Something there is that doesn’t love a Coronavirus pandemic

Photo by Evgeny Dzhumaev on Unsplash

The coronavirus and Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”

Holed up at home at my dining room table, I’m continuing with my lesson planning as scheduled during our two-week school closing. After our recent Ernest Hemingway unit concluded last week, my plan was to introduce my juniors to Robert Frost.

Lucky them.

Frost’s poetry is poignant, honest, and direct and comments beautifully on personal wonderings, human relationships, and living in general. I always find Frost’s work to be rejuvenating and clarifying.

My plans call for students to first read Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and then “Birches,” and finally, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Once we return to school, we’ll tackle “The Road Not Taken.”

On my distance learning plan for today, I scheduled my juniors to read some short biographical background articles on Frost in our textbook.

Robert Frost in 1910 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Then, they were to freewrite in response to a prompt designed to prepare them for reading “Mending Wall.”

“Mending Wall” is one of Frost’s most well-known poems. It’s about the barriers that people use (and often work darn hard to maintain, by the way) to keep others at a distance. Here’s the freewriting prompt my students have for today:

“Think about the people who live near you. Do you see them often? Are you good friends, or do you barely speak? What activities, if any, bring you together? What things keep you apart?”

When I first read this prompt, I thought of the coronavirus.

What brings us together? Coronavirus. What keeps us apart? Coronavirus.

Yes, the coronavirus is literally keeping us apart. Social distancing is the new buzzword and best practice.

However, we can also say that the coronavirus pandemic and school closings are bringing us together. For example, I’m emailing regularly with one of our neighbors, an elderly woman who lives across the street. Before the social distancing began, even though she lives just across the way, our busy schedules prevented us from seeing her outside of our weekly meet-up at church (which is now cancelled indefinitely, of course). However, now, due to the coronavirus, we’ve had more contact with her this week than we usually do.

Bottom line: the walls that keep us from more regular contact with our neighbor — busy schedules — don’t have to exist. And that’s what Frost is getting at with “Mending Wall,” his little poem that questions why humans erect and then maintain barriers that distance themselves from those nearby.

And that brings me back (yet again) to another reason why I love Robert Frost. His work, and “Mending Wall” in particular, is as relevant today — possibly more so — than it was when it was written in 1914.

And that’s a good reason to stick to my regularly scheduled lesson plans during this two-week school closure.

My daughter took this picture of me visiting Robert Frost’s grave in Bennington, Vermont in 2002.

Thanks for reading! I’m writing daily about my Life in the Time of Corona along with my students. We are journaling and keeping artifacts from this time of school closings and social distancing to document this history. Since I think a great deal about school and lesson planning, my daily journaling about the pandemic and this blog naturally coincide.

Feel free to leave a comment about the lessons you have planned for the school closing.

Photo Friday Eve: Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

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This is educator and innovator Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like An Artist.

Happy Friday Eve!

This is a quick pic of Austin Kleon’s book,Steal Like An Artist. In this book, Kleon, the inventor of black-out poetry, discusses creativity, the values of unplugging from technology to create, and tips for producing more.

He offers up some solid ideas that I found particularly helpful. Here are two:

  1. Don’t throw any of yourself away. If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life. 

I love this idea! I often feel like I have no focus with my writing. For example, on my personal blog, I write about travel destinations and parenting. I also have some personal narratives and short stories along with some more serious education-related essays that I’ve reposted from this blog. But that’s not all! I’ve also posted three random reviews of Ed Sheeran concerts I’ve seen. I’ve often thought Wow, I need to focus. Reading Kleon’s advice to keep cultivating all these parts of my writing was reassuring. I need to trust that all these topics have a reason for being explored. This next tip is closely related:

2.  Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece. What unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it.

Ahhh! That’s so good to hear! To know that there are benefits to writing about myriad topics. Again, I love how Kleon believes branching out and cultivating a variety of works is perfectly okay. That’s a good thing that someone with diverse interests like me needs to hear.


Thanks for stopping by! Kleon’s book is worth a look-see, not only for your own use, but for use in the classroom to cultivate and encourage creativity. Follow my blog for more posts about teaching ELA in a high school classroom. Here’s a recent post: Treasured Object Poems: A favorite poetry activity for all grades

Treasured Object Poems: A favorite poetry activity for all grades

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Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

In this post: Treasured Object Poems mentor texts and lesson tips

Need a fun poetry activity to use with your students? One that will also hone their sensory language and revision skills?

Show them how to write a short free-verse poem about an object they value. Paying tribute to a precious personal item encourages them to think positively about their lives and builds their creative writing skills.

After you first explain the poem, if your students are like mine, one of the very first responses you’ll hear is, “But I don’t have anything that I treasure.”

When that happens, I elaborate. I ask them,

“Okay, if the fire alarm in your house went off, and you had to get out NOW, what two or three things would you grab?”

One of these things might be the perfect thing for a Treasured Object Poem.

To get started, hold a conversation to get students talking about their favorite things. Students of mine have written about a necklace from Grandma, their turquoise Converse, a pocket watch, a fishing rod, a book, a special hoodie, and more.

To help them get ideas, I also provide mentor texts former students have written.

 

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This is the handout for the Treasured Object Poem project. This handout is kept in a manila folder in the rack of writing projects that students complete during our Writer’s Workshop.

 

This year, I wrote my own Treasured Object poem and shared it with my classes. I donned my awesome ’90s vintage bomber jacket, and read the following example: 

My ’90s Bomber Jacket

Thick and heavy, warm and supple

Chocolate brown leather, a world map lining

Four pockets to hold:

Gloves, change, Kleenexes, icy fingers.

Oversized,

It clothes me in comfort

Distressed,

It encloses me in memories from

Years of travel from

Minnesota to Maine,

Vermont to Florida.

Oregon to Kansas.

My trendy friend found years ago

In a Phoenix boutique

Is now classic outerwear and

Perfect for…

Ever.

 

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I couldn’t resist showing you my jacket. It’s exactly thirty years old this year!

 

Here’s a student-written example of a Treasured Object Poem:

My Old Turquoise Converse by Hailey B.

My old turquoise Converse,

tarnished with dust and dirt.

My old turquoise Converse,

laced with well-worn shoestrings.

Oh, how my old turquoise Converse

are embedded with memories.

The memories they hold include

meeting a special friend and

having rotten days.

My old turquoise Converse,

walked in only by me.

*****

Here’s another:

The Piano by Elijah D.

The piano’s mahogany stained legs stand

Arching over the flat worn pew.

Graceful as the tree it was separated from.

The shimmering finish of the basswood keys glistens.

A mild hiatus, waiting to be played by skilled hands

Keys sheltered until then.

Though, piano is my forte.

Hammers drawn crisply.

Strings unfrayed for their age.

The contrivance gives a beautiful melody, however untuned.

Dust mustn’t settle on the antiqued surface.

The high, console style backing draped in cloth.

Complemented by family photos in elegant frames.

Thoughts of my grandmother come to mind,

As it was her’s at one time.

But now, it is mine to own.

*****

And even though I encourage students to write a free verse poem, occasionally, a student will use rhyme. And that’s fine with me as long as it’s not forced. Here’s one of those:

The Rocking Horse by Devyn R.

Rocking horse, rocking horse, take me away

To faraway places and spaces to play

Farther and farther I knew we went

Across the kitchen and through the vent

Over the hills, galloping we go

When we’ll stop, I’ll never know

Back and back, my head’s in a spin

Nobody else knows the spin that I am in

Taking me places I’ve never been

As high as a bird, as fast as a fish

In the clouds, through the ocean, anywhere I wish

*****

Three ways to beef up this activity

1. Try this revision strategy:

Adding more sensory language will help these poems come to life. After first drafts have been written, have students take their poems and add:

  • one fragrance or smell
  • one sound
  • one texture
  • one taste or flavor

2. Guide your students away from these treasured object ideas:

  • Game systems, phones, and other screens… Honestly, students give enough attention to their screens. I tell students that they’ll have more success with an object that’s tangible. In other words, it’s important to be able to touch or physically experience their object. However, sometimes I give in and let them attempt a poem about their PS4, for example, so they can learn on their own that video games and virtual realities are difficult to describe with physical terms. When they invariably struggle to add sensory language to their poem, they usually change their mind on their own to something that invariably has more poetry potential.
  • Food…There’s always one student who will want to write about a food, as in “But I treasure pizza, Mrs. Yung!”  But unfortunately, such a temporal item will make their Treasured Object Poem feel insignificant. Encourage them to focus on something permanent and precious. Food disappears too quickly to deserve a poem.

3. Enter these poems in a contest.

In fact, on the handout in the photo above (it was used with my middle school students in my previous teaching position), you can see that my students limited their poems to twenty lines. This limit was placed so the students could enter their poems in Creative Communication’s Poetry Contests.  Read my blog post about this publisher here.

I hope you enjoy sharing this poetry idea with your kids. It’s always been a favorite with my own students. In addition, it’s a poem they can return to again and again as they think of other objects they treasure. Most of my students, even my high school students, surprise themselves with how much they like their final product.


Thanks for reading again this week! If you try this in your classes, feel free to let me know in the comments how it goes or drop me an email in the “Contact” menu.

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes poetry can teach better than I can

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Take word choice, for example

Last December, when I read a student’s second draft of their Treasured Object poem and saw that it contained the word “get” four times, I thought Really? Get? Four times? 

It surprised me because I thought I had taught not only sentence variety, but word variety as well. It’s good to vary our words. Yes, a writer can repeat certain words in order to:

However, many times using the same word repeatedly —- especially a vague one like “get” — is simply a sign of lazy writing.

Here’s the second draft that a student turned in during our fall writer’s workshop:

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“Get” is a weak, vague verb as it is. And then to have four in the same short poem! Arghghgh!

In our writer’s workshop process, I simply make a few suggestions for revisions and edits on a student’s second draft. I address the most glaring issue that will help the writer improve for his or her third (and usually final) draft. In this case, the most glaring issue was the overuse of  “get.”

I circled the four “gets” and in the margins, I wrote “Replace weak verbs.” When I returned it to the student, we talked briefly. I suggested his poem would be stronger with a variety of powerful verbs mainly because the reader wouldn’t be distracted and pulled out of the poem by all the “gets.”

Here’s the student’s third and final draft:

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The poem is much stronger, don’t you think?

Sometimes it just takes a little more time to think of a better word. 

I also wondered to myself how this poem was the student’s second draft. How did the student who gave him feedback on his first draft not catch this obvious issue? Lazy editing?

Probably, I thought, acknowledging that enabling students to provide effective feedback is still one area in my high school writer’s workshop process that needs improvement.

This poem allowed a quick fix for a common problem. And it caused the unnecessary repetition to be readily recognized and quickly and effectively repaired. This is yet another reason I like teaching poetry. It truly does teach some concepts more efficiently than I can.


Thanks for reading again this week! How is your poetry practice? Do you encourage and/or assign students to write poems? Do tell. And by the way, my next post will focus on the “Treasured Object” poem. I love this easy-to-write poem that allows students to get personal and write about a belonging they wouldn’t part with for the world. Follow my blog to catch my next post!

 

 

 

Headline poetry for high school students

Abi B., junior

Watch older students create stunning expressions from everyday language

This year, for the first three days of school, I again indulged in headline poetry with my students. It was a new activity for my new high school students and I was glad for that. (I’ve introduced headline poetry to middle schoolers in the past. Click here and here for two posts on that.)

To start the activity,  I simply held up and read aloud a few laminated poems created by former students. After reading, I asked, “What did you notice?” Students tended to mention the unusual word choices, strange phrasing, unexpected metaphors, and other observations. They also mentioned the poems’ originality and freshness.

I also read this excerpt of a poem written by award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The poem is called “A Valentine for Ernest Mann.” Here’s the excerpt:

So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

-excerpt from “Valentine for Ernest Mann” by Naomi Shihab Nye (1952)

Seth C., junior

I read this poem excerpt to illustrate how headline poetry (and found poetry in general) is built on the notion that poetry is hiding all around us in the language we find in our everyday lives. Signs, posters, bumper stickers, magazines, mail… these provide the words that can create powerful poems.

Headline poetry means kids are moving around, cutting, gluing, talking, and sometimes pausing to read an article or two here and there.

Ella  D., junior

Many students visited while they cut out words, and that was fine with me. On the other hand, many other students worked quietly… especially as they entered the arranging phase where they sorted words, and then positioned twenty to thirty of them into intriguing lines and phrases to create stunning experiments in language.

Since I asked students to make sure their poem was “about” something (it’s not just random words), many students spent a lot of time thinking about the words they had selected. I asked them to take it slow, and allow a theme to surface as they arranged and rearranged their cut-outs into a poem of at least ten lines.

Angelina C., junior

And then some students were impatient or just didn’t seem to think anything meaningful could come from this form of writing. However, as they continued to work, they usually discovered a theme emerging.

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Here are some signs I post around the room when we work on headline poetry.

Overall, it was again the perfect activity for reluctant writers and enthusiastic ones alike to kick off the year.

Here are the steps we took to create our back-to-school headline poems:

  1. Get an envelope and put your name on it. Keep your cuttings in it.
  2. Select some newspapers and magazines, leaf through them, and cut out interesting words and phrases from headlines. It is best to collect somewhere between 75 and 100 words and phrases from different sections of newspapers and magazines to gather a range of vocabulary, as well as selections of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
  3. Scatter the words and phrases on a table and look for themes, synonyms, rhyming words, etc.
  4. Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases on a page and read them aloud to check for fluency and impression. Because there is a visual quality to headline poetry, the placement of text can contribute to the presentation of ideas and meaning.
  5. Create a poem that consists of at least ten lines.
  6. Yes, you may create one word with individual letters, but remember: this is a form of found poetry.
  7. When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of construction paper.
  8. Reflect. When you are totally finished with your poem, write a paragraph to explain the impetus for your poem. What ideas did you decide you were trying to convey with it? How did you choose this theme/subject matter/topic? Did you change your mind as you worked? What words or phrases especially helped you shape the meaning of your poem?

I asked students to choose their favorite poem in each class by putting  a check mark on a sticky note attached to the poems. The three poems with the most votes were posted in the hallway.

Try these bonus tips to get even more out of this activity:

  • Use as many different types of magazines as possible. Collect a wide selection that might include Vogue, Motor Trend, Better Homes and Gardens, Wired, Forbes, People, Elle, Architectural Digest, and Gourmet. A variety of subject matter will yield a better mix of words.
  • Provide 11- x 17-inch paper. Bigger paper allows more freedom with layout.
  • You will likely have a student ask if a line can be made with one word. Take the opportunity to talk with your student about why he thinks the word will be more powerful on its own. If allowing that word to stand on its own adds to the meaning of the poem, fine. If he’s just trying to race through the project, then nope.

Sam F., junior

Two more tips:

  • Encourage students to play with the layout. The examples here show poems that occupied the entire sheet of paper. I did have one student who arrange dtheir poem in one corner of the page. I found that one particularly striking. You can see it on the far right in the picture below.
  • Invariably, a student will ask if they can create a word out of individual letters. I allow kids to do that once; however, it does defeat the spontaneous nature of headline poetry, which is a form of found poetry. It’s not really found poetry if you can make any word you want, right?!

If you haven’t tried headline poetry yet, make a note on your calendar to try it soon. It’s a non-intimidating way to jump into writing, and for many students, that’s a definite necessity. Use this handout from NCTE for more guidance and resources.


Thanks for reading again this week! I meant to post this sooner (as in right after we created these poems), but the year took off and I’m only getting to it now. Leave a note or comment about your experiences with headline poetry. What could I be doing differently or better? Got any other ideas? Click like if you enjoyed this post and follow my blog to stay in touch. 

When anxious, depressed students stare into space

Don’t assume they aren’t listening

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Photo: J.C. Gellidon on Unsplash

Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave for the eighth year. It’s the autobiography of Douglass, who was born into slavery. In his formative years, he experienced an epiphany: literacy equaled freedom. As a result, he taught himself to read and write. Years later, sure enough, he escaped from bondage.

As a free man, he became an outspoken leader for civil rights and suffrage and was eventually appointed United States Minister to Haiti. Douglass’ narrative is one of my favorite books in American literature for its honest and raw portrayal of the horrors of slavery conveyed with Douglass’ frank, accessible, and often poetic prose.

It’s an important book that is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1845. As a result, students find the text compelling and riveting. They are spellbound as they read of the realities of slavery often for the first time.

During the unit in which we read Douglass, one of my brightest students—let’s call her Ellen—endured a new low in her personal experience with anxiety and depression. She had battled these demons for a few years then, but did seem to sink even deeper during the month or so that we spent studying Douglass’ text.

It was a tough spring. At a time when her peers were looking forward to spring break, the April dance, and their graduation to high school, Ellen found it difficult just to get to school. She was often absent. On a good day, she was late to first period by half an hour.

As we read Douglass’ account of his life, Ellen seemed bored and detached. And, to be honest, I worried at the time about the content of the book being detrimental to her fragile state. How helpful can it be to read about the atrocities of human bondage when one is already suffering from negative emotions from all sides?

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Frederick Douglass’ master believed learning would spoil the best slave in the world. Engraved by J.C. Buttre from a daguerreotype. | Photo: public domain

When we read Douglass’ stories about his various masters and life primarily as a city slave, Ellen stared blankly across the room or at the wood grain Formica pattern of her desktop. She did not turn in assignments, and only rarely contributed to class discussions. However, she would take usually do well on the occasional reading comprehension quizzes. Even so, I could tell she wasn’t engaged with Douglass. Or that’s what I assumed.

One day at the end of class, near the culmination of the unit, she casually mentioned to me, “I wrote this poem last night.” An introspective girl, Ellen enjoyed writing poetry and it wasn’t the first time she had asked me to read something she had written outside of class.

I glanced at the title, “Master Mind, and then skimmed through the stanzas as the next group of students coasted in for the boisterous last class period of the day. I noticed Frederick Douglass’ name tucked among the lines; my interest piqued.

“Can I keep this and read it after school?” I asked Ellen. She nodded and sauntered off to eighth hour.

After school, I picked up the poem and read it again. This time, I was able to concentrate.

As I read, I began to realize Ellen had written about her own kind of slavery… to depression.

I felt bad for assuming she hadn’t been listening when, truth be told, she had indeed found connection with Douglass’ experience and words. Yes, she understood and appreciated the horrific dehumanization of American slavery that Douglass experienced, but she went further. She correlated Douglass’ oppression under slavery and injustice to her own oppression under anxiety and depression.

In no way, I’m sure, did she intend to downplay or distract from Douglass’ experience when she compared her own struggle with mental health to his struggle with state-sanctioned slavery. After all, students cannot help but be shocked at the inhumane treatment Africans suffered under the peculiar institution. When Ellen applied Douglass’ experience to her own, I believe it was an honest attempt to deal with her crisis.

And what’s more, she creatively built on that attempt and created her “Master Mind” poem to sustain and even heal herself.

In short, Ellen was doing exactly what educators want their students to do: apply classic literature to contemporary life.

Here are two excerpts from Ellen’s poem:

Master Mind

I am a slave to my own mind.

I’m tied up, naked, and afraid,

While my uninvited thoughts hold the whip,

All day, I try to please my master,

Only to be starved of my happiness.

My fear shatters all remnants of hope,

By striking me for laughter…

 

Another excerpt:

For I want to be the next Frederick Douglass.

I will escape the darkness in my head,

And I plan on writing about my struggle and the struggle of others…

I am simply bringing a different kind of modern slavery to light.

 

And to think I assumed Ellen was just filling a chair in my classroom. Yes, she was staring into space, but she was still engaged, making meaning, finding sustenance and encouragement from her identification with Douglass.

This was the ultimate text-to-self connection, wasn’t it?

Let’s not always assume that students aren’t “getting it.” They may be understanding and gaining more from a text than we ever expect.

This experience with Ellen has shown me the value of being watchful of how students are connecting with our classroom texts. From now on, I won’t be so quick to assume that students who stare off into space are not engaged.


Thanks for reading! This has been a busy summer, and I’ve skipped a couple of weeks’ worth of posts. Between a month-long trip to Greece, (click here for one of about 25 posts), moving to a new city, a new teaching position, AND delivering my daughter to NYC last weekend for graduate school, writing on my teaching blog has been put on the back burner. However, I intend to start posting weekly starting today.

Stay tuned for my next post where I write about my new high school classes, memoirs, and map-making.

 

“Where I’m From” Poems

My All-Time Favorite Poetry Activity

 

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George Ella Lyon, American Writer and Teacher

Have you heard of George Ella Lyon? She’s an American writer and teacher from Kentucky who wrote a poem several years ago called “Where I’m From.” Here’s Lyons’ poem:

Where I’m From

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.

Lyons’ website is extensive and explains the inspiration for her writing the poem. Here’s an excerpt from her website:

“Where I’m From” grew out of my response to a poem from Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet (Orchard Books, 1989; Theater Communications Group, 1991) by my friend, Tennessee writer Jo Carson. All of the People Pieces, as Jo calls them, are based on things folks actually said, and number 22 begins, “I want to know when you get to be from a place. ” Jo’s speaker, one of those people “that doesn’t have roots like trees, ” tells us “I am from Interstate 40” and “I am from the work my father did. ”

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Each spring, my sixth-grade students write their own “Where I’m From” poems. These poems never fail to produce highly personal, touching, and honest poems.

I always display the students’  work in the hallway or on a bulletin board so everyone can read them. Students are drawn to these simple little poems that can’t help but be packed with imagery and sensory language. In fact, just last week, one of my eighth-grade students mentioned that it was one of her favorite things she had written in my class.

To get started, I read aloud Lyons’ “Where I’m From” poem as a mentor text and then I follow that up with reading three or four poems from former students. Then I pass out a template to guide students through the poem’s organization and ideas. There are several versions of the poem template out there on the Internet and on Lyons’ website; this one works especially well: iamfrompoem

Students should use this template as a guide when brainstorming and writing their poems. I don’t require that every blank be filled out as printed on the template; students can modify it to fit their life story. It’s simply a guideline, a starting point.

These poems speak for themselves. Since that’s the case, I have simply posted below some of the more poignant ones from my current sixth-grade classes.

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I schedule our “Where I’m From” poems so they can be considered for publication in Creative Communication’s Spring Poetry Anthology. (By the way, check out this link for more on this publisher and its contests.) Each year, more than half of my sixth-graders see their “Where I’m From” poems published in a real hard-cover book. It’s very inspiring and is an awesome way to end the year!


Have you ever taught “Where I’m From” poems? Leave a comment with your thoughts and experiences. Thanks for reading! See you next week.