What It Means to Be an American – Student Poetry Can Change the World

Student voice is at the center of impactful, inclusive, and inspirational education. And sometimes, we are lucky enough to teach a student who embraces the power his or her voice holds. img_8361

In the case of Rameen and Isabella, I am blessed this year with two strong, passionate, driven, and now poetic, young women in my AP Language class. When they were asked what it means to be an American in their Government class, they were soon sharing and revising a poem with several members of our English department. And when I heard the final version, I knew I needed to share it with you.

Raising Student Voice is the focus of NCTE’s call for proposals for the 2018 convention in Houston. In it, Program Chair Franki Sibberson says, “Our students’ voices matter. Their voices matter in our schools, our communities, and beyond. As teachers, we want our students to discover their own voices. We want them to know the power of their voices. We want them to know the power of others’ voices, and we want them to know the power of their collective voices. Most important, we want to help them discover how their voices might impact our world and to be empowered to use their voices to speak out for equity and justice.”

 

Isabella and Rameen are prime examples of what beautiful thoughts, words, and actions can come from students raising their voices for right in this world. The fact that Isabella left class the other day saying she’s writing poetry on her own now, warms my heart beyond measure.

Please enjoy the incredible words of these two gifted young ladies. I could not be more proud of their efforts, their sentiments, or their ever-growing understanding of the power their words can have on the world they are already helping to positively change.

They speak from experience. They speak from the heart. They speak their own educated, inclusive, and compassionate truth.

What could be more valuable to promote both within, and beyond, the walls of our classrooms?


 

Isabella: Well, what does it really mean to be an American? Rameen and I decided to tackle the subject when asked this question in Mr. Belan’s government class. We both come from cultural backgrounds that are considered minority groups in the United States (I am half Mexican) and as Rameen said, it isn’t uncommon for a minority’s American-ness to be questioned. We decided to write a poem discussing the subjects of what it really means to be an American.

Being an American isn’t all about being born and raised in the U.S. but there is so much more that makes this country what it is and it’s people who they are. We often forget the history of this country. As amazing as this country is, we forget that it was built on the backs of slaves. Forget that our founding fathers included immigrants. Forget that we are a nation that worked our way up when other superpowers at the time laughed and were certain we would fail. But our success story thus far has only been with the help of every single inhabitant, no matter how big or small their role.

Rameen and I felt that we needed to remind people of our true American values and beliefs. The values and beliefs of what it means to be an American.

Rameen: Growing up, I heard questions such as “Hey Rameen, where are you from? No, no…where are you really from?” or “Hey, what are you?” more often than I care to remember. I very well know that people are intending to ask about my cultural and ethnic background, but the manner in which the question has always been asked is incorrect. I was never offended, but I wanted to educate people about the true meaning of their statements.

Asking me, where I’m from is asking where I’m born or where I’ve lived, which is and always has been the United States. I am a natural American citizen, born in Cleveland, OH. But what most people intend to ask is, “Where are your parents or your family from?” or “What’s your ethnic background?” Now this question, I would respond to with “My parents are from Pakistan,” but I always made sure to follow this with, “but they’re American citizens” because somehow my parents being born in a different country, questions my American-ness.

I, in a way, feel obligated to prove that my family and I are just as American as someone whose family has been born and raised in the States for generations. Despite my entire family being American citizens, we were often faced with the challenge of subconsciously feeling the need to prove to others that we were deserving of that label. We were always extremely cautious of what we would say and how it could be interpreted as being a brown person living in the United States. We were always careful of where we spoke Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

Being a minority in America often feels as though there are more eyes watching what you’re doing.


Without further ado, we present to you, “What it Means to be an American”

What it Means to be an American
By Rameen Awan & Isabella Barnard

We live in a world where success equates survival.
Where every man, brother, sister, and child becomes your rival.
This is a nation propelled by our wealth.
A place where working for your family is more important than one’s health.
They say that we are a nation of dreamers.
That people flock to our borders in hopes of earning the support of the believers.

We live in an era categorized by numbers on a screen.
Where narcissists are obsessed, wanting their every move to be seen.
Crafting the perfect one-forty characters is everything they strive for,
Forgetting that when it comes to life, there is oh, so much more.
They forget the knowledge that can come from simple conversation,
And will speak with their neighbors with fierce hesitation.  

We live in a country where we are to believe that we’re protected by our rights.
But after hundreds of years, many are still fighting those same fights.
Many fail to realize the true struggles that some endure,
And how becoming united as a nation is our only hope for a cure.

We live in a nation with members still supporting the Confederacy.
Supporting the ideals and beliefs of the current U.S. presidency.
It’s as though our slow and steady progress is being completely reversed
It’s as though the change we’ve tried to make is under an inescapable curse.

*****

We live in a land where many claim that the man in office is “not their president”
However, those that concur proclaim, “He is if you’re an American resident.”
But what is one to do if we believe that statement untrue,
If we believe that “America is a place for everyone,” except for me, you, and you?

We live in minds that expand the definition of innovate
Minds that test the boundaries of what man can create
We even sent the first man to the moon so he could gravitate
Other nations try but just can’t seem to replicate

We live in bodies that have the power to shape the future
With precise hands that perform the most intricate suture
With each generation growing when valued is the teacher
With souls that are not afraid of any sort of venture

We live in a society of the best and the brightest
Are we perfect? No. Not in the slightest
But with a military named the strongest
And people that constantly work their hardest
Being an American means having the option of going on your own conquest

It means exploring things to see in which you yourself should invest
It means having the right of choosing if and how you want to be blessed
It means enduring the most in order to find success
It means no restrictions on your mind or your word when in distress

If what it means to be an American is what you are attempting to define
Go back and carefully reread and consider each and every line
You are entitled to your own thoughts but here you’ve heard mine
If you want to better America, do it. Just don’t run out of time.

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One thought on “What It Means to Be an American – Student Poetry Can Change the World

  1. jmcclure1016 December 14, 2017 at 10:21 am Reply

    Great post! Kids are so insightful and we can learn so much from them if we give them a chance to speak. The poem is beautifully written from a point of view that I can only understand because of the willingness to share thoughts based on first-hand experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

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