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Where I’m From


Source: Christenson, Linda. (1998). "Where I'm From" Rethinking Schools, 12.2: 22-23.

Time: 2 X 70 minutes

Rationale
It is important to “find ways to make students feel significant and cared about as well, to find space for their lives to become part of the curriculum. I do this by inviting them to write about their lives, about the worlds from which they come. Our sharing is one of the many ways we begin to build community together,” Linda Christenson, Rethinking Schools.

Description
The poem "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon[1] is used to invite students' families, homes, and neighborhoods into the classroom. Lyon's poem follows a repeating pattern "I am from..." that recalls details, evokes memories. It can also teach about the use of specifics in poetry and prompt some excellent poems!

Materials

  • Copies of poem “Where I’m From” or overhead of poem

Teaching/ Learning Strategies

  1. After the students read the poem out loud together, we note that Lyon begins many of her lines with the phrase, "I am from." I suggest they might want to use the line "I am from" or create another phrase that will move the poem they create forward.
  2. We go line by line through the poem and notice the details Lyon remembers about her past. After we read, I ask students to write lists that match the ones in Lyon's poem and to share them out loud. This verbal sharing sparks memories to bubble up from student to student and also gives us memories to share as we make our way through the lesson:
    • Items found around their home: bobby pins or stacks of newspapers, grandma's teeth, discount coupons for a Mercedes. (They don't have to tell the truth.)
    • Items found in their yard: broken rakes, dog bones, hoses coiled like green snakes (I encourage them to think of comparisons as they list.)
    • Names of relatives, especially ones that link them to the past: Uncle Einar and Aunt Eva, Claude, the Christensen branch.
    • Sayings: "If I've told you once..." (The students had a great time with this one; they had a ready supply that either brought me back to childhood or made me want to steal their families' lines.)
    • Names of foods and dishes that recall family gatherings: ludefisk or tamales or black eyed peas.
    • Names of places they keep their childhood memories: Dairies, boxes, underwear drawers, inside the family Bible.
  3. We share their lists out loud as we brainstorm. I encourage them to make their piece "sound like home," using the names and language of their home, their family, their neighbourhood. The students who write vague nouns like "shoes" or "magazines," get more specific when they hear their classmates shout out, "Jet," "Latina," "pink tights crusted with rosin." Out of the chaos, the sounds, smells, and languages of my students' homes emerge in poetry.
  4. Once they have their lists of specific words, phrases, and names, I ask them to write. I encourage them to find some kind of ink or phrase like "I am from..." to weave the poem together and to end the poem with a line or two that ties their present to their past, their family history. For example, in Lyon's poem, she ends with "under my bet was a dress box/spilling old pictures... . I am from those moments... ."
  5. After students have written a draft, we "read around." This in an opportunity for students to feel "significant and cared about" as they share their poems. But as most teachers know, students don't automatically give their undivided attention to each other when they share pieces in the class. To facilitate the process and to make sure that students get the attention their pieces deserve, I have students write comments about each reader's piece. I do this to keep them focused on the reader, but it's also a way for them to learn from each other what makes good writing. I tell them, "Pull out a piece of paper. Write the name of the reader, then as each person reads; write what you liked about their piece. Be specific, write down what words or phrases made the piece work. Did they use a list? A metaphor? Humour?
  6. Seated in our circle, each student reads his/her poem. After the student reads, classmates raise their hands to comment on what they like about the piece. The writer calls on his/her classmates and receives feedback about what is good in the poem. I rarely comment during this process because students pick up on all of the points I would have made. I do stop from time to time to point out that the use of a list is a technique they might "borrow" from their peer's poem and include in their next poem or in a revision; I might note that the use of Spanish or home language adds authenticity to a piece and ask them to see if they could add some to their piece. After a few read-around sessions I can spot writing techniques that students have "borrowed" from each other and include in their revisions or in their next piece: Dialogue, church sayings, lists, exaggeration.


[1] Printed in Blum, Joshua et al. (1995). United States of Poetry. New York: Harry N. Adams Inc.

 

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