“But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free —
We love our land for what she is and what she is to be”
— from “America For Me,” by Henry Van Dyke
Poetry creates insurrection. When I created an assignment using poetry to teach grammar and communication, my ESL students marched off to the dean’s office to complain.
“We signed up to study grammar, not poetry.”
Fair enough. I had failed to mention to my students how the assignment connected with their communication text that explored the contemporary topics of identity, the role of a global language, fears and phobia, culinary arts and intelligence. Their complaint surprised me because my students had completed the assignment and blown me away with their creativity, intelligence and versatility. “What is it about poetry that does that?” I pondered.
Fortunately, neither the dean nor my immediate boss or colleagues at Red Rocks Community College were perturbed.
“It is not what you do in the classroom, Anushka, it is how you present it,” said the dean.
“Creativity and critical thinking is good, but our students also need structure,” advised my multilingual boss via e-mail. “Our students challenge us, and these challenges can cause us to grow. I use playwriting myself to teach grammar.”
I sighed with relief.
Another Community College of Denver mentor who has 40-odd years teaching in various countries of the world urged me to keep on keeping on.
“It is not that your students make 100 mistakes, it is just that they keep making the same mistakes over and over,” she said. “Listen to them, and you will learn. Teach them to hear themselves, and they will begin to correct their own mistakes. Give them opportunities to understand and use grammar in a variety of communication situations.”
The culmination of all that poetry, insurrection and educator instruction was a recent magical evening of international poetry and bilingual proverbs at Hearthfire Books in Bergen Park. ESL students from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Korea, China and Taiwan presented their poetry and conversed easily with their audience in English. All the educators present felt like mother hens and cockerels glad to have birthed the golden eggs.
Our ESL students come from diverse backgrounds and are a valuable part of our community and society. They not only bring in revenue, but depending on the education they receive and their experience of American society, they transform into sophisticated, bilingual or multilingual cultural ambassadors for their home countries.
In light of the current furor over Islamists, it was a pleasure to encounter my four students from Saudi Arabia who used their communication skills to engage us in reflections of identity, language, culture and faith in contemporary society. When I had students choose a favorite song in their native language and translate and present it in English, two of my students chose Islamic religious songs.
“It sounds like a gospel message,” a beautiful Korean Catholic student reflected. The others agreed.
My students from Mexico offer us intelligent insights on love, language and love of country. One student wrote in a poem on his native language: “When I speak Spanish, I am singing an anthem. When I wake up in Mexico, I dream of the United States.”
And on his second language, English:
“My second language is English. It sounds like a dream coming true; it looks like the sun that lights my day.”
I am teaching my second eight-week class now. Our international students come from the nations of the world. There is true diversity in America — the opportunity to learn from one another not as members of disparate nationalities but as members of a global village.
One student from Saudi Arabia expressed a wish to meet President Barack Obama. Surprised, I asked him why, and he replied simply: “I like him.”
Others knowing my status as an immigrant poet in exile ask sympathetically, “Will you ever be able to return to your home country to visit?”
“Insyallah, God willing.” I reply with a smile. “There will come a day when all people will come to realize that although we come from different countries, we share in common our humanity.”
Poetry may have created insurrection, but as we work through that, there is resurrection and a renaissance of ideas.
Former Evergreen resident Anushka Anastasia Solomon, a published poet, is a member of the adjunct ESL faculty and a writing tutor at Red Rocks Community College.