The only thing I remember of my grandmother is her hands. I was four when she passed away, but I am also said to be just like her. If you hold up her 15-year-old school portrait and my 15 year-old school portrait, they are mirror images. Besides the physical make up of our bodies, we are also said to have the same mannerisms....grit, determination, and being way too stubborn. Our story is many peoples' stories. One of the reasons I love talking about writing is the commonalities we have in being human. Now, I won't ever know my grandmother, but I use the stories that I hear to get to know her on a deeper level.
One of these writing exercises that always brings up the memories of growing up and where you come from as a person is the Where I'm From poem exemplar by George Ella Lyons. Linda Christensen goes into detail about this assignment in her book, Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word.
I first made this poem in one of my college undergraduate classes at Western Michigan University, and I kept it tucked away under piles of journals. I later brought it out when I was attending Third Coast Writing Summer Institute for Educators in Kalamazoo, MI. I have always been sensitive about editing this poem because it is...well, about me.
"Identity work is the most vital work in the creation of a writer"-Stephanie
However, this feeling also applies when I am editing my students' work in the fall of each year. I like to open our personal narrative unit by examining life experience. I ALWAYS start with personal narrative because we have to address identity of the writer first before anything else can be considered. I also like to clarify what sector of personal narrative we are operating within for my writers. I will show three large areas: biography, memoir, and personal narrative. While, students often mix up memoir with personal narrative, a Where I'm From poem combines the last two using the genre of poetry. We get a series of events that make up the reader's life in a brief format. Identity work is the most vital work in the creation of a writer. Without identity work, all of the other steps of the writing process will seem superficial. You need to get to know who you are as a writer and who your writers are if you are teaching them.
I start first by having my middle school students do some of these pre-writing exercises:
- 100 Things I Love
- 20 Things I Cannot Stand
- Life Map: Picture Map of My Life
- Journal Scrapbooking
All four of these exercises can often replace the "get to know you games" and the "icebreakers" that have now taken on a negative connotation in the classroom. Where I'm From poems can be used in elementary classrooms all the way up through post-secondary depending on the context. You won't find me doing a lot of icebreakers in my classroom; however, these are sort of like icebreakers AND they are getting kids writing right away.
After we brainstorm about our identify work, I have students classify the different memories they have from their own lives. These may be included, but not limited to:
- Negative Experiences (Injury, Trauma, Emotional Response, etc)
- Positive Experiences (Joy, Achievement, etc)
- Turning Points
- Moments of Laugher
These categories might look differently for each student; however, the gist is to have them group them so the stanzas are easier for the student to digest. I sometimes will do one of the pre-writing activities and then do a life map to help reinforce learning sequencing skills for storylines.
Before I have students do the actual heavy lifting of a draft of a poem, I have them look at exemplars. If you don't have some work from previous years, GOOGLE "Where I'm From Poem Examples" and almost 9 million results pop up. Read some. Show some. Share the love of writing. Have students notice the following: 1.) stanza line numbers 2.) how stanzas start 3.) how stanzas end 4.) words that repeat 5.) sequence of events 6.) how the author ends the poem
What you are doing is teaching them how to recognize style of writing, but they are also making a style guide for how they will make their own draft of a Where I'm From poem. It is important for students to realize that they can come from physical objects as well as people. I come from a lot of things. Even though I am not supposed to necessarily be attached to physical objects, I cannot help but be. My top 5 physical objects I cannot live without include : 1.) my wedding rings 2.) old family pictures 3.)grandmother's earrings 4.) my desk my father made for me 5.) a good pair of moccasins to wear year round.
I digress. A lot of websites have step-by-step instructions for this assignment, so when in doubt, go ahead and grab yourself a guide or a how-to manual. Remember, the key to good writing is how we think about our writing. While this is an assignment to be used in a class, it is also teaching a good lesson on appreciating who we are and where it is we each come from as people.
Writing Mindset Reflection: What physical objects are you tied to? What memories are the most important to you? If you have taught Where I'm From Poems, what has gone well? not so well?