I am not a visual artist. At best, I can draw a heart. But it stops there. Even my stick figures could use improvement. So when my middle school students asked me if they could do an art project, I quickly made an excuse. “We don’t have time. It’s not a part of the unit.”
It was partly true. I had planned out a four-week poetry unit on exploring identity. Besides teaching students the basics—What is a stanza? Why do poets break lines?—I also had to find the best poems to spark my students’ interests and get them motivated to talk and write about who they are, where they are from.
At the start of our after-school program, the teachers decided our goals would include teaching students how to connect poetry to their living histories and how to use poetry as a means to talk back to the world. My 90-minute lesson plans were bursting with free writes, reading and critiquing poems, writing poems, revising poems, performing poems—there was no room for art. Especially not the simplistic assignment I have done in times past: “Choose an image from your poem and illustrate it.” If students were going to make illustrations, I wanted these to have meaning and tie into our unit.
It wasn’t until our fourth lesson that I thought of a way to incorporate art into our poetry class. Students had written poems about what raised them (see “‘Raised by Women’: Celebrating Our Homes,” Christensen), and they had written a response to the free-write question “If people could see the true me, what would they see?” We spent two sessions writing about and discussing our roots. I learned that my Bronx students carried in them the turquoise blue water of Jamaica, the sweet mangos of the Dominican Republic, and the steaming hot café con leche of Puerto Rico. They were raised by video games and praying grandmothers, by leftovers that taste better on the second day and empty pockets, with not even lint or change. In Ode to My Skin Tone, Richard wrote:
I am Sunset Beige, the color of the beach
the color of Spanish tongues
Rozalynn gave homage to her heritage, acknowledging in her poem that sometimes, because of her light skin, she can hide her ethnicity:
No longer will I deny Puerto Rico
I will wear the bright colors of
PR with pride
They took great risks. I modeled the risk-taking by sharing with them how I wish I knew more about my Jamaican heritage, how I grew up a black girl in Oregon and what it was like attending a predominantly white middle school. I introduced my East Coast students to the Northwest through my poem “Where I’m From”:
. . . I’m from a place where rain falls
more than sun shines
I’m from Douglas firs and pine trees
where we walk under waterfalls,
drive up windy roads to Mt. Hood,
and escape to the
beaches on the Oregon coast
Just a few stanzas later, students saw a glimpse of my Northeast Portland neighborhood:
Where I’m from the whole
neighborhood is your family
ladies sit on their porches looking out
shooing away boys like flies
callin’ your momma to tell her what
before you can get home and lie
As a writer in the schools it is important for me to share my work with students and to let them see me create alongside them. In one of our lessons, the writing prompt “If your skin tone could speak, what would it say?” led me to share how that when I was young, I felt uncomfortable in my skin: “I am dark-skinned with brown eyes, and my mother is very light-skinned with green eyes. When we went places together, just the two of us, I felt out of place.”
‘How Do You Want to Introduce Yourself to the World?’
My class is made up of Latino and black students who range across light and dark shades of brown. They are middle school students who are questioning their self-worth, learning from society who is and isn’t beautiful. They live in the Bronx and they are aware that there is a stigma attached to their neighborhood. I tell them: “Your journal is the place where you can respond to the many voices speaking to you. What do you want to say about your community? Your family? How do you want to introduce yourself to the world?”
Page after page, my students wrote poems that spoke directly to the stereotypes they are judged by. Khayia wrote:
I am a black girl, yes
But not a typical one
I am a girl full of dreams
I am not parentless
I was born into a family of caring
It was during our class sharing that I realized I wanted to do something with these poems. Something more than type them and hang them on the bare white classroom wall. These poems were about seeing a student for who he or she really is. For looking past the clothes, hearing past the accent, and listening—really listening.
What if I could really look at Kaheem and see lyrics of the gospel hymns that his grandmother sings to him? What if every time I looked in Leticia’s eyes I saw the words strength and beauty? I decided to close the unit by having students create self-portraits using the strongest lines from their poems.
Poetry Lines Become Visual Self-Portraits
When students came into the room, they were greeted with a question on the board: “Who am I and how can I recreate myself?”
I asked students to comb through their journals and select three or more of the very best lines and phrases from each of their poems: “Narrow it down to the heart of your piece. What are the most important phrases in the poem? Copy them to a new sheet of paper.”
I walked around the room and checked in with students who seemed stuck. Because most of them had shared their poems in previous read-arounds, I had a sense of the powerful lines they had written and reminded them of the feedback their peers had given them. “When you read that poem to the class, we all really liked your last stanza. What about getting phrases from there?”
After about 15 minutes, students had a “greatest hits lists” of their own words. I then asked students to write one-word responses to the following prompts: List two places you’ve lived in, visited, or want to go to. List two types of music you enjoy listening to. List three words that have special meaning to you. For the last prompt, I gave a few examples. “For instance, the word ‘rebirth’ is the definition of my name, so that word means something to me. I also like the word ‘faith’ because I have had to rely on my faith to get me through hard times.”
I allowed time for student volunteers to share one phrase or line of poetry, and a few shared their favorite place or meaningful word. Two of Malek’s favorite words were “vibrant” and “heroic.”
Once a few students shared, I wrote the word “Self-Portrait” on the board and asked the class to come up with a definition. I then explained the activity. “Today, you are going to make a self-portrait. Except, instead of drawing your features, you are going to use words.” I passed my example around, which used lines from my “Where I’m From” poem, since students were familiar with that piece. The template I used was the outline of a blank face. “What do you notice about my ears?” I asked.
“They have the words ‘gospel’ and ‘jazz’ written on them.”
“What do you notice about my forehead?”
“Lines from your poem are written across the forehead.”
I continued asking questions as my self-portrait made its way around the class. “Are all the words the same size? What do you notice about the angle of the words?”
Cory noticed that some words were bigger than others and that I used multiple colors. Layah pointed out that I wrote in a circular direction, except for the placement of my eyes, nose, and lips.
I told the class: “This is your chance to show people who you really are. To show them all the things that have shaped you.”
Khaiya raised her hand. “So it’s like we’re focusing on our soul—not the physical parts?”
Before giving them the art supplies and template, I challenged them to be thoughtful about the placement of their words. “What words should be your eyes? What lines should be written around the side of your face? Your forehead? Which lines should be your hair?”
I wrote the instructions on the board, giving students a step-by-step checklist:
- Create your eyes using two of your meaningful words.
- Create your eyebrows using the two places you wrote down.
- Create your nose using your initials.
- Create your mouth using your third meaningful word.
- Write your favorite music along your ears.
- Fill in the face with lines and phrases from your poem.
“This is a checklist for those of you who want structure or need help getting started,” I told the class. “If you want to switch the placement of the words, that’s fine.”
Students got to work, using the thin-tipped markers I passed out. While they worked I played music that reinforced many of the themes we had talked about in the past few weeks (including “Little Things” and “I Am Not My Hair” by India Arie, “Comin’ from Where I’m From” by Anthony Hamilton, and “Doo Wop [That Thing]” by Lauryn Hill).
During work time, I listened in on my students as they talked to each other. “Where do you think I should put this line?” Rozalyn asked Khaiya.
“Under your mouth,” Khaiya suggested.
I read the line, “My tongue travels through the portal of time and speaks the language of my ancestors.”
Malek listed his favorite childhood songs along the top of his head. Leticia’s hair was full of memories of her and her cousin.
When students finished, they cut out the face and came to me to select their background paper. I had a stack of patterned card stock that we used to mount the faces on. Students glued their cutout face on the paper and traced around the face with a black marker, to make it stand out against the background color.
Self-Portraits to Share
At the end of class, students stood up and shared their self-portraits. I asked students to listen closely to the person who was sharing. “Try to find one thing you have in common and one new thing you didn’t know.” Even my quiet students volunteered to share. And our after-school classroom, made up of students from different schools, different backgrounds became a community. “I go to church, too!” a student said.
“I remember that cartoon!”
“My family eats curried goat, too.”
And yet, with all the similarities, no one’s face looked the same, no two portraits were alike.
I later went through the self-portraits, re-reading lines and taking in who my students were. I learned a lot about them, not only because of what they included in the portrait, but also because of what they left out, and where they placed certain words. Each time I looked at these works of art, I noticed something different—a new word or phrase stood out that made me want to know more.
I realized that I wanted to know more about all my students—even the ones I taught in other programs at other schools. I modified this activity and used it in poetry residencies with both elementary and high schoolers. Instead of students having a whole unit’s worth of poems to choose from, sometimes they just had one—an “I Am Poem” or a “Neighborhood Poem.” Any writing that is autobiographical has worked well and has given students the power to mine the beauty and strength that is within them.
A few weeks after my first attempt at bringing visual art into the classroom, my middle school students had an open mic for the community. Parents, teachers, and family members came together to celebrate the powerful words of our young people.
My students were so proud to see their self-portraits showcased. Parents surveyed the wall and saw inside the souls of their children. One parent stared at the wall and smiled, pointing to her daughter’s line that read “I dream of traveling to London.” She looked at me and said, “I didn’t even know that.”
Together we stood at the wall learning and relearning the young people we thought we knew. Together we saw them again, for the first time.n
Christensen, Linda. “‘Raised by Women’: Celebrating Our Homes,” Teaching for Joy and Justice. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, 2009.
Watson, Renée. “Where I’m From.” http://reneewatson.net.