Scads of English teachers have shown the movie Dead Poets Society in class to either begin their poetry unit or to try and inspire an appreciation for poetry. I technically showed the movie to teach media messages as constructs, but residual poetry appreciation was always an added bonus and hope. 


But one year, when I was teaching in a border community outside of El Paso and we watched the movie, my students asked, “Sir, why are they so white?” They of course meant the skin tone of the actors playing students at an elite East Coast prep school, but in the years since, that question, for me, has come to be more about the poets than the actors. 


Those were my early days of teaching. In those days, I did what I knew to do. Taught what I knew to teach. Taught what I had always been taught: The Dead White Poets Society. 


We “gathered ye rosebuds while ye may,” “compared thee to a summer’s day,” and “went to the woods to live deliberately,” but we did not take the road less traveled. We journeyed down the road of what school has invested in as what constitutes poetry.


Sure, we did the bring-your-favorite-song-lyrics-as-poetry thing, but the spoken and unspoken truth of what real poetry is loomed heavy in our curriculum as a sentinel against connecting students’ real lives and experiences to the poetry we esteemed in class.


But in the years since, I have discovered poets like José Olivarez, who creates poetry that honors and imitates the lives and lived experiences of students who are too often marginalized. In his debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal, Olivarez dives into the push-pull struggle of life between Mexico and the United States. 


And we see this in the first stanza of the first poem in the collection, “(Citizen) (Illegal)”:


Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal)

have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).

is the baby more Mexican or American?

place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal).

if the mother holds the baby (citizen)

too long, does the baby become illegal? (3)


Citizen Illegal is packed with poems that are poignant, gritty, and light at the same time, and poems that will make some readers uncomfortable with the truth of reality and experience. And then there are titles in the collection like “The Voice in My Head Speaks English Now,” “I Tried to Be a Good Mexican Son,” “White Folks is Crazy,” and “Note Vaporub” that will ring in with an accent of resonance.


And for those students of mine in that small border town just outside of El Paso, Texas, my favorite José Olivarez poem may perfectly sum up what they wanted to express with that question from years ago: “I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At.”


Have students try writing their own identity-embracing poems by downloading the lesson below!


Michael M. Guevara, recipient of a 2019 Book Love Foundation Grant, spends his days advocating for choice reading and authentic literacy instruction. An Academic Trainer in a large urban high school in San Antonio, Texas, Michael works with teachers on improving their literacy instruction and uses choice reading to help students achieve academic success. A former K-12 ELAR coordinator, Michael has served as president of The Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts and an NCTE committee chair. He recently served on the Texas state standards revision committee that developed new literacy standards adopted by Texas in 2017. His workshops with teachers focus on mentor texts and authentic student writing from their choice reading. Michael is working on a professional development book for literacy educators and currently has agents reading the manuscript of his young adult novel The Closest Thing to a Normal Life.