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An Alternative To The “From” Poem: Teach “My Honest Poem”

 

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When I started teaching 20 years ago, I loved some of the tools and tricks that other teachers shared with me to help make poetry accessible to students. Some of those methods still work great today–for instance, I’ve taught the TP-CASTT method every year I’ve taught freshmen (see my post on TP-CASTT here). However, some strategies start to feel stale (at least for me) if I’ve taught them for many years. One of those is the “From Poem” structure. 

In this post, I’ll show you my alternative lesson to the “from” poem by teaching “My Honest Poem” by Rudy Francisco.

What’s a “from” poem?

A “from” poem is a type of form poem, meaning it follows a formula to complete. You might also hear it called an “I am” poem. Essentially, students fill in information about themselves to mimic the essence of the original George Ella Lyon “Where I’m From” poem. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a great poem to use. It allows access to the world of poetry writing for beginning poets because it gives them a clear structure. However, once your students get to your class, they may have already done a “from” poem many times…..or you, as the teacher, might just need to change it up for yourself! 

What is the “My Honest Poem”?

This poem is a contemporary example that students can also use as a formula. I like this poem as an alternative for a number of reasons. One is the fact it is a contemporary piece, and you can find clips of Rudy Francisco’s performances online. Here’s one on youtube.  There’s something powerful in seeing an author perform their own work, with the inflections they intended and the expressions they give to certain lines.

This “honest poem” does the same job as the “from” poems, but in a fresh way. While many students may recognize the structure of a “from” poem from previous years, having a new set of criteria brings new motivation. It’s absolutely the same format. Students use a brainstorming sheet or fill-in-the-blank worksheets to get the vibe of the poem in their own words – but it also doesn’t have to be left as strictly fill-in-the-blank. Using a contemporary poem, specifically spoken word poetry, opens up the door for discussion about modern poetry and the opportunity to explore other poets. 

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Where to Begin

I always start with bell ringers or warm-ups because I find them essential for student motivation. For this lesson, I use an episode from Poetry Unbound. Poetry Unbound is a fantastic podcast where the host reads a poem and then offers his personal insights into the poem. If you listen to an episode of this podcast every day for your poetry unit, students will start to see that poetry does not have to be super academic; there is a place to just sit and talk about what you think of that poem. Essentially Poetry Unbound works to demystify poetry. It’s a great way to open class. 

After the bell ringer, I give students a handout to brainstorm. Students should fill it out and chat with each other if they need to gather information. This gets them thinking about themselves (or interviewing each other about what others think of them) before they interact with the “My Honest Poem” format.

picture of a brainstorm sheet for my honest poem by rudy fancisco

Poem Example and Discussion 

Students then watch the performance of “My Honest Poem” and follow along with the full text, which you can either display or pass out to students in a printed format. Students complete the TP-CASTT handout about the poem and, once complete, discuss the content and delivery. You can group students in a variety of ways, depending on their nature and abilities. Some classes do better with group discussions, while others work with think-pair-share groups. Students benefit by having some discussion questions available to them, such as what they noticed about the delivery and inflection of different parts of the poem. Why might the author have made the choices he did with his execution. Students may even consider the pauses and how each plays a role in conveying meaning. 

Write Their Own

At this point, you can have students continue working on their brainstorming handout to write a personal version of Francisco’s poem. Students may not finish in the same class period, so they may finish for homework or in class the next day. It’s important students have ample time to work on not only mimicking the structure of the original, but also thinking about how to make it personal to them. Where can they put their own spin? What honest things about themselves do they want to think about before sharing it? 

Students need ample time to mimic the structure of the original poem and also make the poem their own.

Ways to Differentiate

Emergent learners or ESOL students may benefit from listening/watching the poem performed multiple times: the first time to just enjoy it, the second time to read the lyrics while the watch, and the third time to watch and make notes regarding the delivery. 

When students transition to writing their own poems in this form, break down each step from brainstorming to writing to editing and check in with students individually throughout the process. Many times this group of students does extraordinary well with this type of assignment because they can let their creativity come through while having a clear structure to follow. 

If you have honors or advanced students, challenge them to use some of the same strategies in their poems that Francisco does in his–specifically his play on words and use of rhyme. Advanced learners should also plan how they will deliver their poems considering the inflection and pauses. You can even host a poetry cafe for your students (or at least volunteers) to perform their honest poems. 

handout of poetry cafe assignment

 

This lesson can be found in the English Teacher Vault, which you can join here! The Vault includes the handouts that were mentioned here and additional resources you might find helpful in teaching this lesson. We have included some suggested recent episodes of Poetry Unbound that your students might enjoy. The vault contains over 200 low prep and no prep resources for teaching high school English, which you will have instant access to when you join!

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