Cuentos del corazón/Stories from the Heart

An after-school writing project for bilingual students and their families

By Jessica Singer Early, Tracey Flores

Illustrator: Favianna Rodriguez

Favianna Rodriguez

Parents and their children sat side by side in a tight circle with journals in hand. Gabriela’s voice filled the room. She read from her narrative, describing advice she had received from her friend, Jeanni, who she met on her arrival to the United States from Mexico: “Jeanni me ayudó a fortalecer mi interior a creer que el futuro de mis hijas se construye día a día, trabajando en equipo con [mi esposo] Julián y buscando los recursos disponibles para lograrlo”. (Jeanni helped me strengthen my inner self to believe that my daughters’ future is forged day by day as I work as a team with [my husband] Julian and seek the resources to achieve it.) The opportunity to write and share this memory of support and friendship brought Gabriela, and many of the other writers sitting around her, to tears.

Gabriela was one of the parents in a bilingual after-school family writing project in Tracey’s 2nd-grade classroom in central Phoenix. More than 80 percent of the student population at the K-8 school identified as Latina/o or Hispanic and almost 90 percent qualified for free/reduced lunch. Students had been sorted into an English Language Development (ELD) classroom because tests labeled them as not yet “proficient” in English. Since Arizona law mandates English-only as the language of instruction, the many students who speak Spanish or another language at home have little or no access to instruction in their native languages.

Signed into law in 2006, Arizona’s HB 2064 called for a task force to create a “research-based” and prescriptive classroom model of instruction for language learners that would lead to English proficiency within one year. Under the direction of this task force, the state mandates language ability grouping and four hours a day of Structured English Immersion. This model perpetuates the segregation of English language learners (ELLs) based on language proficiency.

Opposed to this approach to emergent bilingual students and concerned about its impact on Tracey’s 2nd graders, we decided to design and implement an after-school writing project.

We wanted Tracey’s students to feel honored for their language abilities and to use their native languages in the writing and reading process. Tracey envisioned extending her classroom space to include parents, siblings, and cousins writing alongside one another as a community of writers who not only wrote and shared stories, but also supported one another in different facets of their lives. We hoped to build community, invite families’ home languages into the classroom, value language learning and risk taking, and challenge the privilege of English in the school setting.

Tracey was the lead teacher for the project and the main contact for students and parents. Jessica co-taught the workshops with Tracey, co-developed the curriculum, purchased supplies and snacks, and designed and implemented a research study to examine and share this work.

It wasn’t one of our original goals, but the project also became a source of support for families dealing with the impact of anti-immigration legislation in our state. During the semester of the family writing project, Gov. Jan Brewer’s controversial Arizona SB 1070 passed, requiring police to question a person’s citizenship if they had reason to doubt an individual was in the country legally. This resulted in immigration sweeps by federal and county law enforcement and regular police surveillance of predominantly Latina/o communities, including the neighborhoods surrounding the school. (The U.S. Supreme Court has since struck down some, but not all, of SB 1070.) Our workshop sessions became one way to counter anti-immigration politics, press, and sentiment.

The hostile political climate surfaced in parents’ writing and conversations because everyone had to cope with it in their daily lives. For example, during the first weeks of the project, the undocumented father of one of the students was arrested. His wife frantically dropped off their daughter at the family writing project and explained to the group her need to leave early to go gather money to pay for his release. It was a scary moment for all the families in the project and for us, too. Later in the semester, another mom told us that when her son was feeling upset, she encouraged him to sit down with her and write in order to make sense of his emotions. Through sharing stories and writing experiences, the family writing project became a sanctuary and source of support for families dealing with the immediate impact of the law.


At the beginning of spring semester, Tracey recruited families for the family writing project during parent-teacher conferences. We also sent bilingual invitations home with the students in Tracey’s class. We tried to select a start time that would work well for the students and their families. Many children walked to and from school with parents, grandparents, or caregivers. Once families were on campus to pick up their children, they often stayed for meetings and sports events. So the 3:30 start time worked well for us.

Within a few weeks, nine of Tracey’s students, 10 of their parents, and assorted siblings were gathering each Tuesday afternoon from 3:30-5:00 p.m. to write, draw, revise, share, and discuss writing. Each session started with a mini-lesson in which we analyzed a particular aspect of a “text”—artwork, poetry, our own writing samples, bilingual picture books—and a particular writing strategy. After we modeled the writing strategy, the group practiced using the new skill together. This was followed by family and/or individual write time. Toward the end of the session, authors shared their writing. We generally finished with a written reflection.

The first weeks were designed to build community and confidence. As participants grew more comfortable with the writing strategies, we gave them opportunities to take a piece of writing from the beginning of the process through revision to publication.

With the support of the school secretary and Tracey’s family, we translated all written communications and workshop materials into Spanish and English. Mini-lessons, instruction, and discussion were facilitated in both languages—often with the help of parents and students. Tracey is conversationally fluent in Spanish and Jessica speaks some Spanish, but less comfortably. As families and students watched us take risks in Spanish, they found ways to jump in to help translate, answer questions, or offer encouragement. We all collaborated to communicate as writers, readers, and learners in Spanish and English.

For the first time, many students wrote in their home language. Having spent their first years of schooling sorted into ELD classrooms, they had grown accustomed to reading and writing in “English Only.” As we spent time writing, sharing, and speaking in English and Spanish in the after-school setting, many students became more comfortable drawing on their home language.

Jessica recorded this example in her teaching journal after Week 2:

Marco asked me how he should share his writing with his mom. “What if my mom is writing in Spanish and I am writing in English? I don’t know Spanish.”

Jessica encouraged Marco to share his writing in any language he preferred. So Marco read his work to his mom in English and then talked to her about the piece in English and Spanish. By the third week, he had started writing in Spanish. He shared his first attempt (in inventive spelling):

Cuando hue me cumple años you pose me cara en el pastel y tambien me ermano Pero me ermana no porke no hue so cumple años. So yo me la pase vien agosto con me familia y tube muchos regalos recuerdo qea me ermana yorava mucho. (When it was my birthday I put my face in the cake and so did my brother, but my sister did not because it was not her birthday. So I had a good time with my family and had many presents. I remember that my sister cried a lot.)

Jessica asked him why he decided to try writing in Spanish and he said, “Because my mom doesn’t know English and I want to learn to write and speak in Spanish better.” Rather than having a teacher or a parent tell him which language to use, the family writing project gave him the space and support to negotiate his own language learning.

Drawing a Map of Stories

For the first session, we wanted to make it easy to brainstorm and shape ideas prior to writing. So we set out fresh boxes of crayons, markers, and blank paper as children and their families filtered into the classroom. In the front of the room, we placed an easel with a flip chart. We urged everyone to take a snack and then sit together at tables and desks around the room.

Grabbing a marker, Tracey began to sketch a house on the flip chart. As she drew, she explained: “Sometimes when I want to write a story, I choose a particular place and begin drawing a map to help me remember the details of the stories that happened there. I’m going to draw a map of the neighborhood where I grew up until I was 8 years old. I’m thinking about and sketching special places from my neighborhood and points of interest. I want to be sure to add vivid details. I am going to think about the people from my neighborhood, too.” Tracey continued sketching and talking aloud about the buildings, houses, parks, streets, and people who were part of her memories about her first neighborhood. She said she would use her map to help choose a story to write.

Then Tracey invited parents and students to practice the prewriting strategy. “Think about where you live and the people and places in your neighborhood. It could be where you live now, or where you lived before, or a neighborhood where you spend a lot of time, like your Nana and Tata’s neighborhood. Sketch the special places and special points of interest. Let the drawing tell the story of a special memory that took place in the neighborhood.”

The 2nd graders and their families eagerly opened the boxes of crayons and began sketching their own neighborhood maps. Isabel, Alicia’s mom, drew the pueblo in México where she was raised and attended elementary school, and the nearby rancho that held many of her childhood memories. She titled her map “Dónde en mi pueblo era un rancho solo”. (In my town where there was only one farm.) Alicia drew a map of her neighborhood. She included a tree, her house, a tall yucca plant, her older sister, and a big green shrub. She wrote: “This is when I lived in my house with my family. I was 4 years old. My big sister was 6. And my little sister was 7 months. And I went to school over there, too.”

Drawing is a low-risk and enjoyable point of entry for many writers. In our project, it helped build safety and trust by placing the students’ and parents’ experiences, memories, and ideas at the center of the curriculum, making them the experts. The mapping activity modeled one way writers work through story ideas visually before drafting, and provided scaffolding for language learners at all levels.

In a reflection, 2nd grader Yajaira wrote: “When I draw first it helps me to explain about my drawing.” Her classmate Cristina wrote: “I learned how to describe your writing and the special memories in your head or brain.”

In later workshops, Isabel used this strategy to encourage Alicia and her sisters to begin a piece or to continue writing when they were stuck. She referred back to her daughters’ maps and asked questions about details that weren’t in their written stories. As she explained in a reflection, it was her own writing process that enabled her to help her children: “Aprendí a agregar más detalles viendo el dibujo. . . . Ahora que lo vi y estaba escribiendo, recordé más cosas”. (I learned to add more details by looking at the drawing. Now that I saw the drawing and was writing, I remembered more details.)

Honoring Our Daily Lives

The next Tuesday, families walked in to find chairs and tables arranged in a semi-circle facing the easel and whiteboard. On each desk was a copy of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous,” the model text for our second workshop (see sidebar, p. 18). This poem was written in English; we translated it into Spanish so families could access the text in both languages. Families settled into their seats with writing notebooks, pencils, and snacks in hand.

Jessica began the workshop by asking the group, “What does it mean to you to be famous?”

A mother responded, “Que todo el mundo sabe tu nombre”. (That everyone knows your name.)

A student, Brisa, said, “Being famous means you’re on TV and sing in concerts.”

“It means you do good things,” another student suggested.

“Have you ever thought about how you might be famous or how items in our everyday lives are famous to one another?” Jessica asked. “The poem on your desk is one way a writer thought about her world. Through her words, she illustrates the value of everyday objects, actions, and people have to one another. As we read the poem in English and then in Spanish, listen carefully. Underline ‘golden lines’—words and phrases that speak to you, parts you like, parts you want to think about more, lines that stand out for any reason.”

After Karina finished reading the poem in Spanish, Jessica said, “Now turn and talk to your family about what you underlined and why.”

After families shared their golden lines, we discussed the poem’s message and how it provides an alternative definition of what it means to be famous. Instead of defining fame as glamour, beauty, or notoriety, Nye suggests that fame can be the way we touch the lives of others.

As we shared golden lines and discussed the poem, Tracey wrote several of the families’ responses to the poem on an anchor chart (Harvey and Goudvis). The anchor chart had two columns: golden lines in one column and the poetic strategy in the other. For example, one student, Janet, pointed out that she liked the place in the poem where Nye switches from describing how objects are famous to each other and begins to share how she wants to be famous. Tracey wrote the line “I want to be famous to shuffling men” on one side of the anchor chart to represent where the poet makes this change. Then, in the strategy column, Tracey wrote “shift from third person to first person” and “shift in poetic voice.”

Throughout the workshop, we used model texts like Nye’s poem as examples of different writing genres, styles, and strategies, and also as a way for families to practice reading like writers. The anchor chart demystified Nye’s craft so students and their parents could emulate her moves or create their own.

Next, we invited families to write about the ways they felt famous or hoped to be famous in the future.

Daniel, a father, wrote: “I want to be famous like my grandfather because he was a person who fought for Hispanic people’s rights with Cesar Chavez.”

Elizabeth, one of Tracey’s 2nd graders, wrote: “I want to be famous like my parents, to show love and kindness and hard work for all people who need help.”

Maria, one of the mothers, wrote: “Mis manos son famosas porque conellas escribo”. (My hands are famous because I use them to write.) Second-grader Cindy wrote:

The clouds are famous to the rain.
The dark is famous to kids at night.
The birds are famous to flying.
The floors are famous to boots.
The desert is famous to hot.
The pens are famous to writers.
I want to be famous
like my mom and dad
because they are always
nice to me.

After we shared our poems, Jessica invited each family member to write a quick reflection about what they learned during the session. One student, Estefania, wrote that she enjoyed writing this piece because “I learned what is famous to my heart.” One of the fathers wrote: “I learned more about writing poetry today. I also began to experience something new with my child today.”

As the weeks went by, the group began to feel more comfortable. We also started to notice exciting links between the writing in the family writing project and the writing happening in Tracey’s classroom. For example, Marco wrote Tracey a letter during regular class time extending his ideas about famous things and people, including a compliment about the work that his mom was doing as an illustrator and writer.

On the evening of our culminating author celebration, family members, neighbors, friends, spouses, siblings, and students gathered around the room to enjoy writing, food, and companionship. The counter by the door was filled with traditional dishes, salads, fast-food delights, and a special cake. One-by-one, the writers took their places in the author’s chair and proudly shared their final narratives about positive change makers and everyday heroes in the language of their choice.

The Power of Story

For 12 weeks, families gathered to share writing. Tracey’s students’ younger siblings shared inventive drawings and strings of letters, and whispered stories into their big brothers’ and sisters’ ears. Parents shared stories with their children of special moments, memorable people, and family traditions. Students wrote stories about holidays and unforgettable childhood events. All of us realized (yet again) the power of putting our stories to paper.

Giving families time to write together was the heart of this project. In a final reflection, Karina wrote: “I learned that good moments with your family will always stay with you to remember when you want. You can draw them or write them.”

Martha, another mother, wrote about the importance of writing with her daughter. “Aprendí a recordar los tiempos en que [era] niña y los momentos que pasé con mi familia y a compartir parte de mi tiempo con mi hija”. (I learned to remember the times from when I was a child and the moments that I spent with family, and to share some of my time with my daughter).

Together with parents and students, we created a safe space and sense of community to empower families to share their stories and cultivate their voices. We created an intentional bilingual learning space in a school that was forbidden to be bilingual. When English-only instruction is mandated, it is possible to create biliterate learning spaces so parents can work alongside their children and in partnership with teachers to help our students succeed as writers.


  • Allen, JoBeth. 2010. Literacy in the Welcoming Classroom: Creating Family-School Partnerships that Support Student Learning. Teachers College Press.
  • Early, Jessica Singer. 2010. “‘Mi hija, you should be a writer’: The Role of Parental Support and Learning to Write.” Bilingual Research Journal 33.3: 277-291.
  • Frank, Carolyn. 2003. “Mapping Our Stories: Teachers’ Reflections on Themselves as Writers.” Language Art 8.3: 185-195.
  • Harvey, Stephanie and Anne Goudvis. 2007. Strategies that Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement. Stenhouse.
  • Stafford, Kim. 2012. The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft. University of Georgia Press.

Family Writing Project Resources

  • Alarc—n, Francisco X. 2005. Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para sonar juntos. Illustrations by Paula Barrag‡n. Lee & Low Books.
  • Carlson, Lori Marie, ed. 2013. Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States. Square Fish.
  • Cisneros, Sandra. 1994. Hairs/Pelitos: A Story in English and Spanish from The House on Mango Street. Dragonfly Books.
  • Cisneros, Sandra. 1994. La Casa en Mango Street. Translated by Elena Poniatowska. Vintage Books.
  • Cisneros, Sandra. 1991. The House on Mango Street. Vintage Books.
  • Early, Jessica Singer. 2006. Stirring Up Justice. Heinemann.
  • Espada, Mart’n, ed. 1994. Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press. Curbstone Press.
  • Fanelli, Sara. 1995. My Map Book. HarperCollins.
  • Garza, Carmen Lomas. 2005. Family Pictures/Cuadros de familia. Children’s Book Press.
  • Garza, Carmen Lomas. 1996. In My Family/En mi familia. Children’s Book Press.
  • Giovanni, Nikki. 1994. Knoxville, Tennessee. Scholastic.
  • Gonz‡lez, Luc’a. 2008. The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos. Illustrations by Lulu Delacre. Children’s Book Press.
  • Herrera, Juan Felipe. 1998. Laughing Out Loud, I Fly: Poems in English and Spanish. HarperCollins.
  • Herrera, Juan Felipe. 2006. The Upside Down Boy/El ni–o de cabeza. Children’s Book Press.
  • Lyon, George Ella. 1999. Where I’m From: Where Poems Come From. Absey & Co.
  • Medina, Jane. 2004. The Dream on Blanca’s Wall: Poems in English and Spanish/ El sue–o pegado en la pared de Blanca: Poemas en ingles y espa–ol. Illustrations by Robert Casilla. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.
  • Meyer, Carolyn. 1994. Rio Grande Stories. Harcourt.
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. 1995. Words Under the Words. Eighth Mountain Press.
  • Soto, Gary. 2005. Neighborhood Odes. Harcourt.
  • Winter, Jeannette. 2005. The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq. Harcourt.


By Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.

“Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye. Illustrated by Lisa Desimini. Wings Press. 2015.Used by permission of the author. Translated by Julie Flores Lizarraga.

Jessica Singer Early is an associate professor of English and the director of English Education and the Central Arizona Writing Project at Arizona State University. Tracey Flores is a former elementary and middle school teacher. She is currently a doctoral student in English Education and co-director of the Central Arizona Writing Project. All names have been changed.

A note from the authors: Our conception for the after-school family writing project built on work done by other sites of the National Writing Project, especially the Sabal Palms Writing Project in Texas and JoBeth Allen’s Red Clay Writing Project at the University of Georgia. The neighborhood map workshop was originally developed by Lorraine Nelson at the South Coast Writing Project at the University of California. The lesson using Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous” originated with William Stafford and was passed down to Jessica through his son, Kim Stafford, at the Northwest Writing Institute and the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College.

Favianna Rodriguez’s artwork can be found at