Academic journal article English Journal

Where We're From: Poetry, Placemaking, and Community Identity

Academic journal article English Journal

Where We're From: Poetry, Placemaking, and Community Identity

Article excerpt

Teacher strikes, government shutdowns, gun violence, and fake news. Students are living during a cultural moment when polarizing headlines dominate the media and proclaim that we live in a divided nation ("Political Polarization"). However, as educators, we believe in the value of building a classroom community as a pedagogical resource (Whitington and McInnes 23). We want to embrace the literacies our students develop in their homes and create assignments to honor the culture of the communities in which they live (Emdin 144). We strive to help students feel respected, accepted, and welcomed in our classrooms. We believe that establishing a classroom community increases students' motivation to achieve and their sense of belonging (Booker and Lim 1048-50; Gay 23-27).

This article details how I (Amanda) created a unit on poetry and placemaking using literature about Appalachia-where the eighth graders I teach live-to promote critical thinking about perceptions and realities of the region. My initial idea for the unit and the choice of texts were centered on disrupting regional stereotypes. This goal was supported by a local project to collect poems about our city. The city's poetry initiative created a perfect avenue for wider publication of student poems.

I hoped the unit would respond to my students' need for a positive shared cultural identity.

Such an identity is particularly valuable in Appalachia, a region that is often ignored or stereotyped. Amy Azano, an associate professor of adolescent literacy specializing in rural education, has written that

[t]apping into a student's sense of place can serve as powerful critical literacy instruction, teaching students how to read the word and "their world." . . . Questioning place content within rural contexts-or reading, challenging and deconstructing rural content within broader contexts-presents opportunities to teach critical literacy skills to readers. (62)

An essential question of this unit of study was, "How can we build community pride when the dominant cultural narrative about our community is oppressive or inaccurate?"

Prominent stereotypes about people from the Appalachian region of the United States include not being able to excel academically, being apathetic, living in cultural poverty, and possessing an unwillingness to move beyond working in coal mines (Cramer 45; Kingsolver 47). These negative, and inaccurate, depictions are perpetuated by the media and can make it difficult for Appalachian youth to form a positive image of their culture and community (Azano 61). I wanted to create a space for students to challenge misperceptions of our region and celebrate their culture through a unit built around poetry to "[help] students understand that one story can never be the only story about historical events and people or cultural narratives" (Tschida et al. 31; italics in original).


To celebrate and embrace the local community, the placemaking unit focused on well-known poems by writers from the region in which the school is located:

* "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon, a meditation about how place shapes our memories and selves;

* "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" by James Agee, abridged by Samuel Barber, an adapted prologue to Agee's novel A Death in the Family, describing an idyllic summer evening of childhood;

* "Knoxville, Tennessee" by Nikki Giovanni, a poem about Giovanni's summers with her grandparents; and

* "A Poem for My Librarian, Mrs. Long" by Nikki Giovanni, a narrative poem recounting Giovanni's experiences as a young reader of color with an important early mentor.


By seeing their community represented in literature, I wanted the students to use poetry as a "mirror," a concept explained by Rudine Sims Bishop in her article, "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors":

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined . …

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