En la Clase: Where I’m From. . .

About a month ago, I wrote a series of En la Clase posts on multicultural teaching and its relevance for the classroom, or how to travel around the world in 180 days.  Recently, as many of my teacher friends return to the classroom and I hear conversations about Where I'm From Poetrybeginning of the year activities, I’m reminded of “Where I’m From Poetry,” one of my favorite lessons to teach at the beginning of every school year. While it didn’t occur to me earlier, this writing activity would be a great addition to any multicultural teaching curriculum.  If you google it, you’ll find lots of information and resources for using this in the classroom. I’ve included some below at the bottom of the post.

One of my favorite resources is Linda Christensen’s lesson plan in Reading, Writing and Rising Up (Rethinking Schools, 2000, pages 18-22).  As I re-read her article, “Where I’m From: Inviting Students’ Lives Into the Classroom,” I was reminded that an important aspect of authentic multicultural teaching is bridging the gap between school and our students’ lives, a divide which unfortunately seems to be getting bigger and bigger. It made me think of a quote by Gloria Ladson-Billings in Dreamkeepers where she describes how she felt about her early school experience: “Despite the fact that there were close to thirty other five-year-olds vying for the attention of the one adult present, school seemed a lot like home. . .I thought school was a pretty neat place.  It was safe and clean, with people who cared about you: again, a lot like home” (p. 3-4).

Sadly, I’m afraid that few of our students today would feel the same as Ladson-Billings. Too often our students don’t feel welcome, or they feel like they can’t be themselves and be accepted in our classrooms at the same time.  The “Where I’m From” poetry activity is a start to changing this.  It is one way we can bring students’ homes into our schools or classrooms in a significant way, and thus begin to bridge the gap between home and school.  The poetry lesson is a way for students to reflect on how their lives outside of school have impacted and helped to create who they are.  In making the “Where I’m From” poetry activity a legitimate part of the curriculum, students see that their lives–who they are and where they come from–are important and valued by us, their teachers.  As they write in Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice (1994), “The ways we organize classroom life should seek to make children feel significant and cared about–by the teacher and by each other.  Unless students feel emotionally and physically safe, they won’t share real thoughts and feelings. . .We need to design activities where students learn to trust and care for each other.”

I’ve linked to various lessons and resources for how to use the “Where I’m From” poetry below.  But, I’d like to leave you with one of the more famous examples written by George Ella Lyon.

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 am 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 cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger by 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.
(Reprinted in Reading, Writing and Rising Up, pg. 18)
 I hope this year your students find your classroom to be a place where they can be accepted, appreciated and cherished for who they are–a place like home.  
Feel free to share your thoughts on the post or your experience using this activity and others like it.  We always love to read what you have to say here at Vamos a Leer!

5 thoughts on “En la Clase: Where I’m From. . .

  1. I love having students write their own “Where I’m From” poems inspired by George Ella Lyon’s! For the past few years, I’ve had students write a whole lot of poetry and then choose one to turn into a digital story/iMovie depending on what technology we’ve had available, and many students have chosen to make movie versions of their “Where I’m From” poem. They end up bringing in all sorts of baby pictures, old photos of family members, and drawings to scan in. It takes a lot of class time and there are always some technological snags, but I’ve always found the project to be really meaningful. It’s a great idea to use this kind of poem early in the year, though, to welcome students and to make it clear that you value their backgrounds and that their experiences are crucial in shaping who they are and what they have to offer.

    • I’m glad someone else likes this activity as much as I do! I love the digital story/iMovie idea–I can imagine it’s quite a lot of work for you (and the students), but those always seem to be the most meaningful and most memorable projects.

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