Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing—writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing, writing that helps students increase comprehension of texts—fiction and nonfiction—in all disciplines. Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the eighth in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.
The first six Write to Learn columns focused on before-reading response and a variety of during-reading response strategies. The previous column, this column, and the next two columns in the series will share strategies for employing after-reading response across the disciplines. Effective after-reading response employs a text reformulation strategy where readers reconstruct text read into another type of text. This synthesis, a critical thinking skill that involves putting together assorted parts to make a new whole, helps readers in all disciplines not only relate information learned, but also rethink the meaning of this learning and connect to other learnings and readers' developing views of their world.
The "I Am" Poem
In "I Am" poetry, readers write from the perspective of something they have read in a text or textbook. They could be writing from the perspective of a character in a story or poem; a person from a memoir or biography; a scientist or a scientific theory, element, or concept; a person, event, or place in history; a mathematical concept or principle; or a disease, condition, or issue in health.
The "I Am" poem follows a format that requires readers to read and analyze how the character, person, item, or event would view its world and its place in the world, returning to the text multiple times to apply what they have learned. This writing also causes readers to synthesize new material with information they already know or new information they may research to create their poem. In the case of items, events, or even places, particularly in social studies, science, math, and health classes, the writer would employ personification.
There is a standard format readers/writers can follow (see Figure 1), but they are encouraged to modify the verbs to fit their topic and their own visions. This format places the reader into another's shoes, so to speak, and requires that they read more deeply, closely, and critically as they explore text from a particular point of view (Roessing, 2016).
"I Am" Poetry Standard Format
|I am __________________________
[character's name and identity]
I wonder _______________________
I hear _________________________
I see __________________________
I want _________________________
I am __________________________
[not the name in Line 1, but additional information about the character]
I pretend _______________________
I feel __________________________
I touch _________________________
I worry _________________________
I cry ___________________________
I am ___________________________
[not the name in Line 1, but additional information about the character]
I understand _____________________
I say ___________________________
I dream _________________________
I try ____________________________
I hope __________________________
I am ____________________________
[character's name, including more information about the character as a conclusion]
To plan their writing, the class can first brainstorm perspectives from which the text they read can be viewed. If students are reading different texts, individually or in a small group, a short article, story, or poem can be read to provide an example. For example, in the poem "Casey at the Bat," someone could write from the perspective of Casey, one of his teammates, a fan (one of the "patrons of the game"), or the Mudville coach. For the article, "The Great Pandemic of 1918-19," students brainstormed that they could write from the perspective of a man, woman, or child living in Philadelphia in 1918-1919; a victim of the Great Pandemic; a Philadelphia funeral director; the mayor of Philadelphia, 1918-1919; or even The Great Pandemic itself (Roessing, 2016).
Students choose the perspective(s) from which they will revisit the text. As they reread, they first mark details that now become important from that viewpoint. Students consider the "I Am" poem format and examine and analyze the text for ideas, considering what the character or entity would see, feel, worry about, say, understand, or any of the verbs they will substitute that may better fit their interpretations and responses. Readers, especially in the disciplines, may add research from other sources.
When readers alter perspective, they modify and amend meaning, the details that they notice, and the facts and evidence that become important. Teaching readers to read from varied perspectives leads to reading through multiple lenses, thereby, discovering differing points of view. This practice results in considering differently and understanding more profoundly and meaningfully (Roessing, 2016).
In ELA classes, the students read Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. This small novel is comprised of chapters that are each written by a different character. After readers read and discuss the novel, they can choose a different character from whose perspective they will write an "I Am" poem. The "I Am" poem should incorporate more than that character's chapter as the characters interact and influence each other throughout the book. In the example in Figure 2, the first two stanzas are the poem of Kim, the character of the first chapter, and all information is extracted from that chapter or inferences from the Chapter 1 text.
Example from Seedfolks, I Am Kim
|I am Kim, a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl.
I wonder if my father would have loved me if he had lived until I was born.
I hear my mother and oldest sister crying past midnight on the anniversary of his death.
I see the candles, incense, rice, and meat offered to honor my father.
I want to plant beans because my father had been a farmer.
I am going to plant them in the vacant lot across the street; our apartment has no yard.
I pretend that my father will be able to see my beans grow and know I am his daughter.
I feel the hard ground as I dig six holes with my spoon.
I touch my cheeks which feel like marble in this cold Cleveland April.
I worry if I will be safe because the lot is full of trash; I show bravery.
I cry when my mother and sister cry but think of something to do.
I am the first gardener in a poor, ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood where no one talks to each other.
A third stanza would be comprised of critical thinking about her relationships with characters and events from other chapters so all students review the entire novel—or their during-reading response journals—on all chapters.
When all students have written their poems, they can assemble in a circle around the room reading their poems in the order the characters appear in the story. As they read aloud, each can take on the persona of their character through their voice and attitude. Readers can each present their first two stanzas, based on the characters' chapters, and then circle again, reading their third stanzas, which demonstrate the relationships built through the novel.
Writing "I Am" poetry causes readers to reflect on their reading, the characters, their environments and relationships, their personality traits, and how those traits determine their goals and decisions—positive or negative. Creating this poetry causes readers to look more critically at texts, synthesizing what they are reading with what they know, have read, and have learned.
Responding to novels, readers can not only write from the perspective of a character but the creative writer can pursue an innovative direction. For example, in Linda Sue Park's novel A Long Walk to Water, readers can create poems from the perspectives of either of the two main characters, Nya or Salva, a minor character, or even, as happened in one class, from the perspective of Water. In response to Seedfolks, a student may write from the perspective of the developing garden or from the viewpoint of an inhabitant of the neighborhood who does not appear in the story. This is a format that encourages creativity in thinking, rather than inhibiting it.
In social studies classes, students more commonly read textbook chapters and articles while studying a unit. When studying a unit on the Holocaust, students read supplemental articles on different topics within the unit, one topic being the Warsaw ghetto. They then may write "I Am" poetry about people, real and fictitious, who were impacted by the topic they explored. When reading articles about the Warsaw ghetto, the poem in Figure 3 was written as an after-reading response.
I Am Poem, Warsaw ghetto
|I am a child of Warsaw, October 12, 1940.
I wonder what it would be like to live out in the open, in our own house again.
I hear the sounds of 400,000 people crowded together in this ghetto in a 1.3 square mile area, surrounded by a wall, the largest ghetto in Poland.
I see Nazi soldiers yelling at people and taking families away—To where?
I want something to eat; food is becoming more and more scarce.
I am a Jew in a time and place dangerous to be Jewish, wearing a white armband with a blue star as identification.
I pretend life is as it once was—Warsaw a major center of Jewish life; 30% of the population was Jewish.
I feel that life as we have known it has now ended.
I know that Poland was invaded by the Germans in 1939 and nothing has been the same since.
I touch the sides of the truck that takes my friends out of the ghetto. It is August 1942.
I worry that I will never see them again; we hear that "work" camps are really death camps.
I cry as people die even here in the ghetto—83,000 from starvation and disease.
I become part of the Jewish Combat Organization, a self-defense resistance unit in the ghetto; in January 1943 we forced the Germans to withdraw.
I understand that when Hitler came to power everything changed for the Jews and others who are not Aryan and that these troops will return.
I dream there is a chance that life will be as I planned with my own family practicing my own religion accomplishing in my own profession.
I take part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944; 7,000 Jews died.
I try to hide in the ruins of the liquidated ghetto where the Nazis had leveled every building.
I was shipped to a labor camp and am one of the few Jewish survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Not only were facts from the article such as dates, names, places, events, and statistics included, but when composing the poem, the writer had to reflect on what someone in this young man's situation would have seen, wanted, worried about, dreamt, and hoped. The reader of the poem can observe not only what the writer has read, but also what the writer has inferred and synthesized with prior knowledge he had or what he learned about the Holocaust in the social studies unit. The poem necessitates and demonstrates critical thinking, and the format encourages and promotes many trips back to the text for clarification and deeper comprehension and learning of the material.
In science class, students were asked to review the past unit on forces and motion and choose a topic as the focus of an "I Am" poem. They could use their text and were to review their notes. The teacher helped the students brainstorm appropriate verbs, and students wrote as gravity, force, friction, inertia, Newton's Laws of Motion, or a stomp rocket (which they were designing and testing in class). Asleigh's poem (Figure 4) about friction personifies and explains friction and illustrates what she has learned.
I Am Poem, Friction
|I am friction.
I engage when two objects rub together.
I yank back objects from moving.
I supersize when the object gets heavier.
I slip between the sled and the snow.
I am friction.
I slide between the brakes and wheels when the car tries to stop.
I pull to the opposite side where the object is trying to go.
I struggle to keep the object from moving.
I worry when there is less of me because it is harder to stop.
I cry when it is raining because there is less of me; rain causes accidents because objects have no grip.
I am friction.
I take many forms: static, sliding, rolling, and fluid.
I crackle when two hands rub together to create heat.
I am stronger on solid objects when they rub together than liquids.
I activate when you are running and you stop quickly.
I like to shock you when I build up and you touch metals.
I am friction, and just know that the next time you go down a slide, I will be there.
Chase's poem "I Am Gravity" reveals, "I make it harder to get off the ground. I wonder why people even bother jumping because I will always win," concluding that stanza with "I am the pull that keeps everything down." Later in the poem he adds more information about this topic, "I become weaker on planets such as Pluto, Mars, Venus, and Mercury because they are less massive," and he ends the poem by making the point, "I am Gravity, and I keep the planets in orbit around the sun."
Students can also find topics to write about in mathematics, such as I Am a decimal, a fraction, area, a rational number, a variable, an exponent, or the Pythagorean theorem. In health class, students can write an "I Am" poem from the perspective of someone affected by a disease or a condition, such as "I Am an Athlete with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)," "I Am a Smoker," or "I Am a Teenage Mother." Or students can write from the viewpoint of the topic, as "I Am Alcohol."
In these examples, besides encouraging and training readers to read and examine topics from particular perspectives, "I Am" poetry is employed as an after-reading response strategy encouraging readers to return to the text multiple times, manipulating text to comprehend at a deeper level as they analyze to synthesize learning. Because writing "I Am" poems allows for choice, creativity, and fun, students are motivated and engaged, the key to successful learning.
Roessing, L. (2016). "One text—Many perspectives: Writing the "I am" poem to read through divergent lenses. AMLE Magazine, 4(1), 42-46.
Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer in the College of Education of Georgia Southern University, Armstrong campus. Lesley has published four professional books for educators, as well as chapters and articles on literacy. The ideas in this column were based on
The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2019.