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:
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.