During the process of writing this poem, I had to make many decisions. Since this poem is not about myself, it was difficult to include details and experiences. I interviewed Tommy and he told me where he came from and his passions in life. When Tommy began to tell me about his memories, I pictured them in my head and pulled out words/pictures I thought related to that particular story. I struggled at times trying to put my all into this poem; writing about someone is a lot more difficult than it looks. — Darcy
Writing in general is a lot more difficult than it looks. And for juniors and seniors in high school, the stakes for writing well are high: college admission essays, standardized writing tests, artist statements, scientific reports — not to mention, massive group texts!
As writing teacher, I’m constantly on the lookout for authentic writing experiences that give students new perspectives — on themselves and others. I’m also drawn to the economy and intentionality of poetry as a way to help students both appreciate the beauty of words and make them aware that each word needs to earn its place in a piece of writing. For my first semester students, I’ve used Kelly Norman Ellis’ “Raised By Women” poem to launch writing college essays, finding that the short bursts of images and details provide insightful golden nuggets that can be then mined for longer personal narratives.
For my second semester students, I wanted to create a similar experience with poetry, but I didn’t have the imperative of a college essay to focus our attention. I teach at a project-based high school where I share a team of students with a teacher in another discipline. This year, my biology partner and I wanted students to interview stakeholders for our inter-disciplinary project on protected environmental spaces.
A new idea for poetry was born! Taking Willie Perdomo’s moving and gritty “Where I’m From” poem as a mentor text, I twisted the usual process of using this poem to write about one’s own home. Instead, I randomly partnered students up and asked them to write a first-person “Where I’m From” poem about the other person’s life.
This poem had its ups and downs. Something that worked well was that it was cool seeing a perspective of another person. Sometimes we get too stuck in our own world and just don’t put into perspective how someone’s life is. — Gabriel
Once they found their partner, I gave the pairs a series of questions based on Perdomo’s poem to prompt them into conversation and let them loose around the school to interview each other:
— Describe the landmarks around your home
— What tunes do you listen to?
— What are the “sayings” of your family?
— What languages are spoken in your home?
— What streets do you live on?
— Who are the people in your life?
When students returned from their interviews, they began drafting their poems, but with certain structures that guided the structure of their poems. For example, they were required to write six stanzas and to use an anaphoric line at the beginning of each stanza (e.g., “Where I’m from…” or “If you knew…”). We also discussed the importance of concrete and sensory details as tools to make writing interesting. As they got underway, students soon realized they didn’t have enough information to fill out the stanzas or they lacked specific details. So back they went to their partners to delve more deeply into their lives.
Finally, I would like to thank Isaiah, Victoria, Andrew, and Margaret for helping me make this poem the best version possible. I would also like to give a big shout out to Holly for answering all of my annoying, pestering questions and letting me represent her through this poem. — Hannah
In the process, students underwent an intensive cycle of writing with prodding questions
from their peers and me about the content of their poems, (“Which specific beach do they go to?” What specific dish does their grandma make? What does it smell like?”). What emerged was a deep desire to respect and honor their partner’s emotional life through details and word choices.
I wrote to capture the way Betty would have written it. It was very difficult to write in the shoes of someone else and talk about their life. — Andrew
As a visual touch to their poems, students traced their own self-portraits and scanned them into photoshop to play around with color and line. When they were done, their writing partner assembled the final poem using InDesign to create a visually compelling and creative piece of art.
Margaret Egler teaches 11th and 12th grade humanities at High Tech High in San Diego, CA. This project had many inspirational sources: Kelly Williams, Paul Lopez, Kalle Palmer, Jeremy Farson, Stephanie Lytle, Kaleb Rashad, and, post hoc, Chris Emdin (“Help students dig into themselves to mine their own brilliance”). Thanks especially to the Margarita Whales and Kalle Flowers for sharing their brilliance.
Margaret, thank you for this post! Your spin on the “Where I’m From” poem is one I want to use to begin a conversation on perspective and diversity with my students. What a great idea to use poetry as a launch into college essays, too. We are writing those as our last piece for the year. I wasn’t familiar with “Raised by Women.” The language is fantastic, so thanks for that, too. I came across one by Tucker Bryant called “Facts about Myself” that is pretty fantastic, too (minus one F-word), and you might like “My Honest Poem” by Rudy Francisco. It’s a favorite of my students.
Thank you for writing with us! I hope you will again soon.