Before we began the partner poem lesson in each of our classrooms, we reflected on the year with students, especially discussions of stereotypes and racism. In Shwayla's class these discussions were prompted by studying Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, the moving historical fiction set in Mississippi at the height of the Depression. It is the story of one family's struggle to maintain their integrity, pride, and independence in the face of racism and social injustice . Heidi's class reflected on the unit in which they read Warriors Don't Cry. We both reviewed the media stereotypes that we had examined with our classes. One student in Heidi's class said, "Women are always shown as needing to be rescued." Another said, "People are always supposed to be skinny." Another added, "And women are suppose to have nice figures, be pretty, have tiny feet, and be searching for the perfect man." In Shwayla's class, a Latino student said, "Latinos are seen as gang-affiliated criminals with scruffy facial hair and strong accents." Another student added, "They also think all black people are uneducated."
In both classes we reviewed the year and then introduced the partner poem, explaining that our critical analysis of these stereotypes led us to a place where we needed to talk back to them. Shwayla, for example, shared a time in middle school when she was stereotyped and hurt, and she lashed out at classmates for calling her "ebony and ivory." Heidi talked to her students about a time in high school when she verbally attacked another student who made "Chinese eyes" at her and called her a "gook." After sharing these personal examples, we handed out " A Woman of Color," the poem that we had written. We each explained that this was our attempt to fight back at the stereotypes. In each of our classes we chose a student to read the poem ahead of time to get the feel and the flow. That student was then able to read the poem with each of us for the rest of the class.
Because we wanted to teach them how to write a partner poem and not just appreciate ours, in each of the classes we asked the students to read the poem on their own and to highlight some of the categories they recognized in our poem — like hair, eyes, or culture. Some students struggled with this. In Heidi's class many felt they should just highlight the entire poem because they found categories they identified with in each line. In retrospect, we should have encouraged them to look for one or two words that clarified the category and only highlight those.
Once students finished highlighting, we created a t-chart, with categories on the left side and colorful descriptions on the right, of all of the categories they found running through "A Woman of Color." Categories included skin color, hair, language, culture, food, family, etc. We both asked students to add other categories that we had not listed. Then we also asked them to add their own descriptions to get a feel for the flow. For example, our students' descriptions in the "skin color" category included the following:
Rich color of rice paper
Yellow and cream
Caramel colored latte
Hershey's special dark chocolate
Vanilla mixed with strawberries
Peaches mixed with cherries
Smooth creamy vanilla ice cream
And here are some of their descriptions from the "language" category: