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Poetry: A Tool for Literacy & National Identity in Nicaragua

Research Team

Philpott-Perez Endowment Funds Faculty-Student Research Award

Funded by Sharon Philpott '85, the Philpott-Perez Award was inspired by her volunteer work in after-school and food programs for disadvantaged children in Argentina. Marta Perez was Philpott’s friend and Spanish tutor in Argentina.

Established in late 2010, the endowment supports faculty-student research in Hispanic Studies within the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, helping address the expenses related to research initiatives such as collaborative projects, work-study stipends, summer scholarships, travel and lectures.

Hispanic Studies major John Pence '12 was the inaugural recipient of the award.

Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Jonathan Arries

Nicaragua is often thought of as “a nation of poets.” National poets such as Rubén Darío and Ernesto Cardenal have made significant contributions to world literature. Less known but also significant is the transformative role poetry has played in educating Nicaraguan youth in resource-scarce schools and in adult education.

With support from the Philpott-Perez Endowment (see box), Hispanic Studies major John Pence '12  was able to join Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Jonathan Arries on a research trip to Nicaragua for three weeks in summer 2011 to explore the educational role of poetry and to provide English-language instruction in an under-resourced elementary school in Managua. The “Poets and Pedagogy” project combined service-learning, community-based research, and interviews with leading poets and social activists.

“We wanted to investigate the use of poetry as a tool for critical literacy in Nicaragua,” says Arries. Critical literacy encourages learners to adopt a “critical” and questioning perspective toward the texts they read. “We anticipated our findings would deepen our understanding of the history and literature of Nicaragua, topics that are often a component in Introduction to Hispanic Studies, a required course for Hispanic Studies majors.”

Understanding the influence of poetry in Nicaragua requires a look back at the nation’s recent history.

People living in rural areas of Nicaragua had long been kept illiterate as de facto policy by the Somoza family dynasty prior to a revolution in 1979. In 1980, four months after the overthrow of the dictatorship, the new government organized the Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign which was directed by Rev. Fernando Cardenal, brother of the famous poet. Nearly 60,000 youths (high school and college age) and 30,000 adults were trained and sent to rural areas to teach literacy as part of a five-month national campaign.  At that time poetry workshops played a role in the national reconstruction and offered citizens an unprecedented means of expression denied to them during more than 40 years of the dictatorship. The national emphasis on poetry continues today.

The project team with students at the Partner School in Barrio Camilo Ortega: Prof Arries; Nathan Arries; Prof Lauren Jones; John Pence“In a country were even the most basic school supplies can be extremely scarce, Nicaraguan children are being taught to memorize and recite certain nationally important poems as a way of learning about their country’s history,” says Arries. 

As part of the three-week trip, senior John Pence assisted with Arries’ research project and worked with children and teachers at Escuela La Hispanidad, an under-resourced school in Barrio Camilo Ortega, Managua. John also introduced several wooden mathematical games into the classroom as part of his service-learning project. The games - donated by Catherine Sayle '09 who taught in Nicaragua with Arries in 2008 -  turned out to be a hit with the children and a fine motivational strategy for their math teachers. John has since raised money to hire a local Nicaraguan carpenter to build more instructional games for the school.

“The experience was very humbling,” says Pence who stayed with a local Nicaraguan family. “There are often 30-50 students per class, with many sitting on the floor. Yet students were able to stand and recite deep, powerful poetry about their country and their history, and I realized how rich this culture is.”

During the trip, Arries, Pence, and Lauren Jones '04 conducted interviews to learn more about the role of poetry in Nicaraguan education. Among thoseNathan Arries, Prof Arries, former Minister of Education Father Fernando Cardenal, and John Pence, taken at Universidad Centroamericana, Managua interviewed were Claribel Alegria and Rev. Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan poets with international reputations, and Fernando Cardenal, former Minister of Education and director of the 1980 National Literacy Campaign.

“Poverty isn’t just there, like rain or seasons that we have no control over, we can influence it,” said Fernando Cardenal during his interview with Arries.  Cardenal believes education is key to reducing poverty, and poetry plays a major role in creating engaged and educated citizens.

“Having a student along on this project was extremely valuable,” says Arries.

“Not only was John a great resource for bouncing around ideas, he was a real contributor to the research,” continues Arries, referring to John’s interview of a fellow teacher who had been part of the Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign. “John located the source and followed research protocol. We wouldn’t have gotten this interview without him.”

As Arries continues his research, he hopes to uncover potential applications of poetry as a technique for the effective teaching of critical literacy in schools in the United States, such as in classrooms teaching English as a Second Language.