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Sung Poetry and the Art of Listening

Fifth-grade Poetry Inside Out (PIO) students practice their listening skills during a lesson on Vietnamese “sung poetry.”

It was a damp, gray, and blustery Friday morning in Philadelphia, and Ms. Yau’s fifth-grade classroom was a whirl of activity. Students were talking to one another at group tables formed from little desks pushed together. Ms. Yau moved around the room from student to student. When she stopped in the center of the room she called out: “If you can hear my voice, clap once!” Half the students obliged. “If you can hear my voice, clap three times!” A staccato flurry of imprecise but enthusiastic claps followed, then expectant silence.

During the hour and a half Poetry Inside Out (PIO) lesson that came next, Ms. Yau’s students spoke in groups, listened carefully, and created unique works of translation. The class was embarking on the translation of a poem titled “Đơn Sơ” by Vietnamese poet Lê Phạm Lê. During the lesson that morning, students became acquainted with the poem by reviewing the poet’s biography, where they learned that she was inspired by the two-thousand-year-old Vietnamese tradition of “sung poetry,” a practice that originated from the verses peasants sang while working in the rice paddies. Next, the students began the “Phrase by Phrase” portion of the PIO process, using a glossary to translate directly from Vietnamese into English. The following week they would move on to the “Make It Flow” step designed to help them revise and shape their translations into final drafts, considering form, rhyme, and music.

The poem “Đơn Sơ” describes a scene at a refugee camp along the seaside. In the biography, the students read that Lê Phạm Lê fled her home of South Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War, when North Vietnam invaded. She and her family spent a year at a refugee camp in Malaysia before immigrating to the United States. A line in the poem reads, “Đêm trăng soi bóng bên thềm đọc thơ,” which, in one translation, means, “At night when the moon shines / We recite poems.” Also within the poem, a mother sings to lull her child to sleep, and a boat sways with the ocean waves. There is a lot to listen to, and clearly, this is a central theme in her poem.

Simple As Done

Lost in the land
Building a house near a forest full of water
All the different rock on the ground

Hard and Soft
In the night the moon reflects its light
Through the shadow

Sleeping on the cold ground
While mothers sing a lullaby for those who they love most
At the morning bridges full of monkeys

Many ship sale while others are sinking
At the bottom of the ocean
The wind blowing freely
Bring my spirit back up

—translated by a fifth-grade PIO student

The Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards include “Speaking and Listening” as one of four “anchor” standards, bedrock skills that must be developed at every grade level. Whereas designing curriculum to strengthen student speaking skills can be relatively straightforward, creating meaningful opportunities to develop student listening can be challenging. Here in Ms. Yau’s classroom, however, was a clear example of students practicing a thoughtful kind of listening based on repetition, hearing multiple voices, and reflection.

In this lesson the most important thing students did was listen to the poem itself, in its original Vietnamese, read by many voices in many different ways. In an interview with the Poetry Foundation Lê Phạm Lê explained, “John Balaban was the first American audience who recognized my reading style and used the word ‘sing’ to describe my reading style. In fact, when I write my poem it is not considered finished until I can sing it.” To introduce the students to the sound of the language, Ms. Yau asked a student whose home language is Vietnamese to pronounce Lê Phạm Lê’s name for the class. The student’s voice was strong and clear, and Ms. Yau would prompt her to remind the class of how to pronounce the poet’s name several more times over the course of the lesson.

The first student to read the poem was, like the rest of the class, not a native speaker of Vietnamese. (Like the rest of the class, he may have been a native speaker of any one of multiple languages represented by Ms. Yau’s students: Chinese, Indonesian, Spanish.) Ms. Yau asked him to stand, and though he began his reading slightly hunched over his paper handout, by the end his back was straight. When he finished, Ms. Yau called on the native speaker of Vietnamese to read the poem (in Vietnamese). “Make your mother and father proud!” she said. Each student read slowly, carefully pronouncing each word. Their classmates watched them closely, turned in their chairs. After each reading of the poem, at Ms. Yau’s direction, students consulted with one another, offering observations on what they had heard. The classroom erupted in voices after each round.

As students began working together to translate the poem, many of them sounded out the unfamiliar phrases, repeating what they had heard from the two readers. After twenty minutes of work on their “Phrase by Phrase” translations, students were asked to listen again to two more voices: those of two school staff members, Ms. Nguyen and and Mr. Ngo, both native speakers of Vietnamese, whom Ms. Yau had invited as special guests for this lesson. Listening to their fluent and polished voices, students witnessed two models of proficient reading aloud. But the two readings differed dramatically from one another: one spare and direct, one vibrant and musical. In other words, students heard two different interpretations of the poem.

In this lesson Ms. Yau presented her students with meaningful opportunities to listen thoughtfully and carefully. The repetition of the poem allowed for ample time to take in the sounds. Ms. Yau included different voices, at multiple fluency and reading levels, allowing her students to experience many different interpretations of the text. And after each reading, Ms. Yau asked students to talk to one another about it, giving them the chance to reflect on what they had heard.

In one such conversation, one girl said to a neighbor, “They were different because when [the native speaker] read, it came from her throat.” Another student remarked, “They were a lot different. But there were some of the same sounds.” It sounded as if the students were discussing music, and indeed, in a way they were.


Lost in a strange land,
Living in a shelter with calm rivers
My hands hardened when I break stone
Moon light is shining near platforms while I chant poetry.

My hammock sways loosely
I sang an ancient lullaby for oil.
Beyond my eyesight I saw the monkey bridge.

I sail faraway with my yacht shaking
The floating waves are carefree
The wind takes my sorrows to the shore.

—translated by a fifth-grade PIO student