May 4, 2010

Finding Invictus

Over the past three weeks I have been using the movie Invictus to guide discussions for my Advanced Discussion class. My intention was to teach via film, song and poetry. I wanted three weeks of lessons with a coherent theme and an end result of film review, poem review, and greater understanding of social change.

In hindsight, I'm not sure what my students learned from the film. I showed the film in short segments, stopping incrementally to check for understanding and to clarify difficult passages. In theory, this is a good way to use film in the ESL classroom. In practice, however, sporadic attendance made it difficult to maintain continuity of the plot and therefore meaningful discussion. To complete our film discussions, today we read the “Invictus” poem in class. At such an early hour of the day, I'm not sure anyone is ready for a poem about human struggle against circumstance, but I don't like to let details like time ruin my plans. We fought our way through the Victorian vocabulary, slowly piecing together a semblance of meaning. Given the difficulty of the poem, I was proud of my students for persevering and humoring my discussion questions.

Ironically, it is my Khmer teacher who seems to best understand the meaning of this poem. Though she hasn't seen the movie or read the words of William Henley, she is determined to command her own fate against the traditional Khmer values that keep women in the home. We talked again today about our Kitchen proverb. By the end of the hour, we had a web on the board detailing the program she wants to create for people in the province. I was deeply impressed by her vision to change the people's mindset that women should remain uneducated and stay only at home. We brainstormed a new version of the proverb. I suggested, A woman's place is in the classroom. She suggested in the office. Then, in the absence of another suggestion from me, she said, “a woman's place is in society.”

This statement illuminates the most fundamental struggle of women. Before women in male-dominated cultures can even think about school or work, they must either be allowed to integrate, or just force their way into a society built by men for men.

It feels a little predestined that I, a Women's Studies student, was paired randomly with a young Khmer woman who dreams of social change in her country.