Writing can be so personal. Especially when we’re asking kids to write in their real voice, about things that matter to them. So I’m always in search of writing assignments that help students write about their lives in ways that feel doable and beautiful, inspiring and easy. From there students can begin to add layers of complexity and allow themselves to be vulnerable in the writing if they feel ready.
I love the “I am from” poem. At some point fifteen years ago I stumbled across the idea of having students write these poems, inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m from” (listen to the audio) or (read the text). Lyon weaves together vivid images from her life as a girl, drawing on little things like art projects she did, products she used, things her parents said, as well as sensory details from her life experience, to create a window into her past. It’s a striking poem, and also an easy one to understand and to emulate (perfect for class!).
So when I put together my very first poetry unit, the “I am from” poem was our opening poetry workshop. I guided students to brainstorm about sensory experiences, sayings, and people from their childhoods and then choose their favorite bits and pieces to put into the basic structure of an “I am from poem,” each verse of which goes something like this:
“I am from….
From … and …
I am from … and …..
So if a student had brainstormed imagery like this:
- raisins lined up on crunchy peanut butter celery
- my worn-out red ping pong paddle with the handle duct-taped on
- my Dad’s loud laugh
- my brother’s protection
It went so well. From what I can tell after years of running this workshop and also hearing from other teachers, it almost always does. “I am from” poems practically write themselves, celebrating the lives of their writers in powerful ways.
Many of my students have chosen to perform their “I am from” poems as spoken word pieces in our poetry slams over the years. I remember a particularly powerful one a student wrote about the city of Sofia, Bulgaria when I was teaching there. The imagery describing the city – its history, its strange mishmash of architecture, the student’s own connections to it – stunned me.
The other day I saw a bulletin board featuring “I am from” poems alongside group photos of students in my friend Brynn’s Instagram – she goes by “The Literary Maven” there. It got me thinking about how this beautiful form of writing poetry might be used to create more kinds of displays and collaborations. I discovered the I am From project online, that celebrates how art can be used to help us understand each other’s backgrounds and build bridges in this divided time for our nation.
So today I want to share some ideas for building on the “Where I’m from” writer’s workshop, integrating art and writing, classroom and community.
The first step toward any larger project is to have students explore the form. That means reading Lyon’s poem and beginning to brainstorm and write their own “I am from” poems.
Next, once you’ve got lines, verses, and poems to work with, how might that lead into something larger?
Literatura de Cordel
I first learned about Literatura de Cordel from Eileen Landay of Brown University, when I interviewed her about arts integration last winter.
Says Eileen of the roots of this form in Brazil, “People would write poems or short books, and they would take them to the marketplace and they would hang them on, what is in effect, a clothesline. And other people would come along and buy those. And the idea of original work kind of hanging, available for other people to see and do things with… we’ve done so much with the idea of the cordel.”
The “I am From” poem would be beautiful as a cordel, across your classroom, across the school hallways, across a community space. There are so many ways you could do it.
Students could pull their favorite lines and illustrate them on small papers, intermixing them with photos, recipes, newspaper clippings, or any other physical items that bring them back to where they’re from. Then they could each take a section of the cordel and decide how to hang everything.
Everyone in class could choose their favorite lines. Artists in the class (either using digital programs or art materials or both) could illuminate those lines onto paper. Others could take the artwork and move it around on the cordel until it flows as a class poem. Still others could record the poem on audio to submit to a local radio station, photograph it to send to the paper or the “I am From” Project online, or speak with local organizations about bringing the cordel to public spaces.
You might enjoy playing the collaborative radio poem Kwame Alexander created from 1400 community submissions to NPR as part of your unit. Check it out here: ‘Where I’m from’: A Crowdsourced Poem that Collects your Memories from Home .
Students in classes across the school could complete the project and choose lines to share in a school cordel, hanging them anywhere. In the coming weeks, those interested could move the lines around throughout the school days, reading them and mixing them in unique ways.
School-Wide or Community Display
You could also build a project-based learning unit around translating the classroom work on the poems into a community display of heritage.
Gail Scudieri, an artist and teacher, led students to create the mural below after someone put offensive graffiti on a school wall. She used the concept of a community quilt as inspiration, letting each student design a square to help illustrate their backgrounds.
Perhaps your students would be interested in writing a grant proposal or working with leaders in your city to find a way to share their poetry and art with their community.
The form also lends itself well to a video project. You could teach students to record their voices as an audio overlay, then either shoot video footage or create a photo slideshow to go along with the audio. This could lead into a class film festival or a collaboration across classes or even schools into a larger community film event.
A visual poem based on “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon, created by Julia Daniel for Tamalpais High School’s Academy of Integrated Humanities and New Media (AIM), fall 2010.
My friend Cathleen Beachboard runs an amazing PBL unit in which her students take on community problems. She told me all about it on the podcast this year, and one of the community problems her students work on is the loneliness many older people in their community endure.
It got me thinking about how the “I am from” project might lead to connections between seniors and students. After completing their own poems, students could visit with older people and talk to them about their own lives, writing poems together with them. This could lead into a display of the work in a home for older people. The display could mix and match poetry from both generations, undoubtedly showing ways that we are all connected, as well as showing ways the world is changing.
Earth Day Installation
One of my favorite ideas for using this poem structure in a larger project is to connect it to environmental studies. Whether you’re doing a transcendentalism unit, working with students on the topic of climate change, or just interested in addressing environmentalism on earth day or at any other time of year, writing earth-themed “I am from” poems for the purpose of creating some kind of public art installation would be a fascinating project. You’d need to tweak the imagery brainstorming to focus on things like experiences students have had outdoors, places they’ve been, animals and plants they’ve connected to, weather that’s impacted them, parks they’ve explored, intersections in their lives with water, etc.
I imagine a couple of ways this could look, though you and your students might come up with a totally different concept. I like the idea of having students bring in brown paper from box packing or pieces of cardboard, and cutting them into tree trunks and limbs. Each student could print their poems (or illuminated lines from their poems) onto the tree pieces and add them to the wall. This could easily be a collaborative project, in which students across the school contribute. It could also be something your students set up in a space in the city and then leave additional paper and cardboard and instructions for other people to add to the tree. Perhaps students could create their tree and facilitate others adding to it during some kind of community event, then leave the work behind after the event as a public art piece.
Another, perhaps simpler way to do it, would be to build a tree and then have students add their favorite lines in the form of leaves.
Finally, the “I am From” poem would lend itself beautifully to a collaboration with a teacher abroad. Having your students write about their homes and heritage and then share their work across to a classroom in another country could lead to great conversations about life in other places, undoubtedly reinforcing our similarities as well as teaching students about a city and country they might never have visited. When I taught abroad in Bulgaria, my student did a collaboration around the theme of home with students in Washington D.C., sharing letters and writing projects. We used a class blog to share our work, but you could also send actual letters or upload work to Google Drive.
If you’re interested in creating a collaboration around an “I am from” project with a teacher far from you, you can find one in my Facebook group, Creative High School English. Just make a post explaining your idea, and see who writes back.
Well, what do you think? I hope you’re fired up to try this poetry workshop out with your students, and find ways to help students share their work with your community. Got another idea for how to use the “I am from” poem? We’d all love to hear about it in the comments below!