Schools are wonderfully diverse communities. In fact, when I remember my ‘other’ job in the real world, I see what a bubble I existed in for such a long time. Working away, like a hamster on a wheel, with people doing jobs like me, who were pretty much, just like me.
I don’t have a choice who rocks up at my classroom door. Even teaching in a school with a very small catchment area, I see the full and wide range of human experience reflected in the kids I teach.
This year, more than any before, I have wanted to champion both diversity and community in my ELA classroom. To give space for challenge and difference and to enjoy togetherness and unity. An idea for this – linked to writing – segued from a unit we were already studying. In Year 7 / Grade 7 we analyze a series of poems from different cultures, if you never heard or seen them I would recommend the following: Blessing by Imtiaz Dharker and Night of the Scorpion by Nissim Ekeziel.
I wanted my students to have the opportunity to give voice to their culture, just as these poets had. But in teasing out these thoughts, I quickly realised that even within one class of 30 students, we had no fixed culture. Yes we live in the same town, but some of us speak different languages at home, eat different food, love different music. I needed to find a way to hold both our difference and our unity up for the world to admire.
The “I am” poem
It could not have been any more simple in the end, the “I am” poem allowed my students to express both at once, in a muddle and a mix, just as it is.
Here’s what I asked students to do:
- Divide one page in 6 boxes
- Fill each box with as many ideas as you can (you can pick and choose later)
- Box 1: Where I live and the languages in my family/house
- Box 2: The food I love
- Box 3: Things I do for fun
- Box 4: What is important in life (boy, does this one generate debate!)
- Box 5: Places I love to go
- Box 6: Things I love
Once everyone had ideas in each box, we then discussed how to chose the ones that best represent ‘me’. I didn’t want to tell kids that ‘my iphone’ was wrong because that would have gone wholly against what I was aiming for – a celebration of them.
Turning ideas into poetry
After the list generation phase, I would show the class my responses. Below is my original list (occasionally, now, I edit it and add sky diving or lion taming, just for fun).
Then I model turning this list- in-a-box into a list poem. Firstly, we discuss nouns and articles and how in poetry missing them out can create meaning “I am tea and cake”, but occasionally they will be required because it just doesn’t sound right: “I am iPhone” becomes “my iPhone”. Again we discussed why “I am a sunny day” requires the article but “I am frosty mornings” doesn’t – looking at pluralisation and its impact.
Here’s my poem – which, yes, I show kids before they write their own one. I often ask students to consider what can be inferred from the various lines. My students tend to jump on “England and Europe” – I leave them to their speculations and then let them write their own.
I am London
I am England and Europe
I am tea and cake
I am chips not fish
I am chats with friends
I am lazy nights in
I am family and food and fun
I am a sunny day
I am frosty mornings
I am the seaside
I am fairgrounds
Draft, refine, create
I have no rules about the drafting and refining of these poems. I wanted a truthful expression. So after a lesson pottering about with words, we left the poems to ruminate for a while. Coming back to them the following day, allowed us one more opportunity to finesse and then we got creative.
I gave students this worksheet (click to download) and showed them the plan was to create a hanging squared poem to display.
So they need to:
- Cut out both squares
- Glue the top left square to the bottom right one to create two joined diamonds (see above)
- Write their poem down the middle three squares.
- Add drawings to the four empty squares to show what they love.
The result? A poem that shows the individual and yet celebrates the things that bring us together (cake, football, chicken) and the things that make us different (Russian, cheerleading champion, pro-golfer). I love it and I love them in all their samey-difference.
We laminate them and hang them around the room, sometimes stringing several together and leaving them to flutter in the breeze. Words and colour mixed together reminding us that diversity and community are beautiful.
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