What are you from?
| November 04, 2019
“Memories of Home” was featured this past summer on “Morning Edition,” one of National Public Radio’s (NPR) award-winning stalwarts. In the segment, co-host Rachel Martin and NPR’s “resident poet” Kwame Alexander discuss poetry for “remembering where you’re from in order to move forward.”
The segment was based on the poem, “Where I’m From” by Kentucky’s 2015 poet laureate, George Ella Lyon. Martin and Alexander asked listeners “to write one of these yourselves. Draw on all five senses and use memories of your own to craft poems that reflect the people and the places that you came from.”
Not long after the request, NPR posted the result, a crowdsourced poem created from lines taken from the 1,400 submissions.
As fascinated as I was by the project and as much as the request “got my creative juices flowing,” as my mom used to say, I had a quibble. Memories of home is not necessarily synonymous with where I’m from.
Certainly, they can be synonyms, but they don’t have to be, and they aren’t naturally equivalent. Memories of home may be about the physical structure or structures in which one lived and grew up; the memories may be about the interactions and events in that home.
Some may interpret home more broadly to include family, friends, neighbors and the neighborhood, town, city, state, province, or country in which they grew up. Another may identify with the proverb, “Home is where the heart is.” Still others may consider home a combination or all of these.
So unclear is the definition of home that none other than the Pew Research Center examined the topic. The Pew Research Center is a “nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world [...and] conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research.” In 2008, Pew conducted a survey culled from census data that, among other questions, asked 2,260 adults about their transience or the lack thereof.
American-born survey participants who had “moved to a new community at least once in their lives” were asked about “the place in [their] heart [they] consider to be home.” Participants born outside of the U.S. were asked about “the country in your heart you consider to be home.”
The responses were as varied as the respondents. “Among U.S.-born adults who have lived in more than one community, nearly four-in-ten (38%) say the place they consider home isn’t where they’re living now. But there’s a wide range of definitions of ‘home’ among Americans who have lived in at least one place besides their original hometown: 26% say it’s where they were born or raised; 22% say it’s where they live now; 18% say it’s where they have lived the longest; 15% say it’s where their family comes from; and 4% say it’s where they went to high school.” While a majority of foreign-born adults identify America as home, 40% say that home is the country in which they were born.”
According to Frank T. McAndrew, “To the Zuni of the American Southwest, home is a living thing. It is the setting for raising children, for communicating with God and the spirit world, and for life itself.” Search “What is home” in your browser, and you’ll find multiple TEDTalks, Habitat for Humanity’s stories about “What Does Home Mean To You,” Smithsonianmag.com’s “The Definition of Home,” The Atlantic’s “The Psychology of Home: Why Where You Live Means So Much,” and many millions more.
Clearly, home is an elusive concept, not as neatly bound as the dictionary definition would have us believe. How, then, can we understand where I’m from? Search “Where I’m from” in your browser, and you’ll find nearly 6 million matches, including three songs, one of which is Jay-Z’s autobiographical music video, and all of which provide rich material for their own study.
At its most fundamental, we are all from genetic material. But how many of us would answer, “I’m from DNA” if we were asked where we’re from? Likely few of us, unless we are feeling particularly clever or snarky, and even that response is loaded, as Dani Shapiro (and many others) have learned when taking DNA tests. For some — especially in multicultural societies — asking “where are you from” is fraught.
Decades ago, when I was dating a man from the deep South, he and I attended one of his family’s events. My southern New Jersey accent was glaring in the group, and one of his relatives loudly and pointedly asked me in front of the crowd, “Where are you from?” When I said “North Carolina,” where I was living at the time, she retorted, “I mean, where are you really from?”
Years later, I was asked the same question by an uncle of my now ex-husband. When I said, “New Jersey,” he pushed and pushed and pushed until he got the answer he smugly sought: that my grandparents had been Russian Jewish immigrants. Omid Safi, Duke University Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, has been similarly confronted.
“When I tell [people] I’m from Florida (where he was born and where his parents and siblings live), there is an obvious look of impatience and dissatisfaction. [...] All too often, the other person, exasperated, finally says: ‘You know what I mean. Where are you really from?’ I know what they mean. They know what they mean.” HuffPost Canada lifestyle editor Isabelle Khoo knows all too well, “I’m Chinese, but I strongly identify as Canadian because I was born and raised here. So when people start questioning if I truly am from Canada or not, I automatically get defensive.”
Khoo explains why; briefly, her reasons are that, “It implies that I don’t belong here, People who ask are trying to define me. It leads to more rude questions and comments. It’s none of your business. My culture is part of my identity, and from having a simple conversation with me, you'll soon find that out. Ask me about my parents or where I grew up. Ask me where I consider home to be. Ask me where my heritage lies or what languages I speak. Just don't ask me where I'm from.” Author and TEDTalks presenter Taiye Selasi asserts, “Don’t ask where I’m from. Ask where I’m local.”
George Ella Lyon and Julie Landsman created the I Am From Project “in response to the rhetoric of xenophobia and isolationism that is becoming rampant in our country. [...] Our deepest hope is to open a way for We the People to express who this country really is, what our values are, and how they unite rather than divide us. America’s embrace is wide enough to include all of us if we put our minds and money to our common welfare.” The website has poems posted.
In 2017, National Writing Project (NWP) Radio featured the I Am Project. Yet, even Lyon and Landsman conflate “Where I’m from” with “I am from” and “I am.” There are multiple questions that beg for examination in compelling activities (I’ll address some in future articles), but for now, the real question NPR and Lyon and Landsman seem to be asking is, “What are you from?”
Where asks about location, but what asks for “the true nature or identity [...], or the sum of its characteristics” and the “nature, identity, or value of an object or matter.” And therein are the ingredients for an extraordinary activity.
Based in critical and creative thinking and analysis and multiple intelligences, this activity is outstanding for examining figurative language and the gravity and usefulness of memory as well as introducing or reviewing poetry or lyrics writing, the value of introspection and personal writing, the ancient Greeks’ development of the art of memory, idioms about memory, and all language skills.
It has the potential to investigate the nuances among who, what, where, when, how, and why that native English users (save linguists) take for granted (and shouldn’t) but which can confound ELLs. Likewise, this activity is good for practicing using prepositions, which are infamous for confusing ELLs.
Moreover, this adaptable lesson can move in a number of directions and can have as many or as few activities as you choose depending on the time allotted. And depending on the courses’ GOOs, it can culminate in a poem, paragraph, or essay, an illustrated class publication, a video project or portfolio, or a variety of activities.
It can focus on the parts of a paragraph or essay, a variety of verb tenses, adjectives, adverbs, vocabulary, punctuation for academic and poetic writing, speaking, questioning, and listening, and presentation skills.
To begin, have students work individually or in pairs to answer, “Is there a difference between what and where? Is there a difference between where are you from and what are you from?” As a large group, discuss the students’ responses. Then have students work individually for the next part.
Ask students, “What are you from?” This question has the potential for eliciting complex responses, and just as it may prompt joyous memories, it can also quickly trigger unsettling or distressing ones, especially from students whose lives have been shattered by war, addiction, or abuse.
Therefore, it’s particularly important to ask students to respond to these questions individually and impress upon them that they do not have to share their responses. To do this, prepare a handout with the questions on top and have students write their answers. All students, especially those who are developing literacy, can draw pictures.
Advise students that they can write in any form they choose (freewrite, mind maps or brainstorm webs, paragraphs, lists, poems, lyrics), and give them plenty of time to think and respond. As your students work, work with them. When they’ve finished, do not ask for anyone to share; because the content may be delicate or disturbing, collect the handouts and review them later.
As you review them, identify a couple or a few insights from each student’s responses to privately comment on and ask if the student would be willing to share some or all of their work. Likewise, if you find troubling revelations, take time during your office hours to meet with the student to explore the depth and breadth of the student’s concerns.
If students agree to share some or all of their work, have them do so in pairs or small groups. For a listening, speaking, reading, and critical thinking activity, ask each student to read twice, both times during which their partner(s) listen and do not take notes. (If a student is developing literacy, they can explain their picture.)
For the third reading, have the writer give each partner a copy of their work, so partners can follow along as the writer reads again. Following the third reading, have students silently read the work and take notes and write questions about what they’ve read. Have the students ask the writer their questions. This is not a peer editing exercise.
It is intended to help students connect with each other, and the writer can choose to answer or can say, “I’d rather talk about this part” and direct his group to another section. If any student is reluctant to participate, do not force them. Based on how you choose to use the activities, students can revise their drafts before or after the group work, and the writing can be whatever suits what you’re teaching, such as a draft paragraph or essay or a focused freewrite.
Next, if students have not illustrated their work, have them do so. Supply them with butcher or poster paper and multicolored markers or crayons and/or old magazines (for photos) and glue or tape. Then, ask them what songs they’d choose for the soundtrack to their writing.
Assure students that the music they choose can be anything (uncensored); this is especially necessary for those who are new to the culture in which they are students because they may not know what is popular and may choose music from their native cultures or countries, choices with which you and their classmates may be unfamiliar.
Moreover, students who have been born and are growing up in the country and larger culture in which you teach may choose music from their religious, ethnic, family, or social groups and their choices may not be popularly known outside of those groups. If students have access to the Internet, see if they can find the music they’ve chosen. If students are young, you can help them locate the music.
Once students have chosen the soundtrack and illustrated their work, have them write reflectively about why they’ve chosen the music and have illustrated as they have.
Reflecting upon and explaining their choices is key: What are the songs? What are the lyrics? What do their lyrics mean to you? What words or images conjured the music and illustrations? Who are the musicians? What do these musicians represent to you? Another approach is to ask the writer’s partners to choose the soundtrack and create the illustrations and to have pairs or small groups discuss the choices.
Likewise, both the writer and readers can choose, and they can compare their choices. Does the writer agree or disagree with the choices? Why? Reflection and explaining require close reading and critical analysis. To further tap students’ musical intelligence, have them teach the songs (or one song) they’ve chosen to you and their classmates, and do a close reading and analysis of the lyrics.
At this point, you can pursue the role of memories: Are memories important? Why or why not? Do you need to remember your past in order to move forward? Why or why not? What does moving forward mean? How do you preserve your memories? Simon and Garfunkel’s classic, “Bookends,” is perfect for introducing a lesson on memories.
An essential part of this activity is to have students share the cultural elements embedded in their work. We know that culture is vast, and even those of us born and living in one country find unfamiliar cultures within our country when we visit friends whose traditions are unlike ours (even if they live next door) or when we travel to regions of the country unlike ours.
Click here to read Debra’s “What are you from?” poem.
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