Cultivando sus voces

1st graders develop their voices learning about farmworkers

By Marijke Conklin

Illustrator: Marijke Conklin

First graders learn about the lives of farmworkers up close at Brentwood Berry Farm in California. Photo:Marijke Conklin

¡Viva la huelga! ¡Viva la huelga! ¡Viva la causa de verdad!”

This was the energetic, ascending chant of my 24 1st graders last spring, as they joyfully presented the United Farm Workers (UFW) protest song “Niños campesinos” to their families at our end-of-year expo night. We had just finished our study of farmworkers, and these 6-year-olds captured the passion of a protest movement that galvanized millions to march against injustice in California in the 1960s.

My students, part of a Spanish K-8 dual immersion program at Melrose Leadership Academy, a public school in Oakland, California, learn in Spanish for five hours per day and in English for the remaining hour. They come from diverse racial and economic backgrounds.

Many of our students come to school with a strong sense of fairness and an interest in working together for a goal. By focusing on California farmworkers, I wanted to offer my students a platform in the classroom to share and develop those values. The whole study was in Spanish. Half of my students are Spanish language learners. That meant teaching vocabulary and concepts through songs, stories, trips, and discussions.

“How Do You Grow Fruit?”

In March, I gathered students together on the rug to kick off our study. “We’ve learned about wheat and fruit in California,” I began, making a bridge to our previous studies. “Starting today, we’ll learn about the people who grow the fruit we eat. We’ll take a trip to a farm where you’ll get to find out about some of these farmers.”

The room brimmed with excitement, and right away I got a wave of questions: “Where are we going? How far away is it? How will we get there?”

I told them we’d be riding a bus for an hour to Brentwood Berry Farm. “A family owns and works on the farm. Today, you’ll be working together in groups to come up with questions to ask them. Remember, questions can help us get more information about what we are learning. How do questions start again?”

Students called out “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” “How?” I charted their answers.

“Now let’s use those words to start a question for the people who grow our fruit.”

Coszcatl raised her hand. “Do they speak English or Spanish?”

Adam’s hand went up next. “What is your favorite color?”

“All questions can give us interesting information,” I said, wanting to validate Adam but also guide the class toward content-specific questions. “But we’re especially looking for information about what it’s like to be a farmworker.”

Pablo asked, “What kind of fruit do you grow?”

The students then gathered in their groups. Loretta, the notetaker, got her group started by asking, “OK, what are our questions?”

Daniel posed the first one: “What do you like about working on a farm?”

Ethan: “How do you grow fruit?”

Sofia: “What don’t you like about working on a farm?”

Loretta: “What different fruit do you grow?”

Daniel: “Where are you from?”

I signaled the end of the group work with my rain stick. Back on the rug, students shared with each other and decided which questions to keep. I charted their questions and asked them to consider which ones would help us get the most information.

“They Couldn’t Get Water or Use the Bathroom?”

A few days later, we arrived at Brentwood Berry Farm after a long, humid ride in a rented yellow school bus. The sky was clear and the sun was blazing. The family who owned and worked on the farm greeted us, and we sat down to interview them.

“Buenos días,” Señor Roberto began, and the students looked at each other, smiling. Coszcatl’s question had been answered, and the conversation continued in Spanish.

Sally started the interview by asking, “¡Cómo cultivan las fresas?” (How do you grow strawberries?) I was excited to hear Sally, who is learning Spanish as a second language, use a precise word—cultivar—that she had learned recently.

The farmer explained: “We have to cover the strawberries until the plants are big enough to have leaves to cover the fruit. We also have to be careful with the rain. Too much rain damages the plants.”

Sofia’s hand shot up. “What do you think about growing strawberries?”

“I love strawberries,” Señor Roberto replied in a jolly tone. “In my opinion they are the best things in the world.”

As the interview continued, it was clear from their eagerly raised hands how proud the students were to demonstrate their Spanish, whether acquired in school or at home.

Miguel’s next question helped us explore the farmer’s life: “Where are you from?”

“I arrived here in 1974. I’m Zapotec. My mother is Maya but I speak very little Maya. I crossed over the border.”

Coszcatl perked up. “My family is Maya, too.”

Loretta raised her hand. “What’s hard for you on the farm?”

The farmer’s tone grew serious. “Before, I worked on other farms for 20 years. We didn’t get any rest breaks. There weren’t bathrooms; we didn’t have shoes. They gave all of us water in a big bucket with one glass. There were 32 of us and only one glass. There wasn’t shade, and we had to work in silence.”

“You must have been very thirsty,” said Loretta.

The other students sat silently, curiously gazing at the farmer. Their silence made me wonder how they were understanding the hardships he described. What past experiences in their lives, if any, would they compare it to? How would they make sense of the harshness that the farmer described?

After a few more minutes of questions, we got up and wove our way through the rows of fruit to spend about 15 minutes picking ripened strawberries. The groans started immediately: “When are we going?” and “I’m so hot.” Although still morning, the sun was beating down on the students, making them squint as they wiped sweat from their faces. It became a tiny window into the physical hardships of being a farmworker.

Later that day, back in the cool classroom, we reflected on the experience of being in the field. Loretta continued her earlier line of thinking: “I was so thirsty. I thought I was going to die.”

“How long do you think we were out there?” I asked. “Was it shorter or longer than farmworkers have to be out there?”

“Shorter!” shouted a few students.

Loretta made the vital connection: “So they had to be out there all that time? And they couldn’t get water or use the bathroom? I couldn’t do that.” Through hearing the farmworker’s story, followed by her own brief experience, she was beginning to understand how inhumane the working conditions of farmworkers were.

Lado a lado: Cesar and Dolores

After our trip to the farm, I wanted to make connections between the experience of farmwork and the ideas of fairness and working together. Our first text was a nonfiction narrative, Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/Lado a lado: La historia de Dolores Huerta y Cesar Chavez. This colorful book tells the stories of the two activists from childhood to when they met as adults, and how they organized a large-scale grape boycott.

“Who has heard of Cesar Chavez?” I asked, and a few hands went up in the air.

“He helped people,” said Sofia.

“He marched with people,” suggested Daniel.

I put their ideas on a chart. “You already know two important things about Cesar Chavez. We’ll be learning more about him, and about the people he helped and marched with. What questions do you have about Cesar Chavez?

“What farms did he work on?” asked Jamil.

“Does he live in Oakland?” asked Patricia.

I charted their questions, knowing the students would answer them together as we read the book. Then I asked, “What about Dolores Huerta?” Only one hand went up—Coszcatl’s.

After our brainstorm, I read the story aloud, checking for understanding by asking students to recall details and make connections. “Wait—” I paused. “Why did Dolores and Cesar say not to buy grapes? Why wouldn’t we buy grapes?”

Afterwards, students drew portraits of Chavez and Huerta and wrote down words to describe them. This prepared them for small group conversations about the two leaders. Students gathered in groups of four or five at a table. In book club style, they were free to share ideas and ask each other questions about the text. I provided suggestions for questions or sentence starters if they needed support. One suggestion was to talk about how the two leaders were similar and different.

“I think Cesar and Dolores are different because one is from Arizona and the other is from New Mexico,” Lila said at the outset, placing a talking piece in the middle of the group. Each student received five talking pieces to encourage them to monitor talk time and to participate equally.

“I believe the two are similar because they fought for justice,” said Pablo.

“I think the two are similar because both said don’t buy grapes because the farm owners use poisonous substances.”

“Estoy de acuerdo con Pablo porque Dolores era una . . . una . . .” (I agree with Pablo because Dolores was a . . . a . . .) Lila paused as she sought out the right word. In my classroom, pauses are common for the children learning Spanish. The other children waited patiently for Lila to complete her thought. Whether in English or Spanish or both languages, they had all been there before—uncertain of which words to use.

“Una girl scout,” Lila eventually said and then continued in Spanish, “and she helped people, and Cesar worked on a farm and helped people.”

By using an English word as a bridge, Lila was able to get back to Spanish to elaborate her main idea: how the two people were similar. This persistence and creativity allowed her idea to flow and the conversation to continue. Later, she would ask, “¿Cómo se dice girl scout en español?” (How do you say girl scout in Spanish?) and together we checked the word the author had used.

The group conversations continued, as students remembered important details and the central message: People who are different can become conscious of unfairness in their own ways and then work together to address it.

Making Connections to Fiction

Now that students had an authentic experience on a farm and some nonfiction background, we were ready for some fiction.

I selected El camino de Amelia, by Linda Jacobs Altman, and La mariposa, by Francisco Jimenez, to deepen the students’ connections to the inner lives of a farmworker their age. Both stories take place in California, and each of the protagonists is a 1st grader in a farmworker family. Amelia longs to stay in one place, but her family moves often to follow the harvest. When she discovers a secret path to a tree after school, she buries a box of things that are special to her as a way to feel rooted when she and her family must move on. In La mariposa, Francisco is the new boy who speaks only Spanish at a school where everyone else speaks English. He withdraws into an internal world, daydreaming and drawing. Though a misunderstanding gets him into a fight with another student, by the story’s end Francisco wins an award for his illustration of a butterfly and begins to feel connected to school.

Over the course of two weeks, I read the stories aloud and the students responded to them in three ways: writing, art, and discussion. I asked them to explain in their writing journals what they thought the characters were feeling. To help them, I posted starter frames such as “Amelia feels __________ because___________” and “She would like ___________________.” Manuel wrote: “Amelia feels bad because she did not want to pick apples because her arms and hands hurt. She wants a house with curtains and a shade tree and does not want a shack, but she doesn’t have enough money. Amelia and her family work in the fields. At the beginning she felt sad because she didn’t have a permanent home.”

I asked students to imagine they were going to bury a box of special things like Amelia did. Sophia drew a picture of a box with seeds, her favorite CD, a toy, and a picture of her family and pet.

After we read La mariposa, I asked, “What do you think the problem is for Francisco at his new school?”

Daniel’s first answer was “Francisco doesn’t understand English.”

Victor vigorously waved his hand. “I think the problem is that Francisco can’t speak Spanish at school.”

Coszcatl had a pensive look as she raised her hand. “Also, his teacher doesn’t speak Spanish.”

I found their discussion fascinating. Victor and Coszcatl had located the problem—and by implication the responsibility to solve it—not with Francisco, but with the structure of the classroom he attended.

“Does anyone have a connection to Francisco?” I prompted.

Adam nodded. “I also sometimes don’t know what people are saying, but in Spanish.”

Stella chimed in, “I was nervous when I came to school, but then, by the last day, I wasn’t lonely anymore. And we have caterpillars in the classroom.”

I then posed, “Why do you think Curtis and Francisco got in a fight in the story?”

For Kayla, the solution was simple—and profound: “The boys don’t understand each other. They have to learn each other’s languages.”

Farmworkers + Imagination

Now, I decided, the students were ready to write their own stories. “Use your imaginations to write a story,” I said, “about a child who works on a farm. Remember what we learned about the lives of farmworkers on the farm we visited, Cesar, Dolores, Amelia, and Francisco.”

At this point, we had also started learning the UFW song “Niños campesinos” that they were to present at the expo. During our morning meeting, I introduced it stanza by stanza, posting an illustrated board of vocabulary and playing a recording. The song relates the daily difficulties of children farmworkers, including waking up early and laboring for long hours with no compensation. It ends with them participating in a strike. This song became another text model for sensory details and central conflicts for their stories.

The first day of our story writing project, I posed what I thought would be the most accessible, concrete question to get them started: “What is the name of your main character? What is he or she like?”

Students looked at me blankly. I was reluctant to provide my own example for two reasons. I wanted them to consider the lives of the people we’d read about, and I believed that by giving students open space to think and wonder, they would come up with their own ideas.

“Um . . . David?” Victor ventured tentatively, glancing at his classmates and then searching my face to get the OK. David was Victor’s older brother.

“Fine,” I said. The other students took a collective sigh and started raising their hands to share name ideas.

“All of us are going to have time to think about a name and share,” I said, wanting to reassure those who didn’t have a name yet and encourage those ready to share. “But first, how could we write the name of Victor’s character in a sentence?”

Together they responded, “His name is David.”

I charted the sentence and asked, “How else could we introduce him?”

Sally raised her hand. “David is a boy?” Her voice was uncertain. Like Victor earlier, Sally wanted to make sure that her idea was OK.

“Good,” I said as I wrote her sentence. “What will your character be like? Let’s think about how the character looks. What is the character wearing?” We had created posters of Señor Roberto, Cesar, Dolores, Francisco, and Amelia. Now, I pointed to the posters and reminded them to consider what their characters might wear or look like.

“You can write more than one name since we’re just listing ideas right now,” I said as I gave them paper with space for writing and drawing.

Students went to their desks to use crayons to create their characters. As I circulated, I encouraged them to write down all the ideas that came to their heads—even their own names. “You can draw your character first,” I suggested over a low hum of students consulting each other when I realized some students were stuck.

Students spent 20 minutes working. As they were done, they came back to the rug. They shared in pairs and then in a larger group what they had drawn and written.

Each day after, we followed a similar process. I prompted students to brainstorm the details of the story: “What is your character’s family life like? What is the setting? What will happen first? What is the most exciting part of your story going to be?” For each question, I elicited ideas from students, then offered sentence frames or starters if they were stuck. It became common for me to say: “Remember what the sun felt like when we went to the farm? What did the farmer say? What did Amelia do? Why did Francisco feel the way he did?” During each writing block, I encouraged students to go back to the work they had done with the model texts for ideas.

Some of the children’s stories successfully integrated a problem of unfairness into a realistic story about farmworkers. For example, Isabel told the story of a girl and her friends who couldn’t celebrate a birthday because of their unfair boss:

It was Coszcatl’s birthday but they couldn’t celebrate because they had to work in the field. Her friends were so sad. The saddest one was Coszcatl. Isabel went to talk to the boss to ask for a day off. The boss said, “You cannot have a day off because if you want your money, you have to work every day!” Isabel went to tell the bad news to her friends. But the other girls said, “But that is not fair. We must strike!”

Some stories maintained a focus on inequity, and to some degree farmworkers, but the students’ imaginations often led them away from the real experiences of farmworkers. For example, Sofia’s “Mágica” told of two sisters discovering a haunted house and a witch making a potion. The witch then enslaves the sisters to work for her. Ethan’s “Los Ratones” is set on a peach farm, where mice have hidden peaches in an electric box. Other stories included Pablo traveling by airplane to a lake filled with piranhas and sharks, Jane living on a farm in Japan and feeling lonely, and a strawberry that was so large the main character couldn’t pick it alone.

The students were highly engaged in developing their stories; their ideas and words poured out of them. However, many were not realistic fiction about farmworkers.

Something interesting was happening: Students wanted, perhaps needed, to write their stories imaginatively, but not confined to the life of farmworkers. I wasn’t sure what to do. I wondered, “Was it essential for students to recreate the exact conditions we’d learned about for them to develop their ideas of fairness?”

After reflection and a second, closer reading of the stories, I realized that although the stories did not always reflect our study on farmworkers, they did represent situations of systemic unfairness followed by coming together to address it.

For example, in “Mágica,” the sisters stage a strike to escape the witch’s control. Ethan’s story ends with a little boy setting up a system to fairly share the peaches. Loretta’s protagonist galvanizes her family to help with the large strawberry, which they cut up and sell at the market to support the household. It turns out Pablo’s trip to the piranha-filled lake was to get food to share with his family because the harvest has failed. Finally, Jane’s friend solves her loneliness by making a drawing for her—just like Francisco gives a picture to Curtis in La mariposa as a gesture of reconciliation after the fight. Each story had a message of agency and working together against an unfair situation. In narrative writing, I reflected, students need structure, but also the freedom to re-imagine the themes they are studying.

“Niños campesinos”

We concluded our unit by publishing our stories, complete with each author’s biography. The students bound and illustrated them. At the expo, they sang the UFW song, read their stories, and shared their illustrations with their families. All the students’ ability to express complex ideas in Spanish had improved, thanks to all that conversation, the literature we read, and learning “Niños campesinos,” which contains complicated vocabulary and language constructs.

But as I watched the students sing together that night, fists in the air, faces open and proud, I was struck by another change: Their voices had become powerful and confident. They had cultivated their ideas and developed their stories, and now, singing for their parents and their community, they radiated a sense of self and purpose.


  • Altman, Linda Jacobs. 1995. El camino de Amelia. Illustrated by Enrique Sanchez. Lee and Low Books.
  • Brown, Monica. 2010. Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/Lado a lado: La historia de Dolores Huerta y Cesar Chavez. Illustrated by Joe Cepeda. Rayo.
  • Jimenez, Francisco. 2000. La mariposa. Illustrated by Simon Silva. HMH Books for Young Readers.