The 4.6 million English language learners in the United States public school system are in trouble, according to poet Dylan Garity. Calling them “good organs in a sick body,” he believes that their ability to succeed in the U.S. school system is endangered by policies around English education and he’s using the power of the pen—or, in this case, the poetry slam—to get the word out about it.
In 2002, Massachusetts residents voted to replace transitional bilingual education with an English-only curriculum.
Garity, assistant director of the nonprofit organization Button Poetry, performed the piece “Rigged Game” for the 2013 National Poetry Slam competition in Boston. The poem pairs a personal narrative about Garity’s sister’s experience as a teacher in Boston with a critique of No Child Left Behind’s impact on students trying to learn English.
The poem derives much of its power from its comparisons:
Learning to read in a new language when you can’t even read in your own is like trying to heal a burn victim by drowning them.
We are telling these children who have spent their whole lives in the deep end that they’ll learn how to swim if they just float out a little farther.
Though the individual children Garity names in his piece do not exist, they reflect the real experiences of his sister’s students. Many of them come into her fourth-grade class lacking the ability to read in their native language, or with no knowledge of English whatsoever.
Garity believes that education in the students’ native language is the best place to start, but a new law actively prevents that. In 2002, Massachusetts residents voted to replace transitional bilingual education with an English-only curriculum, which meant that ESL teachers like Garity’s sister are no longer allowed to help students with their Spanish in any way. Yet the students are still expected to perform at grade level by the end of the school year.
“She has to prepare them for these test that they have no possible way of being prepared for,” Garity told YES. “Even with the best resources available, it’s impossible for these students to achieve those standards.”
Garity’s performance shows how a poet can cut through confusing legal language and bring out the human rights issues that are behind it.