Analyzing Language in "Where I'm From"
Lesson 4 of 8
Objective: Students will be able to analyze an author's use of figurative language by annotating language and discussing the impact of connotations on the mood.
We continue the focus on adverbs, and also focus on verbs. Today's passage switches tense, and students often do that in their own writing, so that's a big part of today's paragraph.
What would you be without imagery, similes and metaphors, alliteration, and repetition? You would be a collection of dead, lifeless words. Figurative language is what breathes life into thoughts and words, it's what makes poetry rich, and it's what makes poetry so awful sometimes.
I'll admit--poetry isn't my favorite genre. I don't really like the flowery, sickly-sweetness of "poetry." But poetry that's real, truthful, and fun? I can get behind that. "The Jabberwocky" gives us fun, and "Where I'm From" gives us truth. And part of the way the poem gives us truth is through the figurative language.
So we read the poem again. This time, we're on the lookout for the language that makes poetry rich. I have the students create a color-coded legend for the different types of figurative language. I let them know that they would find imagery, alliteration, assonance, repetition, and metaphor. There's even internal rhyme, but I always have a hard time finding it. For assonance, since that's a term that they haven't been exposed to, I direct them to look at their poetry packet.
Let's start with alliteration. The first stanza repeats the 'c' sound in "clothespins, Clorox, and carbon-tetrachloride." The sound has a positive connotation, but it's also a heavy sound. Jasmine suggested that the speaker didn't really like doing a bunch of laundry or cleaning, so while her childhood was happy, it was a 'heavy' chore. The second stanza uses the repeated 'p' in "pass-it-ons, perk up, and pipe down." That's a very peppy sound, which contributes to a cheerful mood. The third stanza has the repeated "before I budded" and "leaf-fall from the family tree" which are both heavy. While the overall mood of the poem is positive, the heavy b and f sounds at the end leave the reader with a bittersweet feeling.
During the discussion of ideas and understanding, the students found the similes and metaphors. In the first stanza, dirt is compared to the taste of beets. In the last stanza, the lines "I am from those moments/snapped before I budded/leaf-fall from the family tree" are a metaphor. The speaker is comparing herself to a tree, but possibly a young tree when you consider the word "budded." Jasmine thought that meant that the speaker was going to die young. There's not enough evidence to support the dying, but there is enough to support the young part.
The onomatopoeia is found in the third stanza, in the middle of the metaphor. "I am from those moments/snapped before I budded/leaf-fall from the family tree." 'Snapped' is the onomatopoeia. What's cool about this word is that it could have two meanings. It could mean the branch (her) is being cut off from the family tree or she is growing up and starting out on her own. Consider the previous line: "Under my bed was a dress box/spilling old pictures/a sift of lost faces/to drift beneath my dreams." "Snapped" could be the sound of a camera taking pictures. Oooh! Double meaning!
There's a ton of imagery that we found. Details that appeal to the sense of sight include "Black, glistening, it tasted like beets" (lines 4-5) and "From the finger my grandfather lost to the auger/the eye my father shut to keep his sight" (lines 21-22). "I'm from He restoreth my soul/with a cottonball lamb/and ten verses I can say myself" (lines 15-17) appeal to the sense of sight and sound.
The repetition of the phrase "where I'm from," which appears a total of eight times, tethers the reader to the idea that this poem is about home, those small moments that are the ones we think of when we think of home. Andres wrote about that in his first quickwrite, and I chose this moment to ask him to share that thought with the rest of the class. The writer is telling us that she did a bunch of cleaning, went to church, and has a bunch of pictures. The writer is showing us those things through figurative language. But what does the writer want us to understand? That we are made up of all of those seemingly insignificant moments from our childhood that combined, create the weight of our memories.
At this point, I asked the students to write another paragraph, labeled "Craft and Structure." This paragraph was written during the last six minutes of class. Some students didn't finish their paragraph, so I told them they could take their paragraphs home to finish. Tomorrow we'll start out with reading those paragraphs aloud as an anticipatory set.
The day before we left off on writing about how George Ella Lyon used language in her poem--repetition, imagery, onomatopoeia, simile, and metaphor. Today we're working on integrating our knowledge of how the author used poetry to get ready to write our own "Where I'm From" poems. The students are taking what they learned from the poet and applying it to their own narrative poem.
It's easy for teachers to say, "Here's the model poem. Now write your own. Use imagery, just like the author did." However, generating ideas is often way more difficult than that for students. Even with a graphic organizer designed to get thoughts flowing, it's difficult.
I know what I want students to include in their poems. I'd like elements of
- family heirlooms
- important family members
- important events and places
- important smells from life
- important sights from life
- important foods from life
- and more
But how do you get the students to come up with those ideas? Sure, you model it. But sometimes that's not enough. This year I'm trying something new, something I'm calling Backwards Brainstorming. We're taking the ideas that appear in Lyon's poem, isolating the important key ideas, and putting that down in the actual brainstorming sheet. I'm asking them to use imagery, just like Lyon did. She used imagery by showing, not telling.
Consider the lines "I'm from He restoreth my soul/with a cottonball lamb/and ten verses I can say myself." Her original idea might have been that she went to church a lot as a young child. But that's telling. She's showing you by using words that came out of people's mouths ("He restoreth my soul" might be a song or something a pastor said.) She's showing you by creating an image of a common arts and crafts project--making a lamb out of cottonballs. She's showing you that she memorized Bible verses by saying "ten verses I can say myself." She's showing the pride she feels in that accomplishment.
Consider the line "I'm from perk up and pipe down." Both of my classes discussed this line in depth. It seems to be contradictory. "Perk up" means to be cheerful, and not wallow in sadness. But "pipe down" seems to say, yes, be in a good mood, but be quiet while you do it. Perhaps her original ideas was being told to be in a good mood or to always be quiet. Rather than saying "I'm from 'be quiet!", she says she's from "pipe down."
Consider the lines "I am from these moments/snapped before I budded/leaf-fall from the family tree." She's comparing herself to a tree though a metaphor. She's created the image that she's not just a part of this family, she's a part of the family history, the family tree.
What details do you want to make sure are in your poem? What are the most important things about where you grew up, your family, your home, your memories, that if they're not included in this poem, you will cry?