The Words Inside Me: Learning to Express Myself through Words

byDesiree Denny

Content I

My task this year is to guide my Kindergarten English Learners (EL Students) to find their voices within themselves, to express themselves freely and to reclassify into the General Education Population. I chose to use ekphrastic poetry to support and guide my students, to build their confidence and ensure they are efficiently equipped to voice their thoughts. Using texts of a foreign language (English), my students will be able to easily pick up the vocabulary through mini-lessons in order to practice the tasks of verbal exchange. Being part of a culture that does not voice their thoughts without first approaching what they want to say with a holistic approach, my students will need routine modeling. Another reason to use poems connected with pictures in my unit is to indicate to my students that their thought process is a very important part of the writing process. As you may already know, English Learners usually are reluctant to share within their classroom environments because the sentence structure in English is the reverse of what it is in Navajo. The sentences that are created in the Navajo mindset become jumbled when the words are translated into English. The possessive pronouns of Navajo are always prefixed to the noun: for example, shima, nima, bima and nihima; it is never just -ma. The structure of the Navajo verb has similar characteristics, but is more complex. The subject of the sentence is always incorporated in the verb with a pronominal form, and other verbal elements. Ideas of time and mode are likewise incorporated in the verb, and auxiliary verbs such as will, did, have, might, etc. do not occur in Navajo. The ideas conveyed by these independent words in English are expressed by different forms of the verb itself in Navajo. The sentence structure looks like this in English: SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT; and Navajo sentence structure look like this: SUBJECT-OBJECT-VERB.

In a safe environment, students will learn to speak freely as they acquire English language skills and move up into the upper grade levels.  

My School

I will be working with students who have very little exposure to the English Language and are still developing their vocabulary. Most of the students have attended a Bilingual Head-start Program here on the vast Navajo Nation. Although they are attending school they are being taught using the Navajo language and very little in English, so most often their English is very limited and they usually speak it with major grammatical errors. The majority of my students will be coming to school from more rural areas. They will be coming from farmlands and traveling for more than an hour on the school transportation. There are two sets of buses that transport the students into our school campus. Some students board the bus as early as five o’clock in the morning and get home as late as six o’clock in the evening. The surrounding communities stretch out in all directions for about fifty miles from the school campus. The Kindergarten class size varies every year. Students who enroll into our school systems are given a PHOLE Form to verify what language is most spoken within the household. If the PHOLE chart shows that the Navajo language is spoken in the household the child is given the AZELLA placement test. Depending on how well the student preforms they are placed into either the EL Class or the General Education Population. When they are classified as [] EL student[s] the goal for the student and teacher from then on is to get the student to reclassify into the general education population. As they move forward these students will be monitored for two school years to ensure the success of the transition. These Navajo traditional students will have a different way of learning from the more urban students. They follow the four-step Traditional Ways of Learning. Nitsahakees: the process of thinking and conceptualizing. Nahat’a: the process of planning inquiring, investigating, and experimenting. Iina: the process of applied learning, accomplishing, producing, performing, and publishing. Sihasin: the process of making critical affirmative action in thinking, planning, learning, thus becoming experienced, expert, and confident to adapt. My EL students will be very visual and holistic. Therefore, I strongly believe that using poems that involve pictures in my class will help students relate a work of art and a poem that accompanies it to their own lives so that the words of the poem have significatnt meaning. Having vivid illustrations would also provide my students with a better understanding of the words in the poems. Agt their very young age they will need more visual aids to guide their thought process. Having conveyed the significance of these words, passages or poems would then allow my students to turn to themselves and express their feelings through a verbal form. I would guide my students and show them how to identify the objects that bring meaning to the text and lead the reader to better understand the train of thought of the writer. My plan is to use one poem a week for my students to analyze, creating a recurrent routine of self-expression.  When the students are ready for the challenge the texts would become more frequent. I would like to have my students have an open discussion among themselves and complete a compare and contrast graphic organizer poster to share with their peers. At this time I would start introducing art work by either physically having it displayed in the classroom, beaming it in via internet or through pictures on a PowerPoint presentation. Because they are located in a rural area, having the art work from the outside “world” would show my students that the world is bigger than they think and is not scary to explore through writing and art. I would start my unit by using Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes. Most editions of these nursery rhymes have terrific graphics that children can relate to their everyday lives, memorable images that stay in the mind. I choose to start with nursery rhymes also because these are verses my students would be exposed to in their homes or in an Early Head-start classroom. I strongly believe that using fun, fanciful poems that pair with imagery with the same elements would capture the imaginations of my students. I would like to implant “easy reading and easy writing” of poetry so in the future my students will be able to express themselves in their own writing, with little hardship and without concern about what others think of how they think.

Ekphrastic Poetry

Ekphrastic poems are usually written from a poet’s perspective while viewing art work. The visual object could be presented in a three dimensional (sculptural or ceramic) form, as for instance in Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. Keats wrote the five stanzas of ten lines each, inventing a vase after having seen a collection of them. In a culture like ours that has beautiful objects of cultural significance that can be brought into the classroom, it is good to know that from poet’s point of view the object can be small enough to fit in the palm of a child’s hand or as huge as a building.

While reading any poem the reader must be aware of the poet’s culture and historical period. Most poets write what they feel about what is happening to and around them in a certain moment of time. Like the art work being viewed in ekphrasis, the poem freezes time briefly before leading you through time either forward to the present or keeping you dwelling in the past. The poet’s vocabulary, which may be unfamiliar, the reader must pay attention to. For my students there are terms in the Mother Goose poems that will be strange to them but exciting for them to learn. Ekphrastic poets also respond to color tones to set the mood of their poems.

The poets also have a deep understanding of the art work they are writing about. The poet makes you observe the art work with more focus and is able to transport you to the past. My students’ reading comprehension skill will still be very low so bringing in actual ekphrastic poems would be too much of a challenge. That is why I have chosen Mother Goose poems. When I present the work of art that goes with the poems I want my students to be able to express what they see. I want them to tell me what they think is happening in the picture and to use that information to draw conclusions. I would have to explain why visual accompniment to a poem is helpful, and how we are taking advange of poems that are illustrated to get ready for the the writing they are expected to do. I would explain that (in the case of ekphrasis, which we are not starting with) the poems are from the point of view of the poet looking at the artwork and that the poet is describing what’s happening in the artwork. At some point I would show some pictures and read [aloud] the ekphrastic poems that go with them via the internet.  The poems I would like to focus on, though, are Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.

There is another element I would practice with my student[s:] to identify rhyming words within the poems. Being able to identify rhyming words and use word families could also help students to create their own lines for their poems. Using word families would also increase vocabulary.


My classroom has the typical equipment every class would have. A chalkboard and dry erase board with circular tables which seat four students. The new addition is a Smart Screen TV. A smart TV, sometimes referred to as connected TV or hybrid TV, is a television set with integrated Internet and interactive "Web 2.0" features. Smart TV is a technological convergence between computers and flat-screen television sets and set-top boxes. This TV is able to connect to the internet in order to allow all the students to focus on one screen. This technology benefits the teacher when leading the classes with visual aids and guiding students through lessons. It will help with my unit. The Smart Screen TV is necessary because personal laptops are in short supply. The school district internet usage policy imposes a block on the website I have found that provides images and poems, but I will have requested that the Superintendent of Schools or the Associate Superintendent of Educational Services allow my teacher computer to link onto the following web page: . The website is which has more pictures if you need to adjust the images to fit your class maturity. My classroom is also equipped with a projector that can be connected to my laptop to show PowerPoint Presentations. I would have to create a slide show while utilizing an unblocked wireless internet connection.

Mother Goose

Mother Goose is a fictional character who emerged from a poem written by unknown authors. The poets who created Mother Goose then created musical lyrics or patterned word sounds for children to memorize more easily. Children recited these poems to practice pronouncing certain problematic phonemic sounds and blends. Some of the verses also concerned events or tasks that people passed down orally. At the time not everyone was able to write so oral stories were told in hopes that the generations to come would have a sense of the past. Just as the telephone game is played with a group of children somewhere along the line and the words start out differently because they have been forgotten, or replaced for lack of phonemic skills, the poems we have today are not in their original state. Originally the poems I have chosen were written with different words. Over the generations and the different cultures sharing them [with] their young ones the words have changed to accommodate more modern references and situations. I have chosen to use more modern versions since my students are just now learning English.  To have several variants would cause confusion.

Shonto Begay

There are many artists born and raised on the Navajo Reservation whom I would like to introduce to my students. These artists know the lives of my students because they came from similar homes and family teachings. The artist that is nearest to my school is named Shonto Begay. Born near Shonto, Arizona, to a Navajo medicine man and rug weaver, storyteller and artist Shonto Begay draws on his Navajo background to write and illustrate books for children and adults. He earned an AFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and a BFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts. Begay is the author of The Mud Pony (1988), winner of the Owl Award for Illustration; Ma’ii and Cousin Horned Toad (1991); and Navajo: Visions and Voices Across the Mesa (1995). He illustrated The Magic of Spider Woman (1996), among others. He has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Canyon Road Arts, Western Art Collector, Warrior’s Voice, and Arizona Daily Sun, and his art has been exhibited in solo shows across the country, including the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and the American Indian Contemporary Arts Museum. (The painting that I am showing to my students is the one where the grandmother is herding sheep into a canyon. The painting appears to show a scene as it would look like during the Livestock Reduction the Navajo experienced. “The Federal Government came to Navajo homesteads on the Navajo Reservations and ordered the families to get rid of more than half of their herds due to over grazing lands. When grandmothers heard the soldiers were coming closer to their homes they would chase their flocks into the canyons to hide and save them. Some ladies did not have family who were younger to help so they had to push themselves to the limits mentally and physically just to keep their precious sheep and goats, their way of lives were literally on the line.” (Gladys Denny). The painting will appear to be entertaining through the eyes of my students because they will be able to picture and describe their grandmothers running through the riverbeds after a light summer storm. The painting is located at the following web address The painting is named “ Between Sanctuaries”.

Content II

The unit I am preparing for is targeting my Kindergarten students. Having poetry presented at a young age would benefit my students by allowing them to build trust in themselves and gain strength to express their thoughts and feelings. This will enable them to become aware of their self-identity. Having to identify elements in a picture will allow my students to learn and use new vocabulary. They will begin to appreciate the expressions in English coming from their peers, becoming comfortable enough to share their own thoughts without fear of bullying. Because of their short attention span there would be a few mini lessons to get through over the span of 4 to 6 weeks. The lessons in the unit would have to be brought into the classroom because our school is located in a rural area of the Navajo Reservation. Technology plays a huge factor in my lesson. Having a smart board which connects to the internet would be the ideal way to bring the pictures into the classroom. I would also use a Grammar Wall for better understanding of sentence structures. As I have said, my classroom is equipped with a Smart Screen TV so I will be able to pull up the poems and the images for the students to view as a group.

The Navajo (Dine) Tribe value their livestock so I would feature animals they consider to have significant value. These animals are sheep, horses, cattle, and birds. The sheep, for instance, are valued at the top of the list. The Navajo interact with this animal in their everyday lives. Chores for young Navajo children include feeding, watering and herding them. I have heard many elders state that the young lambs and kids grow with their children so the bond is ever lasting. Growing up in this environment challenges the child to become responsible and become aware of their surroundings. Their thought process is then tuned to function in a holistic manner. The Navajo use the meat of the sheep and goats to feed family members during gatherings which include traditional ceremonies big and small. The meat is the feature that pulls them together.

There are other uses for the sheep, the wool is also used to make the traditional clothing and for weaving rugs. Once the wool is sheared it goes through a process that includes cleaning, stripping, rolling and, if needed, dyeing. This last, most fastidious task takes several days and a tremendous amount of patience which results in the fine lines of the Navajo Rug Weaving projects. For this reason I have chosen Baa, Baa, Black Sheep from Mother Goose. Visually my students will see the black sheep and realize that they also have sheep to shear for income, as little as it may be nowadays but still a task that needs to be done. As we go through the poem discovering the sentences vocabulary words will accumulate. For instance, master and dame are both words my students may not have heard before. Also needing to be explained is the word lane because my student’s family groups do not live close enough together to have roads or streets. There usually is one dirt road, a bus route, which family households branch off, and which leads up to a group of houses clustered together. Not having black wool readily available I would have the students simply color white cotton balls to use in their art work. As an end project my students would produce a small 3-D picture they could refer back to when they retell the poem.

The next poem I would introduce to my students is Little Bo-Peep. When Little Bo-peep loses her sheep, the poem will affect my students powerfully because it is a misfortune all Navajo children have experienced once or twice in their lives, no matter if they are just visiting the family sheep camp or actually living on the farm. The Navajo students know that they would be in terrible trouble and would go out to look for the flock on their own. However, the poem, especially its illustration in some editions, suggests that young ladies should not wonder off on their own because of all the danger lurking. The best thing to do is go home and wait for them to come home on their own, which domesticated animals do. Little Bo-Peep is wandering into the wilderness, clearly a place where she should not be.

Another poem I have in mind is Mary Had a Little Lamb. Of course the most difficult part of discussing this poem it to break the habit of singing it without thinking about it. This poem would appeal to my students at a more personal level. Tending to lambs and kids usually starts when a Navajo Child able to walk without assistance. The child would be given a lamb or a kid to help the child show compassion and responsibility, just like a getting a puppy or kitten. When children own up to their accountability they grow a special bond which enforces their traditional values. In my opinion, my students would find the poem rather humorous because they would have had the same idea of bringing their lamb or kid to school. The picture they draw might show an old school house with an open field, no busses, no wire fences, and small classes.

An additional poem I would use in my classroom is Little Boy Blue. I feel my students could compare and contrast the words with their own experiences. The poem talks about the life of a farmer and some of the responsibilities children have while raised on a farm. Some of these chores are usually assigned to older children; however the younger siblings would be told to “help” or in other words watch and learn. Having siblings tag along usually leads to playing under a shaded area or along a dirt trail. The compare and contrast part would be on the falling asleep and losing track of time playing. One illustration shows a little boy slumped over fast asleep and the other people looking out onto the fields. The flock is in the center background and the farmhouse behind close to the haystack fields.

To end on a fanciful note, Hey, diddle, diddle would be the last poem I would discuss with my students. Now up to now the focus was on the animal in the poems. In this poem, the characters, still animals, participate in some amazing events. The Navajo also have some short stories where animals are unlike themselves and do things that human do. These are traditional stories about the Coyote and are shared with family members during the winter months. They are passed down from generation to generation orally and usually at night in a dimly lit room. The lighting creates a small circle so the storyteller and listeners enter a bubble. The darkness around them permits the subconscious to provide images as the storyteller unfolds the magical feats of the Coyote. In these Coyote Stories the animals tend to remind the reader of certain family members or community members whom they interact with because of the characteristics the Coyote portrays. As these stories are told, the listener hears the situations the Coyote gets himself into and how he wriggles through to show the moral of the story. 

Teaching strategies

Set the mood

This unit would have to be started at the beginning of the school year. Each poem presented would take about 20 to 30 minutes to execute. I know that most of my students coming into my class have been singing nursery rhymes in their preschool and/or head-start programs so they might be somewhat familiar with the texts. Because it is an EL class the classroom is not allowed to speak, read or write in Navajo. However, in our school district we have inserted a fifteen minute slot for announcements from Capturing Kids Hearts. Having sheep as the hook for my unit I plan on opening my lessons with a song sung by Radmilla Cody who has translated some Nursery Rhymes into Navajo. She and her uncle Herman Cody have translated a number of Nursery Rhymes into the Navajo Language. She sings Bah, Bah, Black Sheep and Mary Had a Little Lamb on her Precious Friends album.

Listening and Speaking (EL)

The teaching strategy that I will use for my young students is to have them listen to the poems as I read them aloud. I will read to them in a whole group and repeat the reading several times. I will ask my students key details of the story to observe their comprehension of the words. My students then will be given a sheet of paper with the poem on the top half for a text reference and at the bottom half a space for the students to draw what they think the poem means to them. After my students have drawn their pictures we will use a grammar wall to categorize the parts of speech to ensure more understanding. While the words are being moved from the student worksheet to the grammar wall I will ask students to start collecting their thoughts and choose words we have already placed as a group or add more to the wall. From the reading the students will be listening for who the poem is about, when the poem was written and where the poem‘s setting is. The students will also gather key details about the characters to gain a better grasp of why the poem was written. The students would have to generate ideas through class discussion. They would gather ideas and draw pictures about the ideas they generated through the class discussion to find their own voice about the art they are discussing.


Vocabulary is a huge part of understanding poetry. The words used in the poems set the moods and tones of every thought that has been written down. The words chosen pull the reader into a dimension where they have a sense of getting into the thought process of the writer. Poetry which dates back more than a century would have terms my students would not have heard of in their everyday lives. After we go through the poems the vocabulary words would be identified as a class. I would then ask my students to listen to the words and try to visualize the poem using the definitions we came up with. Vocabulary words would be displayed across the board or by the doorway so my students could refer to them throughout the day.

Free Doodling

I would ask my students to draw a picture of what strikes them concerning the characters of the poems and settings, to give a better idea of what the poet was trying to create by using the vocabulary of the time. I would then ask several students to share their drawings and ideas of what they heard or thought of when they heard the poem being read. These doodles would also be used later in the unit to create a poem that goes with their writing.

“Doodling and scribbling are most often associated with young children and toddlers, because their lack of hand–eye coordination and lower mental development often make it very difficult for any young child to keep their coloring attempts within the line art of the subject.” (

“According to a study published in the scientific journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodling can aid a person's memory by expending just enough energy to keep one from daydreaming, which demands a lot of the brain's processing power, as well as from not paying attention” (

Different or the Same

After the students have completed their interpretation of the poems I would post them alongside each other so as a class we could discuss the differences and the similarities. We would discuss why a student drawings differ from each other. Student background information would be play a significant factor in creating diverse work of arts. The student who created the art work in question would then have the opportunity to inform the rest of the class why they decided to create what they did.

I would then assist my students with the sentences that they generated from the group discussions. We would then share our drawings with a partner to generate additional details if needed or make any corrections. When all steps have been accomplished the students then will be able to share their completed piece of writing by displaying it in the hall for the rest of their peers to see.

Lego Day

Lego Day is when students have the opportunity to manipulate word cards created by the teacher to arrange the words and phrases to recreate well-formed sentences in the English language. The students will use sentence formation clues to recreate their sentences by using capital letters and punctuation. The word cards are cut out and designed to resemble the large Lego blocks that the students play with. The cards would have to be laminated before writing the words on them so that they can be easily updated with each sentence generated. Color coding the Lego Word Cards for each child at each table and storing them in a Ziploc bag would help keep classroom management organized. Labeling these Ziploc bags with names and using them for other writing assignments would also create a routine for the students.

My Idea

To close out my unit I would gather all the writings and art work my students created to display, in order to show my students that everyone has their own thoughts and interpretations. The students should then be able to explain their thoughts and their reasons for the vocabulary they chose or what images stood out and made them feel a certain way. Having a gallery walk allows the students to actively discuss and engages the class to share or continue further to explain their choices. Together in small groups the students share ideas and respond to meaningful questions, documents, images, problem-solving situations or texts.

My voice

My main focus for this unit is to get my students in a safe environment so they feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts and express themselves clearly. Showing voice in writing is a very difficult task the Navajo students deal with every day at every grade level. Being able to retell a story or a poem is a task that should be introduced at the foundational levels. The student is expected to recall characters, setting, problems, and the resolution or the main ideas of the text. It involves saying what is important in the story without telling too much. Retelling helps readers recall what is happening in the story, develop a sense of story structure, and become more accurate in monitoring their understanding. Retelling verbally would allow my students to feel no pressure about getting all the grammar correct or limiting what they say to fit within the confinements of the handwriting grids. The students could share with their family what it was they read and share their own perspectives about what they saw while comparing a poem with the visual art it is connected to.

Classroom Activities

Speaking and Listening

The first classroom activity I would do with students is fill up the grammar wall with verbal suggestions. I would display a picture from the poems I have chosen for this unit. I would have the students look at the picture in silence for a few minutes (between 3 to 5 minutes). When the students are ready I would ask them to raise their hands and give me details about the picture: Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives about Season, Settings, etc. I would be writing these details on post-it tabs and placing them on the table or board, not on the grammar wall. I would allow 10 to 15 minutes for this activity. For example for the illustration to Baa Baa Baa Black Sheep that we have chosen, students would identify 3 black sheep, a little boy, a man, the sheep corral, setting the scene on a farm or sheep camp, in the mountains, during Spring or Summer time. The students could even identify with the little boy’s emotion about getting wool from the sheep, which they might own. The students might even go as far as envisioning a sheep auction instead of the country path setting the illustration shows.

Once the students have finished identifying the details and discussing what is happening in the picture, I would read the poem that goes with the picture. I would ask the students to listen for words they listed in response to the picture and also for words they think they did not list. This is where the English terms and phrases come into play and where they would increase their vocabulary. After reading the poem they would be asked detailing questions to confirm comprehension.

We would then start putting the words that students pulled from the poem on the grammar wall. Having the students join in and place words in the section where it belongs would help them understand the different Parts of Speech. I would allow for the students to compare their words and the words of Mother Goose.


Once the grammar wall is filled up I would inform the students that we will write a poem about the Baa, Baa Black Sheep illustration using our own words from the grammar wall. I would pull an article to start the sentence, then find a noun, then pull an adjective and link it with a verb to model how to build a simple sentence. I would write the words on poster board, modeling letter formation and spacing between the words to create a sentence. I would be dictating and pointing at the post-it word frames as I write the words to model how to build a sentence out of words from the grammar wall.  I would then have the students continue to finish up the poem, making sure all student contributed to the poem. I would pull names from a Popsicle stick can and set them aside. (We put their names on the Popsicle sticks to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak). At the beginning of the unit the student would need a lot of wait time to think about how they want to use the words on the grammar wall. Once a word is used I would reuse it; however once the students have learned to create sentences I would challenge them by not re-using the words.  When students have built a sentence, I would have them write their sentences in their own handwriting to display as a finished product. Because they are at the Kindergarten Level some students would need extra time to write their sentences, so this part of the exercise would vary with the students.


When the students are finished with their poems I would have them illustrate what they wrote. I would make sure the details of what they wrote are represented in their drawings. I would have to sit with a small group and work with one student and one sentence at a time until the details have filled their drawings. This is where the students would show their emotional connection with the poem and with the illustration that they have already seen.

To finish off the project, around the room I would display the student’s pictures with the poems they created as a class. When all the poems are completed and the students have had a chance to get their work completed I would arrange a gallery walk in my classroom and invite the parents/family to come and see what their child has accomplished.


My unit is guided by using [] Arizona’s English Language Arts Standards for the Kindergarten Classroom. I have created the unit classroom activities around the following standards.

Reading for Literature

The students need to understand the key ideas, characters, and setting to a poem. They need to be able to ask and answer questions about the poem, such as who, what, when, where, why and how. They need to retell key details from a poem. The students should be able to use phonics to write words and express thoughts and ideas in writing.

Writing Standards

The students should use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to craft texts with different purposes. The students should be able to generate ideas for writing from reading stories, poetry, and informational texts and should be able to write frequently used words.

Speaking and Listening Standards

Student should listen actively. They should be able to speak in complete sentences for effective communication. They should be able to share ideas with peers. They should be able to use common nouns and verbs


Arizona’s English Language Arts Standards


The scientific journal Applied Cognitive Psychology;

Shonto Begay- Navajo Artist

The painting is named “ Between Sanctuaries”.

Personal Interviews:

  1. Gladys Denny Navajo Medicine Woman

Poems displayed for Mother Goose:

  1. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep by Mother Goose
  2. Little Bo-Peep by Mother Goose
  3. Mary Had a Little Lamb by Mother Goose
  4. Little Boy Blue by Mother Goose

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