ONE WAY TO LEAD A GROUP IN WRITING “WHERE I’M FROM” POEMS
George Ella Lyon
First, remind folks that we come from experiences, not just locations. We are from our family and its history, from the food we eat, the songs we sing, the houses we live in.
Read “Where I’m From” aloud. Point out that its form is just a list; then invite everybody to come up with different categories of memories in addition to those mentioned above: family sayings, nicknames, hiding places, pets, plants, foods, people’s names, place names, religious practices, etc. List them where everyone can see.
Ask everybody to make a list of five experiences they’re from, then choose the one that has the most energy for them.
Invite them to take a second look at what they’ve chosen to see if they can make it more specific, e.g. I’m from flowers might be I’m from daffodils that grew in my best friend’s yard. Have them copy their line on a 3 X 5 post-it to give to you.*
Read these aloud and put them on the board–maybe just as post-its. Then, as a group, look for a first line and a last line. Emphasize that there’s no right way to do this, no one poem to be written. Just choose what sounds like a beginning and what has an ending feel to it. Then the group plays with how to arrange the others.
Finally, read their poem aloud and set them to writing their own.
I suggest you do this exercise yourself before leading a group. That will open up possibilities and perhaps show you ways you want to adapt the process.
You can do this! Everybody makes lists. The key is not to worry about what you put down, what order it comes in, of whether it sounds poem-like to you. Just get words on the page. Or screen. You might do this in short bursts over several days. (That’s what I did.) Then get your pages together, underline the lines you like best, and fiddle with the order. Read it out loud to see how it sounds. Check for places you could zoom in; for example. if you wrote “I’m from the first car I drove” you can bring us in closer by adding “–a bean-brown ’75 Pinto.” Above all, have fun. It’s your life. It’s your writing. You can’t go wrong.
*A variant is not to take up the post-its but to choose a random order—by rows, tables, or around the circle—and have them share their lines. You may let it end however it ends or you may furnish an ending line that you wrote as they were working. It’s powerful to put your voice where your words are and wonderful to hear the sequence of those voices.
Here is a list of links to I Am From you tube videos
pencil & leaf word intro.
woman, old photos, immigrant connections
intergenerational Grandma Ole
Chief the Poet
New Wilderness Project lesson & experts
Here is an article by Lee Balinger that taps into who we are and where we come from in some new, exciting ways. He quotes Rebeccal Solnit and others in exploring how we came to be and why where we come from influences that.
The Nature of Human Nature
by Lee Ballinger
If they say,
Why, why, tell ’em that it’s human nature
Why, why, does he do it that way
If they say,
Why, why, tell ’em that it’s human nature
Why, why does he do me that way
“Human Nature,” Michael Jackson
It is often said that any attempt to organize human society on the basis of taking care of everyone will ultimately fail because people are inherently selfish. Visionary possibilities that suggest otherwise are dismissed as being out of step with “human nature.” This philosophy has been drummed deep into our heads, to the point that the following clichés are now widely accepted as “common sense”:
Take care of your own
Cut your losses
You can’t fight city hall
Look out for number one
Dog eat dog
We are told that life is just a lottery, with a few anointed winners and countless losers. So says Reid Hoffman, billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, in his book, The Start-Up of You: “For anything desirable, there’s competition. A ticket to a championship game, the arm of an attractive man or woman, admission to a good college, and every solid professional opportunity.”
Hoffman echoes fellow billionaire John D. Rockefeller, who said that the growth of his Standard Oil Company was “merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.” Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko paraphrased John D. when he declared that “Greed…captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
This raises the question: If greed and privatized growth put the human race on the evolutionary uptick, why is the world falling apart?
Let’s look at a contrasting picture of human nature, one of empathy and engagement. A cynic might dismiss examples of support and caring as mere exceptions which only prove the rule of selfishness. But there are so many millions of them which happen each year that it would be more accurate to say they are the rule and that the savagery promoted by the media is the exception. Sealing the deal, in Stefan Klein’s book Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why it Pays to Get Along he reports that brain research shows that altruism activates the same synapses as eating a chocolate bar or having sex.
We are taught that to express need is to be weak, to be a burden on society. Don’t believe it. To acknowledge need simply means we are human. It’s our nature. We need each other. We should stop paying attention to those who tell us otherwise and instead consider these examples and many more like them.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, J.J. Watt of the NFL’S Houston Texans spearheaded a massive aid drive for flood victims that raised 37 million dollars. On a smaller scale, soon after Harvey hit I happened to call a friend of mine in Orange County. She told me that somehow or another she had come up with a plane ticket and was on her way to Houston to help out. She and her husband, hovering just above homelessness themselves, feed the homeless seven days a week in Los Angeles.
When Johnny Hekker, the Los Angeles Rams’ Pro Bowl punter, found out about the cataclysmic wildfires which ravaged Ventura County, he drove to Target with his wife, who wanted to help despite being seven months pregnant. They loaded up an entire truck with supplies for distribution to fire victims. While at the checkout line at Target, an employee gave Hekker forty dollars to help out.
A few years ago I was on vacation and I happened to find myself sitting in a car in the parking lot of a convenience store just outside the hamlet of Clifty in northwestern Arkansas. A deliveryman emerged from the store with a tray of bread that had passed the expiration date for sale. He was a middle-aged white guy–he looked something like Hank Hill of King of the Hill. An older black woman was sitting in her car with her window rolled down. He passed right by her and she asked him if she could have the discarded bread. He readily said yes but it was more than that. He didn’t say it like he was doing her a favor or doing it as charity or doing it as his Christian duty. He did it like they were two old friends having a meal together.
In Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, she examines the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 explosion which leveled Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Solnit’s fundamental premise is that disasters reveal untapped potentials for humanity. She writes:
“In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research have demonstrated this….The very concept of society rests on the idea of networks of affinity and affection, and the freestanding individual exists largely as an outcast or exile.”
“When the subject of the [1989 Loma Prieta] earthquake came up with a new acquaintance, she too glowed with recollections of how her neighborhood had, during the days the power was off, cooked up all its thawing frozen food and held barbecues in the street; how gregarious everyone had been…The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding.”
Solnit’s examples of spontaneous humanity are just the tip of the iceberg. They can be seen all around you if you just take a look. Countless people have sent water to Flint in the wake of that city’s government poisoning of the local water supply. Despite decades of propaganda about predator youth, tens of thousands of people work with teenagers. This should come as no surprise–volunteerism is the norm in America. Over sixty million Americans donate free time to a good cause every year. Each week in America, musicians and artists stage over one thousand benefits for their peers facing large medical bills. In the wake of the recent fires in California, the worst in the state’s history, the parking lot of an Ojai market was transformed into the Upper Ojai Relief Center. Food, clothing, toys, and tools were stockpiled there for distribution to those who has lost their homes in Ojai. People came from all over California and from as far away as Colorado to help people cut down trees blocking the roads to their homes and to help them find valuables in the ashes.
Of course, this is not just an American phenomenon. For example, three million people gathered in Paris to give aid and comfort after a bombing killed twelve people in 2015. Three million Germans have registered to donate bone marrow for leukemia patients unknown to them. Worldwide there are 133 million blogs where people share their ideas and knowledge for free.
The significance of our essential human nature is more than charity, solidarity or support. Cooperation is in our evolutionary self-interest, our best strategy for survival. The only way to ensure you won’t become homeless is to make sure everyone has a home. Ditto for education and medical care.
And what about Charles Darwin, who has long been cited by the corporate crowd as support for their “survival of the fittest” mantra? From 1842 until his death in 1882, Darwin lived in the southern English village of Downe, where he founded a Friendly Society which aided agricultural workers.
It’s tempting to say that there are actually two human natures, one of the rulers and one of the ruled. But it’s more accurate to say there is only one fundamental human nature, the one of sharing and community which was the basis of life for the first 190,000 years of human existence. That human nature has long been under attack by the parasites of plenty, whose barbarism is barely recognizable as human. Their efforts to reshape human nature began with the rise of agriculture, of surplus, of societies where one class dominated another. A previously unknown greed and selfishness seeped into society’s pores. A war against the human nature of sharing was waged by other new historical actors: armies, police, courts, and prisons. This continues today without letup. A war against human nature.
Human nature is so deeply ingrained that it cannot be eradicated. It’s illegal to give water to immigrants crossing in the desert and people get arrested for doing it, but people continue to do it. In many cities, it’s against the law to feed the homeless and people are arrested for doing it, but people continue to do it.
In 2016, 76 per cent of Los Angeles voters passed a $1.5 billion bond issue to create housing for the homeless. Contrast this with Obama’s Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, now president of the $40 billion Warburg Pincus private equity fund. Geithner told the Washington Post that it was policy to allow up to ten million foreclosures, saying this would “help foam the runway” for the banks. Some of the LA homeless population was likely put on the street by Geithner’s cruelty.
When humanity is displayed, it is often met with retribution. A cafeteria worker in Pocatello, Idaho was fired for giving a free meal to a 12-year-old student who had no money.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, all of the schools in Puerto Rico were closed. A community in Vieques took immediate action to reopen their Escuela Adreinne Serrano, clearing out trash, bringing back teachers and finding supplies of food and water. The response of the Humacao School District to this local heroism was to order the school to close back down, supposedly just to await “certification.” The order was ignored, in part because of the crying needs of the students but also because Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher intends to replace public schools with charter schools, describing the hurricane as “an opportunity to press the reset button.” Puerto Rico’s Department of Education estimates that at least two hundred of the island’s schools will never reopen.
In Survival of the Nicest, Stefan Klein describes how Richard Stallman developed widely-used software programs, giving them away for free. Stallman got started in 1980, when he asked a co-worker for the program code for his printer, which didn’t let him know when it had run out of paper or alert him to a paper jam. But the program’s author refused Stallman’s request because his boss had made him promise not to release the code. His boss had allies. A software company then still spelling its name “Micro-Soft” took possession of what had belonged to everyone and kept its program codes under lock and key. A stir was caused by the publication of an “Open Letter to Hobbyists” declaring that software was property and using it without paying for it was theft. The letter was signed “Bill Gates.”
Yet when we explore human nature, we find that not all is warm and fuzzy. If human nature is fundamentally an embrace, how can all the person-to-person conflict among the common people in America be explained? Simply that under the pressures of a rapidly disintegrating society, there is a tendency for any oppressed or defenseless person to shift the blame to someone else, rather than attack the overwhelming power that is hurting him or her. In the short run, human nature isn’t always able to overcome that power.
And why does the level of high-minded community-oriented actions in disasters recede afterward? Rebecca Solnit answers:
“The very structure of our economy and society prevents these goals from being achieved. The structure is also ideological, a philosophy that best serves the wealthy and powerful but shapes all of our lives, reinforced as the conventional wisdom disseminated by the media, from news hours to disaster movies….The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay.”
“Privatization is largely an economic term, for the consignment of jurisdictions, goods, services, and powers—railways, water rights, education—to the private sector and the vagaries of the marketplace. But this economic privatization is impossible without the privatization of desire and imagination that tells us we are not each other’s keeper.”
In addition to so-called “natural” disasters, today we face a more persistent disaster in the United States—a confluence of foreclosures, a lack of health care, hunger, homelessness, and war. If all who are not profiting from this ongoing catastrophe—that is to say, the overwhelming majority—can collectively follow the instinct to be their brother and sister’s keeper, then we can allow our innate human nature to help us zero in on making real the paradise Rebecca Solnit describes, one that is now just out of reach.
Lee Ballinger has a new book out, Love and War: My First Thirty Years of Writing. It’s available as a free download ebook at loveandwarbook.com.
To check out the Love and War podcast, go to: http://feeds.feedburner.com/LoveWarPodcast
Contact Lee Ballinger at email@example.com
Reading, Writing and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word, by Linda Christensen, Rethinking Schools Publication, Milwaukee 2007,
This book has a wonderful lesson on using the George Ella Lyon poem “Where I’m From” in a classroom.
Diversity Days, Julie Landsman, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2002
This has ideas for subject area teachers to use “I am from” theme in their classrooms
Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice, Linda Christenson and Dyan Watson, Rethinking Schools Publications, Milwaukee, , 2015,
June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, Edited by Lauren Miller and the Blueprint Collective, Routledge, New York, 1995
Poemcrazy: freeing you life with words, Susan G. Wooldridge, Clarkson Potter publishers, 1996
Poetry Foundation Learning Lab
Rethinking Schools at Rethinkingschools.org
See their publications, magazine for great poetry and teaching ideas
Teachers and Writers Collaborative : www.twc.org/
This has some wonderful resources for teaching poetry writing, including “The List Poem” book.
Photography Website for ideas to go with poems, art work.
Ideas for the Classroom
It is our hope that you will send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org We can post them here, in this section, to encourage others to use Where I Am From as a jumping off point for creating curriculum, performances, presentations.
Where to Go with “Where I’m From“
George Ella Lyon from her website http://www.georgeellalyon.com/
While you can revise (edit, extend, rearrange) your “Where I’m From” list into a poem, you can also see it as a corridor of doors opening onto further knowledge and other kinds of writing. The key is to let yourself explore these rooms. Don’t rush to decide what kind of writing you’re going to do or to revise or finish a piece. Let your goal be the writing itself. Learn to let it lead you. This will help you lead students, both in their own writing and in their response as readers. Look for these elements in your WIF poem and see where else they might take you:
- a place could open into a piece of descriptive writing or a scene from memory.
- your parents’ work could open into a memory of going with them, helping, being in the way. Could be a remembered dialogue between your parents about work. Could be a poem made from a litany of tools they used.
- an important event could open into freewriting all the memories of that experience, then writing it as a scene, with description and dialogue. It’s also possible to let the description become setting and directions and let the dialogue turn into a play.
- food could open into a scene at the table, a character sketch of the person who prepared the food, a litany of different experiences with it, a process essay of how to make it.
- music could take you to a scene where the music is playing; could provide you the chance to interleave the words of the song and words you might have said (or a narrative of what you were thinking and feeling at the time the song was first important to you (“Where I’m Singing From”).
- something someone said to you could open into a scene or a poem which captures that moment; could be what you wanted to say back but never did.
- a significant object could open into a sensory exploration of the object-what it felt, sounded, smelled, looked, and tasted like; then where it came from, what happened to it, a memory of your connection with it. Is there a secret or a longing connected with this object? A message? If you could go back to yourself when this object was important to you, what would you ask, tell, or give yourself?
Remember, you are the expert on you. No one else sees the world as you do; no one else has your material to draw on. You don’t have to know where to begin. Just start. Let it flow. Trust the work to find its own form.
I Am From for Every Subject, Every Context, Any Age
The power of this phrase and its use in schools is only limited by the imaginations of students, teachers and administrators. I Am From can connect with literature, music science math history and to a range of student ages from six to eighteen and beyond. The suggestions below are simply to stimulate teachers to take part in this project.
We hope you will send poems, videos, installations, photos…to iamfromproject @gmail.com. We will keep you informed on this website of events, publications, social justice actions planned around this theme.
Middle and High School Students
Science: Students can:
Write about the plants they are from: what grows in the garden their mother plants each spring? What trees line their neighborhood block? What do they see at the in the different seasons of the year where they live?
What creates the music they like…vibrations? Drum beats? How does the ear work to pick up the sounds they grew up with?
What are the five senses and which one connects us to memories? How do they use their five senses in the life they live now? When they were children? What did they eat, smell, see, hear, feel?
Social Studies students can:
Do oral interviews with the elder relatives to find out more of what and where they come from.
Students can make a map of the different geological elements they are from: the hills near their home, the flat farmland on the way to their grandparents, the makeup of the city park where they go in the spring and summer.
High School students can think about developmental psychology and what they were doing at each stage of their growing up.
They can make a time-line of their own life, and perhaps their parents and grandparents lives to understand the events that influenced where they came from and how history has affected them and their relatives.
They can study social justice movements around them at the present time, and write about what has influenced them, and what their beliefs are from their parents and grandparents and how this might be different from their own, or how it has made them who they are now.
The list is endless for combining an I am From assignment with Social Studies and history, psychology and geology, sociology and social justice.
English: Students can
Write poems using the phrase I Am From as a jumping off point. They can make a list of those things about their life they feel are important. From this they can go on to create stories, poems, essays: the possibility for using this list in literature and writing classes is unlimited.
Students can work on a spoken word evening of poems related to I Am From. They can combine this with music, video, voices as a chorus, to explore where each story, each poem that comes from this work.
Students can construct a play out of one event that comes up on their I am From list. This exercise, in delving into their own lives and issues can connect them to so much of what we want students to know. It is a way of motivation and connection that is powerful when allowed the time to evolve.
Students can construct books of various kinds that come from I am From lists: pop up books, e-books, accordion books, tiny books….
Art Students can
Sketch, paint, even make a sculpture around the theme of Where I’m From.
This can be an wonderful collage project too. Some students are making an I Am From mug, and putting a full poem in it as part of their high school ceramics class. One powerful exercise is to have them design a scroll, or mural, together, creating a “We Are From” project. This can be displayed against a wall in the city, unfurled at a town meeting, celebrated at a Juneteenth picnic.
Music Students can write We Are From songs, operas, individual verses to a joint song project.
They can read their poems against a music background, combining English an Music together in a collaborative venture. Raps and hip hop can be part of this, using the lyrics generated by an I am From poem to go deeper, to elaborate on place and home, social justice and democracy themes.
English Language Learners can begin by making collages, collecting photos, interviewing elders, and writing their own personal stories of their journey, and their parents’ journeys to this country. The phrase “I am From”..can trigger a writing/reading assignment and classroom project that will be rich and powerful for others to see, or hear, or read. It can be part of a community project as well as school—including many writing or speaking about where they are from together.
Elementary students can use this phrase very early in their education. Teachers can ask for information from students in a circle time as well as while they are working on their own. A group We Are From poem can be posted outside the classroom door, across the top of a bulletin board, in a handmade booklet for each student to take home. Many of the ideas in the subject matter list above can be modified, especially for 5th and 6th graders.
This is a “photo mosaic” example of a photo collection