Main Ideas and Theme in "Where I'm From"
Lesson 3 of 8
Objective: Students will be able to cite main ideas in a poem and analyze author's use of figurative and connotative language to interpret the theme.
Today's daily grammar review was done as a competition for first hour. The first group to get all of the corrections first would earn a punch on their punch card. I didn't know they'd be so excited about this. I could only do this competition with first hour on Wednesday. We have a funky block, schedule, so I see first hour on Wednesday for ninety minutes and I see fourth hour on Thursday for ninety minutes. On Wednesday, however, a storm blew in and we got a few inches of snow. That wasn't so bad, but then the bitter cold set in. Seriously, it's not going to get above freezing for a week! We're not using ice or chemical de-icers this year, so Thursday was a delayed start. Instead of having the usual ninety minutes, I had fifty minutes with fourth hour.
Three groups tried to put in an apostrophe in the word yours. Yes, it's possessive, but the possessive pronouns don't get apostrophes.
We continued the work on adverbs and punctuating dialogue.
The previous day we finished reading and analyzing "The Jabberwocky." That poem was their introduction to poetry in my class. One of the things that I don't want students to think about poetry is that it must rhyme or have a certain rhythm, so I make sure that the second poem we read is free verse. Enter "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon. I first taught this poem to ninth graders when I was still teaching high school, but I've found that it works well with seventh graders. I think it would work well for all ages, really.
I wrote the quote by Jo Carson in the lesson picture on pieces of paper and then taped them to the floor in the hallway. I learned about this technique to grab students' attention from a conference I attended on co-teaching last year. It certainly did get their attention! The picture to the right shows what they saw when they walked down the hall towards my room.
First, we numbered the three stanzas and labeled every five lines to make citing the lines easier. Sometimes I think that numbering the stanzas is a bit basic, but when I asked how many stanzas this poem had, I got a very loud "Five!" as an answer and a quieter "Three!" It's important to go over this, but only for about five seconds. One second for each stanza, plus an extra two seconds for breathing time.
Then we read the poem. Since this poem, compared to "The Jabberwocky," is more accessible to students, I asked the students to read the poem silently the first time. Then I played the audio of the author reading her own poem. (Note: If you can't hear anything, and everything's plugged in, make sure that your computer isn't muted. Not that I did that today or anything.)
I asked them to think about what this poem is about, and how they know that. They're identifying the main ideas and themes, as well as mood, and citing evidence by identifying and quoting the lines that the information comes from. I also asked them to think about not just the literal meaning, but the deeper meaning. Just like "The Jabberwocky" told a literal story about a boy slaying a monster, it had a deeper meaning about what it means to be brave. I gave them a few moments to write a short paragraph before sharing out.
I planned for this to take about thirty minutes, but it took way longer because the students kept raising their hands and saying, "Wait!" I love when that happens. For the most part, students stayed true to the poem, but I had a couple of students who went off on a tangent with their thoughts. When asked to prove it with lines from the text, they couldn't. They're getting used to that.
Here's some of the highlights.
- They immediately latched on to the third stanza. They latched on to that stanza like it was water and they'd been walking in the desert for five days. Many of them thought that the speaker was dying. Their support was the lines "I am from those moments/snapped before I budded/leaf-fall from the family tree" and "a sift of lost faces/to drift beneath my dreams." The latter quote, they said, showed that she was drifting away. But then! Another student reminded us of the lines before that: "Under my bed was a dress box/spilling old pictures/a sift of lost faces/to drift beneath my dreams." The 'drifting faces' are her memories, and the snapped could refer to the taking of the pictures. So, is she dying? Probably not.
- One student asked if the three different stanzas were from three different parts of her life. Perhaps stanza one was when she was a young child. Proof? "I am from the dirt under the back porch/(Black, glistening/it tasted like beets." Little kids are the ones who eat dirt, so that claim is certainly supported. Perhaps when she was young she and her family did a lot of cleaning. Maybe that was their job and that's what the "clothespins, Clorox, and carbon-tetrachloride" in lines 1 and 2 means.
- Nevaeh asked what the lines "I'm from He restoreth my soul/with a cottonball lamb/and ten verses I can say myself" meant. Nathan said that the "ten verses" might be from the Bible. Someone suggested the Ten Commandments, but there's not enough proof for that. What's the "He restoreth my soul?" That's a reference to church, and the "He" is God. The cottonball lamb? A common church craft would be to make a lamb, the lamb symbolizing Jesus. Even though the speaker never tells us she goes to church, she shows us through imagery.
- The speaker might be from the south. She mentions clothespins, which is more of a rural thing. (I clarified that that doesn't mean that nobody who lives in cities uses clothespins or that everyone who lives in a rural area uses clothespins, but it is more common.) Lines 15 through 17 suggest the narrator goes to church. The 'fried corn' in line 19 suggest the south and "the finger my grandfather lost to the auger" suggests a farm. Luke pointed out that the forsythia bush grows in Florida. Anna reminded us that the author had a Southern accent.
It's at this point where I share that "Where I'm From" was actually written as a response to another poem that begins with this line: "“I want to know when you get to be from a place.” "OH! THAT WAS WHAT WAS ON THE FLOOR!" Yes, lovely students, yes it was. This poem is all about where the speaker is from--where she belongs, who she belongs to, the smells, tastes, and sights that are seared into her memory.
After the discussion, I asked students to write a paragraph in response. The prompt was "What is the author telling me? What does the author want me to understand? What details does the author use to help me understand?"