Petaluma elementary school students capture family in art and poetry

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Students in Bianca Hendrick’s bilingual second-grade class at Loma Vista Immersion Academy in Petaluma don’t yet have two digits in their age, yet they have important lessons to share.

The 7- and 8-year-old students have big dreams and treasured family traditions, some deeply rooted in faraway places like Taiwan, Columbia, El Salvador, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

A monthlong photo-literacy exhibit at Petaluma Regional Library offers insights and celebrates what makes each student special. “I Am From,” or “Yo Soy De” in Spanish, features poems about each student on 8-inch-by-12-inch reflective metal prints with a digital photograph of each youngster.

About half are written in English, and half in Spanish. The 400-plus students at the Loma Vista dual immersion campus in the Old Adobe Union School District are developing bilingual English-Spanish skills, from transitional kindergarten to sixth grade.

The second-graders’ 21 poems offer glimpses into backgrounds, family traditions, favorite foods, outings, objects and activities that help tell the story about each child’s home life and aspirations.

“I learned a lot about their cultures and more about their families and what (students) view as important at this stage in their lives,” Hendrick said.

“It’s great to give them a voice, especially about themselves and their family and what they enjoy, and what they think of their community and where their ancestors came from.”

The exhibit is the culmination of months of studies about family, tradition and cultures. Parent volunteer Katie DelaVaughn of Petaluma, a teaching artist and photographer, proposed the idea to Hendrick as a way to celebrate each child’s distinctive narrative.

They were awarded a $572 grant from the Petaluma Arts Association, with a goal of bringing students’ home lives into the classroom, their school and the community.

Artist Elaine Larson, who was the Petaluma Arts Association president when the grant was made, was impressed by the freedom of expression the project provided students.

“They weren’t guided to do X, Y, Z and that was very important to us,” she said. “It’s a community recognition and it’s really great for their self-esteem, their creativity and to know what they can do.”

After a weeklong exhibit at the Loma Vista school library, the “Poetry and Portraits” display was installed last week in the children’s section at the Petaluma library, on view through May 31. An opening reception for families and supporters Wednesday featured student poetry readings and a potluck of world cuisine.

The project “is meant to showcase how beautiful they are,” DelaVaughn said. “It’s to celebrate their unique lives.”

DelaVaughn developed the project, called Pedagogy of Photography, and presented it while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua from 2003-2006, and throughout New York City, where she pursued her master’s thesis on the “Benefits of Photography for Bilingual and Multicultural Students” at Teachers College, Columbia University.

She has trained teachers in implementing the project and has worked with hundreds of students. The experience with Loma Vista has added meaning, though. Her 8-year-old son, Wendell, is in Hendrick’s class.

Wendell’s poem shares family traditions of stargazing, bowling together, playing the fast-paced card game UNO, enjoying treats around the campfire and eating ravioli with sauce made from tomatoes grown in the family garden.

He writes about father-son nights to Golden State Warriors games, and dreams of “being an archaeologist in the morning, a Secret Agent in the day, a Warriors player at night and a scuba diver on the weekends.”

His classmates announce their dreams as well.

Eight-year-old Yazmari Ramirez of Cotati wants to become a preschool teacher; Cannon Fox Lewis Keller, 8, of Petaluma, hopes to work in special effects with the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Petaluma’s McKenna Spear, 8, wants to be a traveler, a desire fueled by trips to Costa Rica and Orlando, Florida.

Eight-year-old Marisol Magana, also of Petaluma, aspires to become a car designer and dog trainer.

The students, with help from their families, filled out a Mad Libs-style template as a springboard for their poems. By talking with their parents, and some with their grandparents, students uncovered interesting family histories.

Oliviah Delgado, 8, of Rohnert Park, is part of an international family. “My mom’s from America and my dad’s from Mexico,” she said. Oliviah found out she was born in Santa Rosa, and “I learned that my grandma and grandpa are from Palestine.”

Learning about students’ values, cultures and goals can help teachers develop student success in the classroom and the greater community.

“As educators, we want to tap into this resource,” DelaVaughn said.

“The metal was on purpose, to be symbolic as a reflective component of the project. The reason I chose metal was it’s like a mirror, it’s a reflection.”

She and Hendrick were happy to see many students mention their community in their poems, from playing at local parks, going to swim centers, participating in sports programs, and visiting the library and local eateries.

Those experiences, the educators said, provide a rich tapestry about the similarities in the students’ varied backgrounds.

Their photographs, which DelaVaughn took from spontaneous poses — a handstand, someone flashing peace signs, a girl dancing with long hair flying — capture an exuberant moment and a sense of pride in each child.

In her poem, written in Spanish, 7-year-old Ashley Vazquez of Rohnert Park shared something that could be from any culture: “That I am from my family that’s really nice and caring.”

Your can reach Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at

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