Tag Archives: Teaching Poetry

Where I’m From Book Assessment

I came across the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon, an American author from Kentucky, who has published in many genres, including picture books, poetry, juvenile novels, and articles.:

Where I’m From

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.

The poem has so much vivid imagery. The moments are also metaphors and requires students to make inferences reading and rereading the poem. The reader gets a clear picture in their mind of the childhood farm George Ella Lyon grew up on in Kentucky. The poem highlights the role of family, culture and childhood help to develop ones sense of identity.

My students read the poem silently first and then I read the poem aloud. After hearing the poem and reading the poem students sketched an image that stood out from their understanding of the poem. Students shared their sketches with their elbow partner.

Students were asked to work in small groups to deconstruct the poem:

  1. Go back into the poem and count how many times the lines begin with “I’m from…”
  2. Find a sensory description with vivid imagery using smell, touch, taste, or sight
  3. Find a metaphor and decipher it’s meaning
  4. Identify the memories vs. present time
  5. What else do you notice?

After ten minutes we returned back to the large class to discuss our findings. We discussed how each of the choices that Lyon made when writing her poem were significant, small items in her life that helped to shape who she was. T.

Now I love the idea of students creating their own “Where I’m From” poems about themselves but since we have been reading choice novels about identity, I had students create an “I Am From” poem based on the protagonist in their reading book. Students were asked to think of significant items in the protagonists life, things that helped shape their identity, family beliefs that molded what they believe, and a description of their place within their family using figurative language. The results were awesome.

The first student example is based on Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue:

I am from a land that no longer welcomes me

A country where I cannot return, despite all the people demanding I do

Surviving, not thriving, in a new land that is almost as welcoming

Stuck with a name that isn’t my own

Where it is normal for me to leave school bloody and beaten

Working with classmates who refuse to acknowledge who I am

Who continuously mix up my home country with another, collectively deciding to turn away and disregard the differences

I am from a mom who is stronger than any hero

A sister who’s as smart as a textbook, but as cold as my favorite ice cream

We don’t talk anymore, all that’s left behind are memories

And even those are fading

I am from a step-dad who beats my mom to a pulp, but also keeps us afloat

A biological dad who decided we weren’t worth the trouble

Who moved on without a second glance in our direction

I am from riches and wealth, turned to dirt and no lunch

I am from a wonderful childhood, cut too short

Forced to grow up too soon

Missing my culture that encourages respect 

Unlike my new home, where respect is scarce 

Trying to keep my light alive by cracking jokes, although they are always met with silence

I am from everyone I had to leave behind

Everything I couldn’t save

Everyone I couldn’t protect 

I am one with the stories of the past, only true to me

Built from the everlasting tales, allowing me to live and learn

I am from a jasmine house where the memories are fond and my life began

Reminiscing in the scent of flowers, swans, sapphire blue rivers, and chests full of gold doubloons

I am from everywhere, everyone, and everything

A mosaic 

A reflection

A montage of the past

A collection of moments

Here is another student example based on Elizabeth Acevado’s Poet X:

My family is from the small religious island of the Dominican Republic

Where my Mami fled for America

But I am from the city

Where nobody sleeps

The part of Harlem where creepy men lurk at every corner 

I am from a school just a train ride away

Where most students skip class and fool around 

I am from a town that sees me not as a person but an object to mess around with

My life welded to live invisible, trying to hide from all those demanding to play with me 

I am from a life in which I can trust only me to stick up for myself

I am from a family in which respect is nowhere to be found

From disappointed looks and lecturings parties

From church every Sunday and an Earth rotating around God

I am from a mother who resorts to violence at every given second and a father who seeks no part in my life 

I am from a safety net that is my twin brother by whom I am connected to by twin powers

Yet from a family in which my gay brother is unjustly unaccepted and my freedom seeking self is restrained by thick chains and barbed wire

I am long gone from the days of the ice skating rinks and peaceful church with Father Sean

No longer remembering the love my Mami and I once shared

I am from a suffering family through and through working to mend our knotted, beaten family back together 

I am a little girl inside a big body who seeks safety and acceptance yet gets met by hatred and harassment

I am a girl who wants everything she’s never supposed to have

Someone who wished for a boy but gets meet by misogyny 

I am from hours of being discriminated against and named a ‘cuero’ and days of questioning who I am 

I am from a tight ship revolving around strict rules

From a confusing and curious brain that goes against my family’s teachings 

And a girl who wishes to write poems peacefully 

From a life scarred by the appalling cent of my burning notebook filled with my problems I never solved 

I am from the secret poetry club restricted by my hate filled Mami and knees that burn from the rice buckets 

From the safe warmth of Ms. Galiano the only women who showed kindness and encouragement

I am from a world of great bravery learning how to express my pain and share my joy

A place in which I shall share my poems freely and safely to the world

I am a woman who shall honor and stay true to herself

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Virtual Field Trip to Emily Dickinson Museum

One of my graduate students has been doing an author study of Emily Dickinson for our Writing and Thinking class this spring. Through his work I have been drawn to his discoveries and sharing about the unique poetry written by Emily Dickinson. Her poetry, as he describes is “more than a piece of writing to be studied, they are pieces of timeless art.” Using Dickinson’s letters and even her gardens helps to understand her poetry more deeply, her revision process, and the power of her words.

Emily Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson published less than a dozen poems. All of them were anonymous. By the time Dickinson turned 35, she had composed more than 1100 concise, powerful lyrics that astutely examine pain, grief, joy, love, nature, and art. She recorded about 800 of these poems in small handmade booklets (now called “fascicles”), very private “publications” that she shared with no one. After Emily’s death, a hidden trunk was found by her sister containing almost 2,000 poems. Emily Dickinson’s experience as a gardener helped develop several of her poems about nature.

Take a virtual tour of the grounds and landscape of the Emily Dickinson Museum

Through her windows, Dickinson would have viewed a sweeping meadow and The Evergreens’ picturesque landscape. She was a passionate amateur botanist, as a teenager collecting more than 400 specimens and pressing them into her Herbarium (also at Houghton), and a lifelong gardener. Her father built her a small conservatory on the side of the house, where she tended calla lilies, gardenias, and inland buttercups. Nature, as The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, by Judith Farr, indicates, lent vitality and endless inspiration: one-third of Dickinson’s poems, and half her letters, mention her favorite flowers. Often, she records the most precious, minute observations: “A Bird, came down the Walk -/He did not know I saw -/He bit an Angle Worm in halves /And ate the fellow, raw,/ And then, he drank a Dew/From a convenient Grass -/And then hopped sidewise to the Wall/To let a Beetle pass –….” [This Dickinson text—#359—and #1696 and #1091 below, are from R.W. Franklin, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).]

Dickinson found great joy in exploring the mysteries of nature, and some of her poems read like riddles. A concise and complex poem like the one below forces the reader to slow down and consider each word and image. Can you figure out what this poem is about?

A Route of Evanescence, (1489)

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

On the Museum’s webpage about the Major Characteristics of Dickinson’s Poetry it states, “One of Dickinson’s special gifts as a poet is her ability to describe abstract concepts with concrete images. In many Dickinson poems, abstract ideas and material things are used to explain each other, but the relation between them remains complex and unpredictable.”

Although the museum is currently closed due to the pandemic, teachers and students can still go online to view the museum, galleries, and tour the grounds. Additionally, the museum website offers lesson plans, resources, and extensive historical biographical information about Dickinson and her family.

Looking for more about this elusive poet, Apple TV’s Dickinson is an American comedy streaming television series about Emily Dickinson, created by Alena Smith starring Hailee Steinfeld. This retelling of Dickinson’s story draws attention to the parallels between the 1800s and our world today. The second season was released in January 2021.

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NCTE Verse: Sekou Sundiata

For the past month, National Council of Teachers of English has been sending its members a poet a day celebrating more than 20 poets, the majority of them contemporary and up-and-coming. The last one share for 2020 National Poetry Month was one that I wrote about the poet Sekou Sundiata. As a first year teacher in New York City twenty years ago, I saw Sekou Sundiata perform live at the New School University and still today, he influences my teaching and writing poetry with my students. For more information about past poets and teaching poetry check out NCTE.

Poet of the Day: Sekou Sundiata
Sekou Sundiata’s poetry touches on issues of race and identity. A poet and performance artist, Sundiata’s poetry performances infuse jazz, blues, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. He wrote the plays Blessing the Boats, The Circle Unbroken is a Hard Bop, The Mystery of Love, Udu, and the 51st (dream) state. Sundiata was the first Writer-in-Residence at New School University where he taught literature and poetry classes. In 2001 he toured with Ani DiFranco, whose Righteous Babe record label released LongStoryShort. Sundiata was featured in Bill Moyer’s PBS series The Language of Life and the PBS series United States of Poetry, created and produced by Bob Holman. Sundiata said of his work, “This is poetry-as-living-word. That’s the tradition I come out of . . . the spoken word as a celebration of life, as expression of consciousness through the power and glory of language. Poetry not as monologue, but as dialogue; a chant, a call, a response, a riff, a refrain and whatnot.”
This poet belongs in our classrooms because . . .
Poetry is music and music is poetry. Sundiata’s poetry has a political edge and speaks of black culture and tradition. The topics he presents about race and identity are part of an ongoing conversation about America’s identity, citizenship, and individuality. Sekou Sundiata is considered one of the grandfathers of the spoken-word movement. Poetry in our classroom is not just for literary analysis, but for performance too. Poetry is meant to be spoken and heard. It evokes emotions, reactions, and is a catalyst for critical conversations in the classroom.
A Poem by Sekou Sundiata
Blink Your Eyes
I was on my way to see my woman
but the Law said I was on my way
thru a red light red light red light
and if you saw my woman
you could understand,
I was just being a man.
It wasn’t about no light
it was about my ride
and if you saw my ride
you could dig that too, you dig?
Sunroof stereo radio black leather
bucket seats sit low you know,
the body’s cool, but the tires are worn.
Ride when the hard time come, ride
when they’re gone, in other words
the light was green.
I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change:
blink your eyes.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in
Up to the window comes the Law
with his hand on his gun
what’s up? what’s happening?
I said I guess
that’s when I really broke the law.
He said a routine, step out the car
a routine, assume the position.
Put your hands up in the air
you know the routine, like you just don’t care.
License and registration.
Deep was the night and the light
from the North Star on the car door, deja vu
we’ve been through this before,
why did you stop me?
Somebody had to stop you.
I watch the news, you always lose.
You’re unreliable, that’s undeniable.
This is serious, you could be dangerous.
I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change:
blink your eyes.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in
New York City, they got laws
can’t no bruthas drive outdoors,
in certain neighborhoods, on particular streets
near and around certain types of people.
They got laws.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in.
Other Poems & Performance Pieces by Sekou Sundiata
New American Theater (Dodge Poetry Festival)
Teaching Connections
“Blink your Eyes” can be used for text comparison or text pairing with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, or Nic Stone’s Dear Martin. Additionally, this poem can be part of a discussion about Jim Crow laws and racism throughout history. This poem was written in the mid 1990s addressing racial profiling and stereotypes, but provides context and connections to history and today. Looking at craft and structure, students can examine how Sundiata’s figurative language and repetition provide meaning and emphasis.
Discussion Prompts & Text-Dependent Questions
  1. What is the author’s message about racial injustice?
  2. How does the author use irony to describe his feelings for his readers?
  3. The poet uses details to guide our emotional response. What emotions do you believe the author intended the reader to experience and why?
  4. What is the significance and symbolism of “red light” emphasized throughout the poem?
  5. How does the personification of the law contribute to the poem?
As Jay-Z writes in Decoded, “Rhymes can make sense of the world in a way that regular speech can’t.” Listen to the poem multiple times; when we only deconstruct the poem on paper, it loses its full capability. Recognize how the music and rhyming adds an additional layer with the sound of language to make meaning. Check out Bryce Ware’s reading of Sundiata’s poem as well as Sundiata performing his poem.
All of Sundiata’s poetry can be used as a model and mentor text for students writing and performing their own poems about social injustice and oppression.
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