A Poetry Writing Task that Celebrates Identity through the Everyday: A Few Easy Steps
Look around you. Check out the pictures on the walls, the nicknacks on the shelf. Think about the things your father used to say or songs you heard growing up. These little things add up to create culture and make up who we are today. They are important and unique.
“Where I’m from” poems provide a fun and structured format for exploring identity and background by creating poetry out of the everyday. They are a great way to connect with students at the start of the year. The steps can be easily spread out over different time slots and differentiated for different age groups. These poems are a hit with adults at CPD and with students from primary to secondary.
How it works
1. First Reading
Students read the poem by George Ella Lyon called “Where I’m From”. There are some words that might not be familiar, but the main point of this first reading is to listen to the flow of the poem and to see what the class does to understand about her experiences.
Where I'm From
by George Ella Lyon I am from clothespins, from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride. I am from the dirt under the back porch. (Black, glistening, it tasted like beets.) I am from the forsythia bush the Dutch elm whose long-gone limbs I remember as if they were my own. I'm from fudge and eyeglasses, from Imogene and Alafair. I'm from the know-it-alls and the pass-it-ons, from Perk up! and Pipe down! I'm from He restoreth my soul with a cotton ball lamb and ten verses I can say myself. I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch, fried corn and strong coffee. From the finger my grandfather lost to the auger, the eye my father shut to keep his sight. Under my bed was a dress box spilling old pictures, a sift of lost faces to drift beneath my dreams. I am from those moments-- snapped before I budded -- leaf-fall from the family tree.
2. Closer Reading
Students each get a copy of an annotated poem or definitions, below. Students follow along silently as the teacher reads the poem aloud. Then discuss:
What did you notice about this poem?
Did you notice any patterns or repeated words?
This poem was written by a woman. What did you learn about her from this poem? (Students can make inferences about who she is and what her life was like growing up.)
3. Student Brainstorm
Students brainstorm things in their lives like objects that have meaning to them, such as foods they love, expressions they commonly hear and other sounds, smells, things in their area, cultural traditions etc. Encourage them to use words or phrases in a language specific to their background.
4. The Refrain
Then they decide on a refrain, such as “Where I’m from . .. “, “In me there is . . “ or “I am from . . . “
5. Let's Create
Create the poem, filling in the words from the brainstorm. Use the template, if needed, but encourage older students to experiment with their own ideas. For younger children, I recommend teachers write their own poems as a guide or take stanzas from the examples below. Go here for a fill-in-the blank poem.
Involve a large group of students. Over 100 students at the Kingsborough Early College Secondary School in Brooklyn wrote Where I’m From poems and shared them in assembly. "The activity was low stakes, fun and let us celebrate all of our different cultures, heritages, and experiences,” according to Sarah Kaplan, former Assistant Principal, KECSS in New York. “Still one of my favorite Advisory experiences, 13 years later."
Nina Dibner, who worked with me to write Connect the Dots, and I learned about this strategy over 20 years ago from Teaching Tolerance, which provides free resources to educators to teach youth people to be active participants in a diverse democracy, emphasising the importance of social justice and social emotional learning. See tolerance.org