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Language Unleashed: The Powerful Poetry of Multilingual Students

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 (Sara Biljana Gaon (off)/Flickr)

Knowing what's going on in the life of a quiet student can be a difficult challenge for educators, and getting to know that child can be further complicated by language barriers. If the student came from another country as a refugee, there is the added layer of trauma. These factors may create a challenging academic environment, but for one educator, poetry was a transformative outlet for immigrant kids who are struggling with issues of language, identity and trauma.

In an article for The Guardian, Kate Clanchy chronicles her experience teaching poetry to students who have recently immigrated to England from all over the world. Some of her students' families fled poverty, others war zones, and many still struggled with English. But through poetry her students were able to express themselves in English on deeply personal themes like the scents of home and the struggles of arriving in a new place. Clanchy writes:

Miss B had sent me off with a small group to work on Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Originally (“the city, / the street, the house, the vacant rooms / where we didn’t live any more”), and we were remaking and breaking the line-breaks on a computer screen, finding out how they worked. In the cheerful noise, Priya was silent, and it was not till the end of the lesson that I leaned over and saw what she was working on:

There is that strange smell again, the tang of
the cars on the road screeching, not like
the laborious rickshaw in Bangladesh

Look ahead, jump, skip and hop. Hide the fact
you are alienated. Chew on the candy floss.
It melts in your mouth. Such foreign stuff!

She typed it in front of me, exactly like that, audacious line breaks, eccentric vocabulary, disturbing punctuation – the lot. The echo of Duffy was precise, but the original force of the poem even stronger. Priya was in the lower set because her critical skills were, at best, ragged, yet when it came to poetry it was as if she were listening, with extra ears, as much to the sounds of the words as their sense. I thought it might be to do with the loss of a language: Priya moved from Bangladesh when she was six. If that was the case, there might be more students like her in our school. In fact, we might have a wealth of them. Poets.

Clanchy's article is a meditation on the strengths that can come with being a dual-language speaker and the power a creative outlet like poetry can have on students who have experienced trauma and are trying to find stability.