by Brett Vogelsinger
Safia Elhillo's beautiful poem "first adornment" captures a moment that is personally meaningful but also culturally rich. Elhillo describes herself as "Sudanese by way of Washington DC" in her bio, and much of the imagery in this poem highlights her Sudanese roots.
Challenge students to use clues from within "first adornment" to explore the cultural roots of its poet. In this poem clues such as Ramadan, the stones in the rice, the crushed hibiscus, the henna, suggest certain climates and regions of the world. With guiding questions, you might see how close you can lead the class to Sudan.
After revealing that these images reference Sudanese culture, a question flood might be appropriate. Ask the class to generate plentiful questions based on the poem, flooding its margins: What does this poem make you wonder about this culture? What questions do you have about Sudan after reading this poem?
Sadly, many students receive too little exposure to cultures outside of their own. I recently heard of an elementary school student who was given the opportunity to research the culture of any country in the world. He chose Mozambique because he thought the name was fascinating, and it made him want to learn more. He was redirected by his teacher to choose Brazil because he was told "no one has really heard of Mozambique," which, to me, seems even greater reason to research it and bring it to the class. (On a brighter note, he enjoyed researching and learning about Brazil.)
Poems give us the chance to introduce voices from all over the world. By starting class with a new one each day, students experience inquiry into cultures they may never study in a social studies or history class, which is just one more reason to start sharing more poetry.
Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, PA. He has been starting class with a poem each day for the past six years and is the creator of the Go Poems blog to share poetry reading and writing ideas with teachers around the world. Find him on Twitter @theVogelman.