Writing Places

Teacher: Judy Bebelaar 

This lesson is meant to serve as an introduction to a reading/writing/community research project, and to help the class become a community of learners.  I am not currently teaching as I write this because I am on sabbatical, but it is a lesson I have found to be very successful in producing good writing and showing students the importance of image and detail. Another Bay Area Writing Project teacher, Joan Owen, also came upon this poem, and my own ideas were enriched by hers.  I visited my friend Ann Lew’s class and taught part of this lesson so I would have fresh examples of student work.  When I return to the classroom in the spring, I am eager to try the research component of the lesson, inspired by my work as a pilot teacher with Keeping and Creating American Communities.  I hope that this part of the lesson will show students how to gather material from outside the classroom to use in their writing, and how to conduct an interview aimed at collecting more than surface information, words and phrases that can be used as part of a compelling piece of writing.

In the process of the lesson, we hear model poems by previous students as well as several of their own poems in first, middle, and final draft forms.  They look closely at the images and structure of “Where I’m From.” When Lyons’ poem’s schema is familiar to students and when they have seen the many and very different forms the poem can take, I will ask them to take a copy of the questions I pose to them in order to stimulate first drafts and find someone interesting to interview: a parent or grandparent, a teacher or former teacher, a neighbor or a community hero.  They will explain to the person they interview, after introducing themselves by reading their own poems, that they will write a poem in the voice of the person interviewed, using the details gathered in the interview.  They will send a final draft, along with a letter asking for permission to share the poem with classmates.

After students complete the lesson, the next step is to choose one of the other poems of place (Jennifer Brown’s “Africa and the Caribbean,” Mari Evans’ “Modern American Suite in Four Movements,” or Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”), to go through the same process of looking at images, structure, and figures of speech, and to write a poem either personifying a city they identify with, which may be the city in which they were born, a favorite place, or the city where they live now, San Francisco.  Sandburg’s poem is a brilliant example of personification; Evans’ poem is a lyrical, sensual list poem, and Brown’s is a love poem in which the Caribbean addresses Africa.  It’s a poem about mixed cultures, and as such, speaks to many of my students.  Students will choose the questions they answered and the format of one of the poems to conduct a second interview, with the same or a different person, and write a second poem in the voice of another.

Instructional sequence

Laying the groundwork
This lesson works best after students have become familiar with the idea of image.  Students may choose a color that represents them and explain why, or an animal or musical instrument.  They may write “I Am/I Am Not” poems in which they list what they are and are not, literally and metaphorically (“I am  El Salvadorian/I am not a ‘wetback’”; “I am a beautiful blue lake/I am not a small puddle.”) 

Read some of the best of this work aloud, anonymously.  Lay down the ground rules.  No talking or laughing while work is being read – unless it’s obviously meant to be funny.  Encourage applause.  Model how to give compliments before helpful suggestions for improvement.  Gradually have students read work aloud in small groups, choosing not “the best” piece – because many will be good in different ways – but the one with the best images, or the funniest, or the most moving to be read aloud to the entire class by the teacher or the author.  Read more of the work the next day, after you have had a chance to read and comment on all the poems, and make suggestions for revision.  When I read aloud, I often correct grammatical errors, even add a more specific adjective or showing verb, warning the author that his/her work may sound a little different, and why.  Since this is very personal work, I always make it clear that my revisions are only suggestions.  The author has the last word.

Steps in the lesson:

1. Watch George Ella Lyon read her poem on The United States of Poetry – People and Places, available from PBS.

2. Give students copies of the poem.  Ask them to go through the poem, selecting the images they like best – then ask several, going around the room, to say aloud their favorites and to try to explain why.

3. Make categories on the board as students read lines and phrases: “clothespins / from Clorox and carbo-tetrachloride.”  Ask “What activity do those words come from?  Who in her family probably did the cleaning?  What activities have you helped your parents, aunts, grandmothers with?”  “What were their names?” “What tasted like beets to George Ella?  What childhood tastes do you remember, especially of things you were not supposed to eat?” Ask them for lines or phrases from songs or prayers or chants they remember (“He restoreth my soul”).  Ask them about phrases they heard from adults (“perk up and pipe down”) and to tell about family crises (“the finger my grandfather lost”).  After you’ve gone through the poem like this, list other categories – names of candy popular when they were younger, games, dolls, TV shows, singers and musical groups.  Encourage words or phrases from other languages than English.  I always tell students that’s like adding spice to a stew. Make a list of three to five student examples for each of these categories on the board so students have lots of ideas/words to pull from.

4. If you have time for a longer lesson, ask students to go home with questions (brainstormed on the board) that will give them more details – names of relatives, place names, stories from their childhoods, etc.  You might ask them to bring a photograph or object to share.

5. Have students read aloud several models (see student artifacts), ones which include specific details, vivid images, good use of words from another language. Each time you do the lesson, add to your collection of models, asking the student for permission to use his/her poem.

6. Ask students to look at how Lyons brings the elm tree in the first stanza back in the last lines, where it becomes the “family tree.”  Ask them to try to find some way to bring their poem full circle by repeating a line or an image or playing with an idea as Lyons does.

7. With lots of words, phrases, and category ideas still up on the board available for those with fear of the blank page, give students plenty of time to write – fifteen or twenty minutes.  Ask them to repeat the phrase “I am from,” or sometimes just “from,” trying to hear the rhythm of the lines in their heads.  Collect the work, read one or two aloud, and save the rest to edit and comment on, then return for revision the next day—after reading a few more good ones, of course!  Students may be willing to read their own if they know you have selected their work as exemplary.

8. After students have revised their poems two or three times, they make a final, typed draft.  They decide on an interesting person to interview – a teacher, relative or friend, or perhaps even someone well known in the community – a minister, a mayor, a community leader.  They arrange for an interview time, take the list of questions they answered, Lyons’ poem, and their own to elicit memories that will be the materials for a poem in the voice of the person interviewed. 

9. Read model student poems also, and collect the best as you do the lesson.  Allow ten to twenty minutes for students to write on their own. Let them know you’ll be reading some poems aloud, anonymously, unless you’re doing this lesson at the end of the year, when students are comfortable with (and more skilled at) reading their own work.  Toward the end of the time, ask them to work on an ending – the hardest part.  They may want to repeat a line, end with the beginning lines, summarize, or cast a new light on their experience or their place.   They should jot down any ideas they won’t have time to complete.  Select a few to read aloud, commenting on especially effective images, details, personification, etc.  Give students revision tips and read aloud, or ask students to read, some of the revised poems the next day. Let students choose which model they want to use for a second interview. They will read the model poem and their own poem, or one by a fellow student, to the interviewee, then take notes from questions about the person’s favorite place, urging the person to be as specific as possible.  The poem written from the notes will be sent to the person for editing and revising, and with permission, the poem can be shared with the class.

Brown, Jennifer.  “Africa and the Caribbean.”  Ain’t I a Woman: A Book of Women’s Poetry from Around the World.  New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1990.  35.
Lyon, George Ella.  “Where I’m From.”  Lyon, George Ella.  “Where I’m From.” 1 Nov. 1999.  12 Oct. 2002. <http://www.studyguide.org/where_I%27m_from_poem.htm>. 
---.  “Where I’m From.” 12 Oct. 2002.  <http://www.bright.net/~dlackey/wherefrom.pdf>.
---.  “Where I’m From.”  The United States of Poetry.  Produced by Joshua Blum and Bob Holman.  Directed by Mark Pellington.  Washington Square Films, 1996. 

Student artifacts

“Where I Am From”
Inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem

I am from Latvia, Russia, Romania
From latkas, challah, and salty matzo ball soup;.
I’m from the west side of the Golden Gate Bridge,
From Twin Peaks, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Richmond.
I am the dreidel made out of clay,
Spinning round and round, where will it land?
Gimel, hay, shin, or nun.  Gimel!
“Baruch atah adona’ I eloheynu melech ha’olam.”

I’m from love and peacefulness.
I’m from quiet and calm
I’m from dysthymia and medication.
I am from that sweet and sour red wine.
“Don’t gain the world and lose your soul,
Because wisdom is worth more than silver and gold.”
I am from hopscotch and kickball,
From Barbies and dolls,
From diapers and breast milk,
From independence and bras,
I am from Betty Boop in my red dress and gold hoops
And from “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?”

I am from the pogroms of Russia,
From the fertile farmland in Romania.
From those stray bullets flying.
I am from latkas, from challah.
I am from those blue, gold, and white candles
That light our menorah.
“I am who I am and I am going to be who I be.”

I am from Latvia, Russia, Romania,
From latkas, challa, and salty matzoh ball soup.
I am from my roots,
Which grow stronger
And stronger

-- Shelly

Teacher reflection

Beginning a year or a semester with poems about place helps students see that their own lives are rich resources for writing and reflection and invites students at all skill levels to be successful.  I usually require a “Personal Piece” as one of the first requirements in a student portfolio. Most students, and all reluctant teenage writers, can be convinced to take the risks and exert the effort good writers do, whether in expressive or more analytical writing, after having success with this kind of creative writing assignment.  Many of them, in the past two years since I got the idea for the lesson from the excellent series The United States of Poetry, choose their “Where I’m From” poem from among the other assignments, which are personal essays or poems about themselves, as their “best of” for the portfolio.  I make it clear this collection of their writing is not produced just for me, the teacher, but will be shared with their parents or with my colleagues in workshops about teaching writing.  I also suggest they keep this portfolio to show their children many years hence.  I believe the idea of audience is key to good student writing.  And I believe publication of student work is well worth the extra effort, both because it inspires students to take risks and to care about correctness.

Learning to read Lyons’ poem thoughtfully and then writing their own – and hearing their classmates’ – help students see the connections between reading and writing.  The poem helps them see how to move beyond the literal in order to go deeper.  Good readers know to identify words, phrases, and sentences they do and don’t understand and ask questions of themselves and others to expand their understanding.  They know to look for image, metaphor and simile, personification, detail, inference, tone and meaning.  These are the first steps in asking students to write a “Where I’m From” poem.

Good writers know how to use tools such as image and figures of speech, selective descriptive detail, and appeal to the senses in order to convey meaning and mood, and they know how to edit and revise to make their writing speak to an audience.  These too are steps in the lesson. I ask the students to carry this poem to a final draft form.  I tell them about contests they might enter and let them know that more than one of my students has been a finalist or a winner using a “Where I’m From” poem.  I tell them about whatever current student publication is in process.

I think this lesson will be so much richer when I add the interviews this spring.  I hope that, in addition to underscoring the importance of specific detail and sensory image, students will learn something about another person in their family, or a teacher or neighbor, and perhaps about another country or era.  I imagine that not every student will complete the first interview, but I’m hoping that when they hear some of the poems that result from those interviews and anecdotes about the meetings, more of them will try the second interview.

Using excellent poetry or prose to inspire student writing and treating the students’ work with the same respect you show published authors help students see themselves as makers of literature and makes them more sensitive, aware readers of the work of others.  Students are never bored or tuned out when their own work is being read.  Almost any lesson can incorporate a creative writing segment, and that may be the key to “hooking” many students who would otherwise not bother to read the book or write the essay.  Let them know their essay can begin with the poem they wrote – as an introduction and homage to the author or as a basis for analyzing what themes or techniques or stylistic devices the author has used.


Suggestions on how you might adapt this lesson for a different classroom setting

-- Teaching about place through poetry can be adapted for younger children as well. Intermediate-age (grades 3-5) elementary students are just beginning to learn to write in different forms, and this is the perfect time to introduce imagery, word choice, and even ideas such as rhyming and meter. For elementary students, it is important to break a large unit like this into simpler pieces.

-- To adapt this lesson, it is essential to model, model, model. Give students multiple examples of engaging poetry. In the original lesson with high school students, a few poems were analyzed as models. For the elementary student this is the time to have a sharing session with ten or more poems. You want students to start laughing, smiling, and thinking about why they like these poems. At this point poems can be about any topic, as long as they are engaging. The goal is to strike a chord of interest and reflection among your students. Good books to get you started are classic poetry books that many of us take for granted. Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein by Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein and Wishes, Wings, and Other Things: Poems for Anytime (Poetry Parade) by Peggy-Lou Martin.

-- After sharing some of the poems, write one or two lines that you love and tell the students why. Ask them to share as well. At this point, students are thinking and talking—probably all at once and a little too loudly—about what they like about the poems.

-- Write it all down! Your chart paper should be filled with the words and phrases that got your students interested.  This needs to go on for at least two or three lessons as students are introduced to more and more poetry. After students are beginning to see connections between words, feelings and images, then they are ready to begin making the connection between poetry and place.

-- George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” poem is an excellent poem to share. It is essential for you to have some teacher-created versions of “Where I Am From” poems for the kids to look at and discuss. A great idea for the students to see that they can create a “Where I’m From” poem is to create a few poems ahead of time about characters that they have read about in class. Reading the “Where I’m From” poem of Ramona Quimby, Arthur or Maniac Magee, for example, would represent and model very well for students what you expect them to produce. Don’t create a long two-page poem: keep it age-appropriate at a few lines and ask students to think about their own places and begin to draft their own “Where I’m From” poems. This can be best established by using concrete representations of place. A third grader is not going to have the life experiences to describe where he is from as being much more than the physical representation of the structure in which he or she lives. 

-- The point is for them to use the imagery and make the connections between words and where they are. We want them to begin to paint a picture of where they feel they are from. The focus is on holding the paintbrush and painting the picture clearly, not how abstract or multifaceted the picture is. This is the time for students to make connections and to see poetry as a means of communicating. 


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