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Global Connections at Smith MS Adapts to Virtual Format

For the first time in many years, students and staff at Smith Middle School (SMS) did not spend the weeks after winter break planning, organizing and creating the annual Global Connections celebration, usually scheduled for February. But with the generous support of the Public School Foundation and Bright Ideas,* a core group of staff developed an alternative vision, beginning with a kickoff Community Connections event on the evening of January 14, when students and staff participated in an interactive session with Guadalupe Garcia McCall, author of the novel-in-verse, “Under the Mesquite,” a SMS favorite.

Global Connections at SMS has provided a longstanding tradition with a single night event, celebrating the school’s diversity through activities, music, performances and food-- a tradition hardly adaptable to social distancing. The online program blended the presentation from author Garcia McCall with a slideshow of the schoolwide project, a series of “I Am” poems, written by students and staff. The integration of “Under the Mesquite” with the homegrown poetry project derived from the celebration of a coming of age novel in verse. SMS Media Specialist, Gabriel Grana, said the book is “about balancing your hopes and dreams with the curveballs life throws your way. Lupita (the narrator) is a character you'll be rooting for and sympathizing with and is sure to stay with you for a long time.”

During Garcia McCall’s presentation, she took a number of questions from viewers, who reflected a deep interest and affinity for the story and language of the memoir. She described the many challenges through the process of shaping her numerous poems, written alongside her students in class, into a prize-winning book. ““It was a 13 year journey, but it was worth every minute because it’s been read by so many people and beloved by so many people. I feel like I did the right thing by writing it. It required me to go into my heart and talk about things that felt very hard to talk about, and there were some tears I shed, when I was writing it. And I literally pulled my heart out and put it on that page but it was worth it.”

A teacher asked, “We have students who speak four or five languages, and I was wondering, as someone who is bilingual, how does it affect the way you write?”

Garcia McCall replied, “I think being bilingual has been a real benefit, I have two ways of telling the same story, and I can access them both and meld them together, and it can enrich the experience for the reader. Learn about other cultures and languages and immerse yourself in other worlds. You’re becoming stronger as a communicator, and being in the world is about communicating. To be bilingual is to double your bonus points in your game of life.”

One student asked the author what advice she gives aspiring writers. “Write everyday. A little sentence, a poem, a page, two pages. Write everyday,” Garcia McCall said. “If you write a page every day, at the end of a year, you have 365 pages. A lot of students tell me they have an idea, and I ask them, how much have you written, and they go, I don’t have time to write. Make the time, even if it’s just 20 minutes in the day, you have that.

And if you’re serious, writers write. So get to it.”

The project of writing “I Am” poems was meant to echo what Garcia McCall was able to achieve in her memoir. Grana said, “‘I Am’ poems were chosen because of the relatively easy-to-follow structure, while also allowing the flexibility to express significant aspects of one's identity through different poetic structures. The task, assigned through Advisory classes, was meant to highlight the voices of the entire Cyclone community, including students, teachers, and families. To that end, we'll continue to promote this in order to hear from even more of our community.”

“I Am” poems have become a familiar writing exercise in classrooms, because they can be written by young children and by adult poets, too, no matter the prior comfort with poetry. Grana said, “Our Adapted Curriculum class modified the structure of the poems to meet the needs of their students, too, so that we could hear from a wide swath of our population.” Students in Robin McMahon’s French classes wrote “I Am” poems in that language, and some students wrote theirs in Spanish.

Adapted Curriculum Teacher, Gina Chapman, said, “My students need a lot of structure and support, especially with open-ended questions such as those in the ‘I Am’ poem prompts. We simply gave them ‘errorless’ picture choices for each line of the poem to get started, and they took it from there.”

Like Lupita, the protagonist of "Under the Mesquite," the students used their “I Am” poems to relay the truths of their own lives. Just like Lupita used her theatre performances to explore her own identity, the students use the “I am” perspective to reflect on how they are perceived in the world. Many readers will find the students' poems are bold, brave and honest. 

* The virtual visit from Garcia McCall was supported by grants from the Public School Foundation and Bright Ideas, as well as Donors Choose and the SMS PTSA.