(citizen) (illegal)

by José Olivarez

Photo by Davon Clark

Writing Workshop

Workshop Title: Parentheses

Step 1

Have your students watch the embedded video. Then have them simply respond to it. Ask, “How did it you make  feel? Can you relate? Have you seen something similar?” Then give them time to discuss.

Step 2

Read “(citizen) (illegal)” by José Olivarez. When you’re done, briefly discuss the meaning of the poem, why it’s constructed in such a way, and how the poem reiterates similar ideas as that of the video you just watched.

Step 3

Say, “Take some time to think the labels that have been placed on you. What are some of the things that people automatically assume or say about you because of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. How did it make you feel? Try to come up with as many descriptions as possible.” Then give your students some time to brainstorm.

Step 4

Have your students write a poem like “(citizen) (illegal)” in which they discuss the things that people immediately assume about them because of certain personality, cultural, or ethnic traits.

Step 5

When the students are done, have them share their responses with one another.

The full presentation may be found HERE.

Analytical Lesson

Area of Focus: Tone

Step 1

If your students are not familiar with the concept of tone or tonal shifts, go through the introductory lesson.

Step 2

Start by playing Joshua Bennett’s performance of “Tamara’s Opus.” When you are done, ask your students the following two questions and field responses:

  1. What does Bennett do during his performance that helps the audience understand the meaning?
  2. As a writer, how could you emphasize those same things on the page rather than through a performance?

Step 3

Have your students open the following document and go over the directions with them. In this assignment, your students will have to read and analyze the poem “(citizen) (illegal),” prepare their own dramatic reading in a manner that would emphasize their insights about the text, and share their performance for the class (optional).

Step 4

Give your students a firm deadline for the first part of the assignment: 30 minutes. Within 30 minutes, they will have to read through the poem, understand it, record their performance in the tool provided in the document, briefly justify why they made certain “dramatic choices” in their vocal presentation, and submit the assignment.

*Regardless if you are fully virtual or face-to-face, all students/groups should complete these steps and submit their recordings to you.

Step 5

After 30 minutes, you should have received all of their recordings. Share one of the recordings with the rest of the class (or just have them perform it in front of the rest of the group). Next, have your class try to determine what “dramatic choices” were made in the student’s (or group’s) reading of the poem. Then have them try to determine the purpose or effect of the choices they noticed. Finally, ask the student or group responsible for the reading to explain the reasons behind their choices.

Lesson Details

Lesson Info


  • Tone


  • Children / Youth
  • Class
  • Community / Culture
  • Family
  • History
  • Home / Homelessness
  • Immigration
  • International
  • Philosophy
  • Race / Ethnicity / Racism

Literary Tags

  • Diction
  • Selection of Detail
  • Structure
  • Structure (Syntax)
  • Tone