If you’d like to really get to know your students, just ask them about their history. Where are their roots? Where are their people? Where is their heart? Because while students are, obviously, where they are now, they are also, and probably more importantly, the journey that got them there. And the journey, the history, is often what they hold nearest to their soul.
Students, while they are young, also have histories–places they’ve lived, horrors they’ve witnessed, great joys, and great losses. They come to us with their Nike’s and their iPods, and we’ll never know their backstory if we don’t ask. But don’t be fooled by their youth: Don’t think that, just because your students are young, that they don’t have a past, a history, and a journey worth writing about.
Enter the Where I’m From poem. This poem starts small–with a list of words and phrases, and then grows into stanzas of similarly grouped topics. These topics are then developed, elaborated upon, fleshed out into lines of descriptive poetry. It is important to emphasize to students that they are not creating a timeline or a list as their final product, but either of those may help in the early stages of developing the poem.
The best place to start is with the original Where I’m From poem by George Ella Lyon on her website. You’ll find the text of the poem as well as audio of Lyon reading the poem herself and several other examples. If you teach creative writing, the Where to Go With Where I’m From section can also lead to writing projects that can piggyback on the poem students create.
My Where I’m From Poem
Here is a sample poem. I wrote it when I taught Creative Writing a few years ago. Feel free to use it an example if you’d like to, but please include my name and do not make any changes to the content.
by Maryann Saylor, 9/2009
I am from
sunny San Diego days,
The Beach Boys crooning California Girls,
“May gray” and “June gloom” that burns off around noon, most days and
palm trees stretching 20 feet up,
while pelicans and Navy helicopters and the GoodYear blimp float by overhead.
I’m from the sun setting succinctly over the quieting, gray ocean,
orange-red-purple orb of west coast idealism.
I am from the beaches: Pacific, Blacks, La Jolla, Mission, Coronado, Ocean–
the waters of Mission Bay sparkling like a liquid sequined dress.
These are the sandy landmarks of my life.
I am from the Padres, the Chargers,
the flamingos standing pink and peglegged at the entrance to the Zoo,
the Casa del Prado and the California Tower in Balboa Park.
I am from Mexico just to the south, and the cobija of Spanish names and art and culture
wrapped around me like a beloved blanket.
January 26th, a daughter of the 60’s,
a child of immigrant grandparents who raised rabbits in their backyard
and drove an electric golf cart to the grocery store.
I’m from “Buon giorno” and “Arrivederci”, “Mangia! Mangia!”, “Buona notte” and “Molto grazie!”
I’m from “Pay yourself first” and “There are poor, starving children in India. Eat up.”
and “If you had a brain, you’d be dangerous.”
I am from my namesake, my grandmother whose love was unconditional, pervasive, and life preserving.
I’m from little money and
nearly constant struggle,
from shuffling back and forth, one parent to another,
their lives creating a frenzied dance of multiple exquisite dysfunctions.
I’m from 6 schools from 6th to 12 grades–
a nomadic youth–my parents planted in their same distant places across the county,
their worlds never changing
while mine was a tumbled mixture of the familiar and the unknown.
I am from
guacamole and pico de gallo,
taquitios at El Indio,
apricots and figs, kiwis and pomegranates as red as blood.
I’m from a block of fresh parmesan atop a metal grater resting in the middle of the kitchen table,
its permanent home and
I am from towns within towns
and cities within cities.
a place so embedded in me I couldn’t extricate it even if I tried–
not that I’d ever want to.
I am from that place that’s in every part of me,
every syllable of every word I speak.
The Best Advice I Can Offer
If you are considering writing Where I’m From poems with your students, my best suggestion to you is to write a poem of your own. You will find the act of balancing what to include and exclude, how to organize your thoughts into stanzas and lines, what to merely list or be ambiguous about and what to describe in abundant detail a struggle–a struggle your students will also face as they write. While you may not be able to tell this, I struggled with how to balance the things I love about San Diego and the fact that my childhood left a lot to be desired. When I shared my poem with my students, a few of them told me how much they appreciated hearing that my early life was similar to theirs. How you balance the truth of your life with what you are willing to share is a delicate decision that only you can make. (In my case, this poem was appropriate for my Creative Writing juniors and seniors.)
Where I’m From Rubric
If you decide to try this poem, you may find the rubric I used helpful. While some people find assessing poetry to be difficult, I see it as another form of writing with many of the same expectations for minimum requirements, clarity of expression and understandable meaning. This is the rubric I’ve used in the past, and I’ve had great success with it, but you may wish to alter it to something more objective.
I hope you and your students enjoy writing about Where You’re From!
All the best,