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Learning Colours

May 2, 2013 — 3 Comments

Learning Colours

by Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe

I hear the maid tell my daughter,
three years old and just able to make out

red from pink and even blue from purple,

as they sit on the verandah
avoiding the glare of our tropical sun,

that she is fair.

If it had been someone else, I would have

stomped up, red in the face, and given my spiel:

“When the one real line is drawn,
even the fairest here is black!”

But this is a woman from a highland village.
She will look at the child’s dark mother and laugh

with her knowledge that coursed two centuries

down hills and dunes into her blood.

She will tell me that nothing gives one

a better advantage in life
than a bit of creamy skin.

 

Poetry can be very powerful way to teach English, but for a students it can be menacing. Last week I shared this poem, written by the Deputy Director of the Fulbright Program in Sri Lanka, with some of my more advanced students. It led to an engaging and thoughtful discussion about skin color and society.

My lesson plan for teaching poetry to ESL students went something like this:

During class we read two poems, and discussed the meaning of the poem. After that the students had to write a response poem. For homework I asked each student to write a poem, based upon Ramya’s. The results were fantastic.

There is no correct way to write a poem; after years of learning in a rigid test based environment that can be frustrating for my students. After working with them for two months though, my students have gotten used to my challenging questions, and they come up with some really great answers to open ended questions. This exercise was so different from traditional Sri Lankan school exercises, because it focused on student creativity

I want to share with you two of the poems that my students wrote:

Skin Colour
Some peoples are white,
Some peoples are black.
Doesn’t think about these skin colours
When you close your eyes
All things are same.

 

Black and White
A man came to my fruit shop
He took and mango and smell it
Perfectly checked my fruits.
I cut a small piece of a mango
Gave it to him.
His face became bright.
Not by his white skin, but
The fine taste of my mango
Grown in a black sand.
He took 5 mangoes.
He put 150 rupees on the bench,
Not in my hand.
Few ones only knew.
Only in dark milk moon is beautiful.

 

I was thrilled reading these expressive poems. For some time I’ve debated teaching this poem. I wasn’t sure how my students would respond, and if it would be culturally insensitive to teach it. After some time of worrying, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and see how it goes. I couldn’t have been happier. My students voiced strong opinions on how skin color affects their lives, and they wrote some really beautiful poetry.

Poetry can make for a great ESL lesson plan and help foster creativity. I think the key is to make it relevant to the students, I was fortunate to find a really touching poem written by a Sri Lankan.

A Stroll Through Base

November 27, 2012 — Leave a comment

Trinco is a town dominated by the military. As you enter the main city you have to pass through multiple checkpoints, where uniform clad youths clutch their presumably Chinese made kalashnikovs. In the town itself, Tamil is the language of choice. Sinhalese is about as useful as English, many people don’t speak either.

Last Friday I headed to Fort Frederick, to look at the temple which sat atop the Portugese built fort. To get there you must walk through the army base, along the rather long uphill walk I stopped at a connivence store for a cold drink. I greeted the clerk in Tamil, and he looked at me and replied in Sinhalese. Apparently he didn’t speak any Tamil.
Later I continued on, and found my way to the top of the fort, at the temple. Here I met a solider by the name of Gayan. Like many, he only spoke English and Sinhalese. I learned that he’s spent six tours abroad, as a driver. He had just returned from Lebanon, and was on his way to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica to drive for someone. He was kind enough to allow me to take his photo in front of his landrover, of which he was quite proud.
The most shocking thing about my walk through the military base was that in a city where the primary language is Tamil, there is this world dominated by Sinhalese. Just one reminder, among many, that Sri Lanka is a divided society – and language is a tool to divide.

Expectations

November 6, 2012 — Leave a comment

As a 6’1″ tall white guy, I stand out in Sri Lanka. My looks really influence people’s interactions with me here.

When speaking Sinhala I take people off guard, as they don’t expect a foreigner to know the language.

At the store today I thanked an attended in Sinhalese, ඉස්තුති (istuti), and in return I received a blank stare. Thinking I had fumbled my words, I repeated myself. When he still hadn’t registered the words I spoke, his coworker – speaking perfect English – said, “he’s thanking you in Sinhalese”.

The expectation in Sri Lanka is that foreigners don’t speak any Sinhalese. Many people aren’t mentally primed to hear Sinhalese come out of my mouth, so when I try to speak it takes them a moment to register the fact that the words I’m saying aren’t in English.

Expectations influence perception.

The Sword (කඩුව)

August 2, 2012 — 1 Comment

Sri Lanka has free tertiary education, but only two percent of students are accepted to university. As a generalization, those accepted to University have excellent English skills; those lacking proficiency in English can be held back and prevented from going abroad on scholarships and grants.

The history of English in Sri Lanka is long and complex. During my orientation I had the chance to meet the gentleman who is the Director of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission – Tissa. He is a gentle, soft-spoken, retired English literature professor. One day at lunch he told my fellow Fulbrighters and I, “We have destroyed the foundation of English teaching because of stupid political mistakes, because of nationalism and ‘equality’”.

He continued to tell us that the Sinhala word for English is a metaphor for the word ‘sword’ (කඩුව, Kaduwa). It is a weapon of those who speak it to repress those who do not. I recently read an op-ed in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times which stated:

The privileged classes will learn an international variety of English and will be able to maintain their higher position in society permanently. The underprivileged classes who are being taught a local variety of English will be further disadvantaged. Those who will stand to benefit, will be the elite.

As an English Teaching Assistant, I will be sharpening that sword, in a sense. While I’ll be working through an NGO, teaching English at a community center, I need to be cognizant of the political and social implications of English in Sri Lanka.

English is a powerful tool, and it enables developing countries to improve their relations with the global economy. There is a profound need for English teaching in Sri Lanka, but I need to be constantly aware of the way that I teach English – so I don’t inadvertently criticize Sinhala.

I’m not quite sure what I’ve gotten myself into, but I am excited for the challenges which lay ahead.