I expected the revolt.
“This is art class! What do you mean we have to write a poem?” The sentiment was expressed in a chorus from my students as I explained their next assignment. We’re working on a unit that will culminate in mixed-media projects that illustrate the various meanings of home. One of the steps I added to the curriculum is a poem about home, place and heritage.
I’d given students two prompts to choose from: I am from … or Home is … , followed by a list of things they associate with home. We’d already done several freewrites on the topics of home, family and culture, so I hoped they would have plenty of material from which to begin.
Writing poetry is an excellent way to empower students to find meaning and value in their everyday experience. My students grappled with their thoughts on identity, home and culture even as they prepared to write. The challenge of sharing personal experiences in a poem allowed students to put those everyday experiences into words and see them as important.
Once the moaning and groaning stopped and they began writing, students were thrilled with the results. While they admitted to being nervous about how it would turn out, they were proud. One student took her poem home and her mom displayed it on the family bulletin board. I learned more about them, and they had the chance to put their thoughts about home and culture into words. Paul shared his feelings about his Native American, Latino, and Pacific Islander heritage beautifully:
I am from lacrosse, from music and ukulele
I am from warmth and Latino food
I am from the pine tree whose long-gone limbs I remember as if they were my own
I’m from hardworking and respect, and working hard pays off
I’m from Oregon and Natives, from tacos and tamales
I am from home.
Shannon wrote about her parents’ divorce when she was a toddler: “Dad left and you still blame me.” I was grateful for each student’s honesty and willingness to explore her own truth through writing.
I didn’t ask students to read their poems aloud, sensing the private nature of this work, but part of me wishes I had. I think once students overcame their initial shyness about sharing their writing, they would have learned more about one another and what they have in common. For now, I will hold on to these treasures, glad that my students were willing to set aside their initial resistance to writing and to explore identity side by side.
Ryan Fear is a high school dean of students in Oregon.