Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Where I'm From

I've yet to even scratch the surface of the beauty that is Nancie Atwell's Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons.   Today I continued an exercise from the "Your Life" section of the book.  

Ms. Atwell provides a copy of poet George Ella Lyon's poem, "Where I'm From," as well as two poems written by inspired middle schoolers.   We read all three poems last Friday, and I sent students home with the intergenerational questionnaire.   Because of the nature of eighth graders and weekends, many people did not have the interviews done by Monday, so it took until Tuesday until we could really get down to the business of writing.   And, no, everyone had not completed their interviews by Tuesday either.

Today I shared the poem that I wrote based on Lyon's original.   You already know that it's good to make yourself vulnerable to your students by sharing your own writing.   They generally respond with kindness and respect; it also gets them into their poets' groove.  
Please understand that the intent of the lesson is to borrow Lyon's riff, to mimic her style and to mirror her repetition.   This is not a lesson in how to plagiarize.   Make sure you click the above link to Lyon's poem, so you can see her patterns in my draft below.  

I am from Sundays after church,
from sweet tea and Formica tables
enchanted by my grandmother’s blessings.
I am from the vinyl records inside the garage.
(Silent, waiting,
they held secret spells.)
I am from the tulip tree,
the summer garden
whose crusty, baked soil  between rows of corn
crumbles gently under bare feet. 

I’m from Number, please  and  Promenade.  
I’m from dusty circuses and shimmering skylines
from tobacco leaves in barn rafters
from flowing rivers near textile mills.
I’m from both Carolinas
     from limestone and sisterhoods. 

I’m from dipped snuff and tinned sardines,
jets of sawdust that tickle noses.
I’m from wires pulsing with electricity
   stretching across the South. 

From the body bag of the local boy
     my father escorted home from Vietnam.
I’m from a hand to hold and shirts off backs,
from promises kept
rooted in both love and duty.
Some students will need your help to mine for information.   I grew up minutes away from all four of my grandparents and was a curious child.   It was easy for me to tap into all of those years of informal "research" that I completed before writing this poem.  
I drew a simple family tree on the board, and many writers used that as a way to brainstorm.   Although their homework was to interview one person using the questionnaire, their poem should include anyone from their family line.   Steps, adoption, blood...it doesn't matter.   Your students can decide who is or is not family to them.
Please be aware that some of your students have only painfully dark memories of their families.   Some will be ready to write, some won't.   Encourage children who make an attempt to tackle such a raw topic.   Give an alternative assignment for those students who just can't face or make sense of their family relationships yet. 


  1. I LOVE your version of Lyons's poem!! I heard her speak about eight years ago and bought her book. When you combine her work with Atwell's....WOW! That's some powerhouse writing, girl! Awesome lesson!

    1. Thanks! That poem just flew right onto the page. Both Donna and I had a great time writing samples for the kids. I'll keep an eye out for opportunities to hear Lyon speak.