De dónde soy by Michelle Nicola

As I thought about creating curriculum that focused on Afro-Mexican stories, I realized that I didn’t want to tell the students where they are from- how ridiculous would that be?! I wanted my students to tell me about their heritage. What makes Coyolillo, Coyolillo? What are they proud of and where does their identity as a town of Afro-Mestizos show up? 

I immediately thought of Linda Christensen’s Where I’m From lesson. Christensen uses George Ella Lyon’s ‘Where I’m From’ poem as a mentor text, a text that students can look to for guidance on writing their own poems and gather inspiration. I’d taught this lesson to Spanish learners in the past, but always had to either a) use a poem written in English as a mentor text or b) write my own poem in Spanish for students to follow. Both of these choices have drawbacks. In the first, students aren’t getting the Spanish language input they need to produce the language output. And in the second option, it’s not an authentic (written by Spanish-speakers for Spanish-speakers) resource. In my classroom, ideal mento texts are poems, stories and essays written by other students because it’s easier to envision yourself achieving something your peer has also done. I was hopeful that I could use this lesson to guide the students in Coyolillo in writing mentor texts for students in Portland. It was also an opportunity for student in Coyolillo to tell me about themselves and what it means to them to come from a town that’s “Afro-mestizo.”

First, I needed a mentor text for the students in Coyolillo. I decided to go with Option B and write a mentor poem for them for the simple reason that their English was not advanced enough to choose Option A.  

I passed out copies of my poem to my students. We read the poem aloud read-a-round style, meaning each student read one line until we finished the poem. I asked students to use a highlighter to highlight their favorite lines, which they shared with a partner and a few with the class. I accidentally forgot to put my name on the poem, but I used this as a way to get students to delve into its meaning.

“What do we know about the person who wrote this poem?” I asked. 

“That she comes from a cold place!” someone shouted out. 

”How do we know that?” I asked. 

”Because of the line about the blankets,” came the response.  

“Great! What else?”  

“That she’s got a family.” 

”Tell me about that- who is in her family?” 

I asked them questions for as long as it seemed they had answers and then I finally asked, “So who wrote this poem? 

”You!!!!” came the chorus of replies.  

“So how do you think a person writes a poem like this?” I asked. 

They looked at me blankly until one student ventured, “By writing it???”  

“Yes of course, but I want to teach you a technique that poets sometimes use to get started. Notice here how I mention things that are in my house? What other things do I mention?” 

The students noticed the places, the foods, names of people, things in my neighborhood and things in my yard. I wrote these topics on a piece of poster paper as headers for lists.  

“Ok,” I said. “I want you to copy down these headers. We are going to make a list of things for each one of these categories. Try to write as many things as you can think of, the more the better.” Because I have taught this poem to middle school students in the past, I knew to add, “Don’t just write TV in the list of Things In My House. Try to choose things that are really unique to your house. And if the TV is a central item, then tell me what’s always on. Is it soccer? Soap operas? The news?”  

Students got started working on their lists and I wandered the room, helping where necessary.  At that point, class was over, and unfortunately we wouldn’t get back to this poem until two weeks later. 

When we did get back to the poem, I asked students to look at my poem and figure out how I went from lists to a poem. I wrote what students said on the board, and let them spend the rest of the time crafting their poems. 

As I walked around the room, I noticed a lot of lines that said, Soy de carnaval- I am from Carnival. I challenged students to write a few more lines describing carnival with their five senses. What do you see? I asked. Smell? Taste? Feel/touch? Hear? A few students provided more detail after that description, but for the majority it was something I needed more time to work with them on. 

After students finished a draft of their poem, I read each one and provided feedback: “I can really see the church based on these lines,” or “I can tell how much you love Coyolillo by the way you talk about its food- delicious!” were the types of comments I wrote. Because this was our first assignment together, I decided to focus on what worked in each student’s poem. That said, I started creating a list of common areas to work on for our next assignment, such as descriptive language, metaphor and exploding a detail. Many students “borrowed,” lines from my poem, and I was OK with that. We learn new things by first mimicking others. With time and practice, our own creativity starts to grow out of those first seeds that were planted by someone else. World Language standards allow for this - novice students “use memorized words and phrases,” while intermediate students start to “create their own sentences.”

I’m including videos of a few of the middle school students reading their poems. The sound quality is unfortunately not where I would like it to be. My Fulbright experience was one of compact personal growth - of learning my strengths and uncovering some growth areas (like filming and video editing!) Please be kind and patient as I learn and grow! :)