"Make yourself useful, and try to have fun." That was my dad's idea of a family motto, or so he told me, late in his life. (I wonder how it would sound in Latin? Properly impressive?) Anyway, it's time for me to make this blog a bit more useful--at least to the teachers I work with, and who read it. Maybe in the process it will be more fun again, too.
Last winter Eileen Murphy came to visit my workshop series "How to Teach a Poem (and Learn from One, Too)." She's a Say Something Wonderful alum--the NEH seminar, not the blog--and the two or three-time coach of Illinois state champions in the Poetry Out Loud competition. A master teacher, in short, who always brings great stuff to my attention. This time, she taught me (taught us) an assignment that works well for the early days of a Language Arts or English class--or, come to think of it, for the later days, especially as a substitute for the old "personal narrative essay." It's not her assignment: I've found many versions of it on line, including here and here and (as a thoughtful article from New York City) here, and again here, a West Virginia site which pegs it to a teacher from rural North Carolina. (Go Appalachia!) Now it's here, for you.
The assignment begins with a poem by George Ella Lyons called "Where I'm From," which was featured in the United States of Poetry video series a decade or so ago; as she says in a lovely piece on her website (with audio) it's travelled a long way since then, especially as a writing prompt.
Where I'm From
by George Ella Lyon
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush,
the Dutch elm
whose long gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I'm from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I'm from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from perk up and pipe down.
I'm from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments-
snapped before I budded-
leaf-fall from the family tree.
You can read different versions of the discussion that ensues at the links above--obviously it's a chance to talk about what can be inferred about the speaker from the specifics she gives, but really there are a number of ways you can go with it, which I don't have time to detail right now. (See the links above, or suggest them to each other in the comments!)
You can then turn it into a prompt like this--a sort of poetry mad-lib, if you like:
I am from __(specific ordinary item)____ from __(product name) and (?)
I am from the __(home description)___. (adjective, adjective; sensory detail.)
I am from the __(plant, flower, natural item)___, the __(plant, flower, natural item)___ (description of the natural item).
I’m from ___(family tradition)___ and ___(family trait)___, from ___(name of family member)___ and ___(another name).
I’m from the ___(description of family tendency)__ and __(another one)___,
From ___(something you were told as a child) and __(another)__.
I’m from __(representation of religion -or lack of it) (further description)
I’m from ___(place of birth and family ancestry), ___(two food items representing your family)___.
From the ____(family story about a specific person and a detail) the ___(another detail of another family member)___.
I am from (Location of family pictures, momentos, archives, and several more lines indicating their worth).
That's it, as she taught it to us, and as you'll find it on line. Google the search terms ["I am from" "(specific ordinary item)"] to find an array of instances, drawn from any number of cultures and community groups.
What's missing from this prompt, of course, is any sense of langauge as such: sound, rhythm, wordplay, the line as a unit (as a frame for language). That could be brought into a revision, or could be discussed as a lacuna: i.e., "what's in the poem that's missing from the prompt?" So adapt this, tweak it, and let me know how it goes!