — a middle school kid who has a story to write, a person in some faraway country who is learning language.

Literature offers vision. Bradbury sees trends in his own time, his own society, and projects 100 years into the future. Look what is happening now. What will the world look like if this continues? What could happen if … Sometimes we’re astonished when writers or thinkers are able to predict the future. How could they see, even then? We mistake this for magic. But the truth is, the seeds of what will be are already around us; most of the time we’re too wrapped up in the way we see now, our daily duties, or “real jobs” to see the patterns and possible trajectory. Stories allow a space for imagination and vision to be explored and seen. Oftentimes I think the tragedy of humanity is our failure to see clearly what is happening now, to accept the truth, and to act collectively. I feel pretty cynical about this most of the time, apart from great examples like Civil Rights movements in the US or South Africa. The ending of Bradbury’s story, you’ll see, is pretty cynical about what society does to visionaries, writers, thinkers. Or maybe it’s a warning, a reminder of the value of writers and of words. What gives me hope is the stories themselves that continue to be told. What would these movements be without Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eloquent words, the story he told to mobilize action? Stories can envision, articulate, connect us, and heal.


Visit ELLiterature home to find more lessons and offerings for literature lovers and English learners.

The Power of I, Too

Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” first of all, has all the qualities I look for in a poem for English learners. The vocabulary is not too challenging, though there are some interesting word choices to think about. The length is manageable for reading and discussion in the same sitting. In fact, instead of struggling with too many words — and too many new words — all at once, the English learner can take in the text of the poem and get to the deeper realm of discussion of history, of culture of life, of society, of humanity, which is actually much more challenging. Isn’t that kind of conversation why we’re here, why we’re learning langauge in the first place? To connect. To experience the world through a slightly different lens. To experience the world through another language and immerse in the culture it carries.

And this poem does carry so much history, culture, and meaning in its few words. I recently read that Julia Alvarez, herself a bicultural, bilingual person, read this poem when she was young. She had, with her family, escaped the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and landed in New York City an immigrant, “different.” As she read the poem in a school textbook, she realized that she, too, could make a life in this country and could be a writer. (Here is a lesson on her piece “Snow,” all about being an immigrant and loving language.)

I think about people right now, maybe you, who might be in the US in a similar situation and who will read this poem and think — yes — I, too. Maybe you’re in another country reading in English, and this poem can do for you what great literature does: gives a valuable glimpse into another culture and country without even getting on a plane. This poem asks: What does it mean to be an “American”? Who is included, and should be? What is the ideal vision of this country?

This question of who belongs can be found in every culture, every human group. So can writing, literature, art, which explores those essential questions. I think about Hughes writing this poem and Julia Alvarez reading it as a girl, and another student somewhere reading it now, I am, again, astonished at that cloth of connection through generations, at the power of literature, of poetry.

Why do poets write, and why do we read? I think, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, for love — of words or an idea or a phrase that goes out into the world to become “part of the human gain.” Poets write and artists create not to get much for themselves but to send something out, to add another strand to the tapestry. Poets speak — for themselves, for others. There is value in saying. There’s value in imagining. In this poem, there is the gain of solidarity in saying “I, Too,” and a declaration, a vision of a country of equality, of valuing every person at the table.

We may learn another language to get a better job or to communicate at the grocery store or bus stop. But why do we really learn language, beyond its utilitarian function? I think deep down our motivations are a lot more akin to poetry — to connect, to speak to other people we wouldn’t have been able to speak to, to more thoroughly know our world. So for me, reading literature to learn language isn’t a luxury or too academic or too difficult — it’s at the heart of why we speak and an insight into a language’s depths.

Read more and see the lesson on this poem here.

Thanks for reading!

This month, December 2020, on Instagram, I’m doing a series on the value of poets & poetry. I’ll share posts with poems about poetry and short video reading/discussion of the poems. Head on over & follow along!

Poetry & Protest

I have a new lesson up this week: William Stafford’s “At the Bomb Testing Site.” Just from reading the title, you can see that this poem points to protest, to pacifism.

But the poem is mysterious. It doens’t argue an outright position but shows us a tense lizard, gripping the ground. Our view pans out to a curving road, a vast continent, an “indifferent” sky. I’ve read this poem many times, and I still don’t quite know “what it means.” Clearly bombs are not “good.” This is not a case of “for” or against,” an opinion piece enumerating one side or the other. I’m not saying there’s not a place for that — there is! — but it’s not necessarily poetry’s place.

Poetry doesn’t divide into two sides. It’s not netural or indifferent, but it doesn’t put forth a soundbite message like propaganda. Poetry sees a multitude of sides and explores them, like holding up a prism and watching the everchanging colors and light reflect off a room, then another room, and another. Poetry looks for truth, which is sometimes complex and multifaceted, sometimes utterly simple.

I learned long ago that minds aren’t changed through theory, through abstract discussion of an issue. People shift and see things anew when they experience. You can debate for or against an environmental issue, but when you live by a forest cleared for a crop, the land going dry and mudslides down the mountainthat trees once held firm, or you live by a river where a company upstream dumps chemicals, you know the issue — and it becomes more than an issue.

Poetry and fiction create images, scenes, situations where we experience instead of only intellectualize. Poets aren’t saying, “Think this!” but “Look at this?” As a poet myself, I know that what inspires my poems is not so much wanting to say something but to look at something. That doesn’t mean I’m not bursting with anger at injustice; it means I really want to understand it, to show it. I desperately want to see, want people to see. For the reader and the writer poems are about experiencing and absorbing a little more of life than we’d experienced before; or seeing from another point of view; or examining something we’ve experienced a thousand times before and never really seen, now somehow fresh and different there on the page.

Or, poems ask questions. A great example is Langston Hughes’s “Harlem,” where the entire poem is made up of questions, beginning with, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The questions open a space for experience, for people — white society — to really consider: What is the pain, the cost of living in a society where people can’t pursue their dreams, a society which proclaims the pursuit of dreams? But it’s not indifferent or nice or banal. It’s last question is: Or does it explode? You can feel the anger, the frustration, the tragedy, the protest. The poem’s power is in its questioning and in every visceral image in which I feel just for a moment what “Harlem” feels.

In “At the Bomb Testing Site,” we see human action through this little anxious lizard, waiting for something to happen — unbeknownst to the lizard — a literal huge, destructive bomb to drop. We feel this potential loss of the smallest life, feel a disturbing anxiety about the potential we humans have for destruction, and see the vast time of the Earth, of stone, in which we ourselves are so small. We become small like the lizard.

The poem isn’t a protest poem in that it gives us a catchy take-away like a slogan. It asks us to see for a moment from this small little life, see that we are small little lives, asks us to step outside of what we “believe” or what we might be yelling at a rally and sit for a minute at this place of almost-destruction, to live for a minute in feeling that awful potential and also our own smallness. “Ready for change,” like the lizard, I can feel the potential of this societal decision — either change toward destruction or change toward — peace? Toward making different decisions as a society? And so much more it’s hard to articulate.

That’s the beauy of this poem — that I can’t quite say it, and I don’t have to. I live the scene each time I read it, and it somehow changes me, now that I’ve experienced it. When I teach poetry, I try to remember this, and I try to model not “This is the answer!” but “What do you see right now? … And now? How else could we see it?” I love teaching this poem especially to English learners because it’s such a great example of how you can access the same challenging questions about life even through the simplest vocabulary. If you know enough words to grasp the image of the scene, then you’re in the pool of experience, swimming around these deep questions about humanity that can’t be so easily articulated — in any language — or fully known or solved.


Thanks for reading! Again, here’s the full lesson.

And here’s a creative writing prompt based on “At The Bomb Testing Site.”

Visit ELLiterature to see more of my little project here.

And feel free to send me a message if you’d like to discuss how I can help in your literature or English learning journey!


The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down into someone else’s point of view. It differs drastically from a newspaper, which imparts information while allowing you to remain rooted in your own perspective. A newspaper could tell you that one hundred people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or Iraq, have died today. And you can think to yourself, “How very sad,” then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person rising from bed in the morning, watching the desert light on the tile of her doorway and on the curve of her daughter’s cheek. You would taste the person’s breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine.

Barbara Kingsolver, from High Tide in Tucson

How Studying Sound in Poetry Can Help Language Learning

I just wrote this lesson on Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” While I’m trying to include diverse, contemporary literature on my site (which helps make literature more accessible, especially for language learners), this poem is just so beautiful, so I had to include it.

And as I started to write, I found myself pulled to making a whole section about analyzing the most un-contemporary quality of this poem: its meter and rhyme scheme. Most poets today don’t write in form. And analyzing these elements is exactly the sort of thing that makes students fall asleep, that seemingly takes the joy out of poetry in school. That’s what I want to avoid here! So why do this analysis?

Of course we can read the poem and enjoy it without thinking about its meter. But I suppose it’s like any literary device that we stop and take time to notice: a certain amount of analysis, of understanding what the poet is doing, or how the poem works, can add to our appreciation of it. When you understand the tools and possibilities of poetry, you understand and appreciate its artistry. You notice things that add to your enjoyment.

Even more important for the langauge learner, you can focus in on elements of language — sound and rhyme and rhythm — that add to your knowledge and appreciation of English. Like painters who revel in the color and texture and smell of paint (this is a reference to Annie Dillard, by the way), poets revel in words, in language and how it works. As a poet myself, I always love meeting students who are learning English and who have discovered that joy, seem fascinated by the sound of words, how they can rhyme, how one word can resonate with many shades of meaning.

So in “Stopping by Woods,” analyzing the rhyme scheme can make you more aware as you read, as your ear tunes to the rhyming sounds in English. While imagining the scene of the poem, you’ll feel the beats, the syllables, and you’ll hear the rhythm of this particular combination of English words. You’ll start to feel how that music actually helps you “see” the images. As you listen and feel the langauge, your ear absorbs subtleties you might not even be conscious of, like our brains are made to learn language as children. You practice listening closely — to the workings of the language itself — rather than just grasping for the literal meaning and analyzing it rationally, as you would in everyday communication.

Ready to dive in? Read more of the lesson here!

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“Eating Together” by Li-Young Lee

Go straight to the complete lesson here!

And see a creative writing prompt based on this poem here.

To me, Li-Young Lee writes some of the most complex and layered and beautiful poetry I know. Yes, his work can be difficult for even the native English speaker with a big vocabulary and with lots of poetry reading experience.

But at the same time, he relies so much on memorable images that langauge learners can quickly surpass the langauge on the page and access the visual, tactile, sensory world the language only points to. And isn’t that the beauty of poetry, the reason to read a poem?

That characteristic of poetry — relying on the image and the symbol more than literal language — makes it a form especially rich and rewarding for those learning English. If we can make it past those initial black and white letters on the page, we can see and hear and taste the meaning, particularly with a poet like Li-Young Lee.

And in “Eating Together,” we see also how the simplest language, the first words you might learn in the language — “brothers, sister, my mother” –become so important. This is another advantage for the language learner: if you know even these basic words you can read this poem — and feel how just by saying their names he honors them. In a beginning English textbook, these words might seem so elementary. But here, in this poem, these most basic English words are carefully, intentionally used in a way that creates a feeling of honor and love.

In poetry, simple language does not mean a lack of meaning. Because in poetry, the way a word is used, its position on the line, the amount of space devoted to a subject, the sound of the words themselves, all contributes to the meaning. These poetic signals are like having conversational cues in addition to the literal words being said — and with these cues people learning a language have much more help in understanding the exchange.

Here’s an excerpt from my lesson on the power of naming and the importance of these poetic signals:

Poets often do this listing or naming in poetry to honor things, to acknowledge their presence — even things that seem commonplace, that we see every day. Think about how many objects or people you see everyday without really seeing them. Somehow when poets write things into poetry, give them that attention — like placing “brothers, sister, mother, together on that one line — it honors them.

(Walt Whitman, one of poetry’s most famous “namers,” wrote many poems simply listing the people he would see on the street in this country, and somehow bringing them all together in a poem brought them together even if they didn’t notice each other or feel connected in everyday life.)

So Lee, here, devotes half of this poem to naming the food, the people together at the table — a way to give honor and appreciation for their presence, for the moment of gathering.

Read more


After you read the lesson, see a creative writing prompt based on Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Together”!

And see more lessons on ELLiterature.

Visit ELLiterature homepage.

Tending to Raw Spots

I was talking to a student the other day who said she relies on visual art because she feels like a weak writer. But she knows the audience needs words, or that her art would be stronger with solid writing. So by seeking out teaching, she’s inviting growth. She’s willfully beginning a process, she knows will be challenging.

I admire that willingness: to ask for help, to invest in learning, to begin a process that you know will challenge and push and frustrate you.

I know that growth begins with the small, delicate things. Seeds, eggs, sprouts, baby creatures learning to scoot then crawl then walk. Growth begins in things that are unripe, raw, just emerged. Growth is inevitable. Yet it is so difficult, espeically as adult people, to even become aware of, to admit (both: to say out loud and to allow) the vulnerable places in ourselves.

Logicially, I know that people who do things really well are constantly learning. A friend who speaks another language almost to native proficiency for years carried around a dictionary to constantly study words and pronunciations, look up synonyms. A master teacher I admire is constantly attending workshops, trying new teaching methods, exploring new lessons to bring into the classroom, and refines her approach after each class. People who embrace growth are willing to say, “I don’t know; let me look it up,” and so they become masterful in thousands of small, willful actions.

On the other hand, many people who avoid learning, who don’t want to admit they don’t know how to pronounce x word, don’t ever grow, won’t ever learn to pronounce it. And so they remain stagnant. Instead of seeking growth, we often defend our delicate spots and become fearfully protective of them instead of opening them to the fresh air of exploration and tending, like letting a wound breathe.

So I, as a poet ever-interested in language, was looking for a word to describe these places in ourselves that feel so vulnerable, and settled on “raw.” Why raw?

source: Dictionary.com

This is why I love language. I was trying to find a word: weak, vulnerable, sensitive, undeveloped, unripe. None of these seemed exactly right. I wanted a word that meant both unfinished and sensitive, almost painful. I was picturing a soft spot on fruit, a bruise or small cut on an arm that keeps getting prodded.

Life does that, right? It keeps prodding us, poking those weak places, those vulnerabilities, until we notice and tend to them. It prods until we stop pushing up our hands in defense and begin the process of healing and new growth. We might call these “weaknesses,” but they’re weak only because they haven’t been through “processes of … finishing, refining.” They’re painfully open and exposed, just asking to be addressed. They’re unprocessed, unevaluated, inexperienced, untrained — which means they can be, they’re waiting to be processed, evaluated, experienced, and trained.

And these untrained, undeveloped parts of us are “grossly frank.” They’re painful, calling our attention, and we must be grossly honest to acknowledge them. Kids are so brutally honest in that way. They haven’t learned the adult, socialized way of polite white lies or ignoring what should politely be ignored. They stare at people and speak up and comment on whatever is happening. If these raw parts of ourselves are like small children ready to grow and experience, they can serve us in the same way — by forcing us to be brutally honest with ourselves about who we are, where we are, who we’d like to be, what we’d like to be able to do. Raw in one sense means unadorned, uncovered by our usual ways of performing our competence. Raw is brutally, honestly, saying “I don’t know.”

And children are also usually unabashedly curious and courageous in learning; they fall and stumble and recover quickly. They poke around and get excited, like my friend learning language, my friend thinking of new ideas for her classroom. Maybe we develop more fear as adults in exposing ourselves to falls and wounds. There’s a courageousness, a verve in children learning to ride a bike or take on a new skill. There usually isn’t shame in not knowing — but joy in gaining something new, gaining a new ability, being enabled to do new things.

Learning is difficult. It’s challenging. It’s uncomfortable. To begin, first we have to admit to “I don’t know” or “I need guidance.” But that utterance frees so much new potential. In the pain and sensitivity in those tender spots, the not-yet-developed state, there’s this excitement of what will be. When we begin to feel that “click” or resonance of new knowledge, seeing in a new way, how good that process of work and becoming feels, even when it’s a struggle. We can hide in defensiveness and protection, or we can open up those raw spots to air and move forward, imagining the small seedling one day bloomed.


See more about my work with learning: language, literature, mindfulness.

Langston Hughes: Dream Theme and Variations

I’m excited about my first book club session live on Instagram on a poem I’ve mentioned here before: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. I demonstrated the activity and some of the key ideas from my lesson on the poem here. (And of course I’d love for you to follow the book club if you’d like!)

There’s a reason I chose to think about Langston Hughes this month, or rather why his poems just won’t leave me.

Let me try to explain — through looking a bit closer at his poems!

Hughes published a whole series of poems on dreams, where the “dream deferred” line comes up again and again, like a thread through the poems.

Here is the first stanza of “Dream Boogie“:


Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?


Hughes brings up that theme — dream deferred — again like a musical theme. His musical intention is reflected in titles like “Dream Boogie” and “Dream Variations.” The idea of dreams weaves through the poems like theme and variations in music: the main line, the variations in melody and harmony, the eventual bringing together of the theme, now layered with all its strands.

And “Dream Boogie” reflects another one of Hughes’s projects: to capture the life and sound of “his people,” as he says in one of his autobiographies I Wonder as I Wander. We can see this in the language, which sounds like the music streaming out of a club in Harlem.

But what happens in the poem? We hear (We’re even told to “Listen closely –“) the rhythm of the music in this poem, and then there’s a shift, or several shifts as the poem breaks up with dashes, lines, italics, pieces of lyric:


Listen closely:
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—

You think
            It’s a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
something underneath
like a—

What did I say?

Sure,
I’m happy!
Take it away!

Hey, pop!
            Re-bop!
            Mop!

            Y-e-a-h!


“Is it a happy beat? … Sure, I’m happy.” There’s almost this address to the reader, an imagined conversation with the performer, emphasis on “performer. It’s obviously not a happy beat that he goes on performing. The upbeat “boogie,” covers the reality. Or actually, the performer doesn’t even think about how he actually feels, doesn’t have a chance to reflect on the reality because the music interrupts the speech, with dashes, with stanza breaks, even the question, “What did I say?” He just goes on performing, and the lyrics get more sound-based and non-logical. “Re-bop,” “Mop,” as if to say, forget it. I can’t hear you anyway — or you can’t really hear me …

Read “Dream Variations” to compare, to add another layer to our exploration of the dream theme. What comes through for you in this poem?

I see a range of feelings in “Harlem” of the dream deferred — drying up, festering, rotting, pretending to be OK, deep sadness and depression, the threat of explosion of anger and frustration. In “Dream Boogie” there’s a tragedy of not even acknowledging or being able to ask the question about a dream, or the pursuit of happiness, but going along playing this “happy beat.” But in “Dream Variations,” the dream is more overtly expressed: It’s simply “to fling my arms wide.” Just that. Freedom.

Through all these variations, there’s also a pride in “his people.” “Night coming tenderly / Black like me,” pride in the langauge and sound of people he highlights in the poems — the musicians, the everyday working people. There is something powerful about a poet who can articulate an experience, who can give reality to an experience usually not put down in literature. Here, on the page, is the sound of his neighborhood. Espeically in “Dream Variations,” there is beauty.

And this is why I can’t let go of Langston Hughes’s poetry, or why his poetry won’t leave me these days. He speaks — often very simply and bluntly — truth about the Black experience, about a country where people have to defer their dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or never acknowledge them. In a poem I’ll address later in the book club, he says, “America was never America to me.”

The power of poetry lies in saying it on the page, bringing forth truths too long ignored. Through capturing the voice of people, the music, the complexity of feelings, the limitations of dreams and freedom and happiness, Hughes makes it hard to turn away — but if we do, we still hear the melody, the musical phrases, the sound of these voices now echoing through us.

How Poetry Can Heal Language Learning Anxiety

A student recently reminded me of something unique about poetry. We were reading a poem out loud, and her first observation was, “You read that much more slowly than I did.” She explained that when she speaks or reads in English, she feels pressure to be “fast,” to not make any mistakes, to pronounce everything “correctly.”

Her observation reminded me of my own language learning anxiety. When I speak Spanish, sometimes I can feel my whole body tensing up with that fear of not being able to understand, or speaking too slowly, or making mistakes and “sounding stupid.” Sometimes I become so self-conscious that I make even more mistakes, constantly correcting myself as I’m speaking. Fue, no fui, a la, no, a el, supermercado. A simple sentence can turn into a stuttering mess — on top of my frenetic, hurrying energy, imagining an impatient listener.

Yes, I admit to this constant anxiety, even as I reassure English students that native speakers of any language make “mistakes” all the time, or that communication is about so much more than just the words you’re using, or that the listener isn’t thinking about your grammar; they just want to understand what you’re expressing. I know all this, and yet the anxiety of speaking in a non-native langauge is real.

Some people find poetry intimidating. And yet, poetry is supposed to be slow and savored. That quality alone can make reading poetry a welcome respite for the English leaner. Unlike the point-A-to-point-B goal of everyday conversation that is supposed to rattle on quickly, in poetry every word counts, is chosen carefully. Poets can spend years working on one poem, playing with words until it sounds right. So as readers, when we read slowly, we honor and appreciate that work. We take time to sense the meaning that lies under the words, like taking in music. We can pronounce slowly, even play with pronunciation, take time to decipher a new word, linger on each line, each space or pause on the page. We can read several times and take in a little more understanding each time, not pressured to “get it” all on the first read-through.

Poetry slows us down, in the midst of a fast-moving, impatient daily life, daily interaction. What a relief for those of us immersed in foreign sounds everyday, challenged with the pressure of a still uncertain language every time we go to the supermarket or say hello on the street. A relief, too, for those committed learners battling with grammar textbooks, with getting it “right.” The pleasure of curling up with a short poem with only the goal to listen and appreciate and soak in language, to love language, is a welcome balm.


Here are a few suggestions of poems to savor today. Look for lessons on these soon.


For more on how to read poetry and savor it, check out my course “How to Read Poetry With Your Whole Self.”

For poetry, literature, creative writing help in English, contact me about tutoring.

If you’d like to join others reading poetry around the world, follow the Global English Book Club on Instagram.