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Last week in my writing seminar we had to introduce ourselves by writing a poetic piece. One mentor text our professor provided was “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.
(Black, glistening,
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.

Our professor suggested having students write their own “Where I’m From” poems as a beginning exercise in a writing class, then going back to the poem for ideas of things to write about throughout the year. He said one of his student teachers had the brilliant idea to have her students choose phrases from their own poems to write on the sidewalk with sidewalk chalk to create a class version of the poem–and of course this version was quite public since it was outside on the sidewalk. I can’t wait to try that idea!

This exercise could also be tied into units on poetry, memoir, and narrative. George Ella Lyon gives more ideas for how to use the poem as a springboard on her web page. Templates for students to use as they write their poems are also available.