Writing and reading “I Am” poetry through different lenses.
“Read this article about The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919 and then answer the questions on the board,” the teacher directed as she handed out the printed pages.
- Where did the pandemic start?
- How did the pandemic spread?
- When did the pandemic end?
- How many Americans died from influenza?
- From the article, what do you think a pandemic is?
Some students began to read; some peered at the questions on the board and skimmed the article for the answers; some stared at the board, not knowing how to begin.
When they finished the assignment, they had gained neither deep understanding of the pandemic nor empathy for its victims. They had all approached the subject from one perspective—that of middle school students reading about an event that took place a century ago and affected people with whom they felt no connection.
Had students read from a variety of perspectives through the eyes of citizens, doctors, and even President Woodrow Wilson, they might have developed a deeper, broader understanding of the significance of the influenza pandemic that swept the globe, killing an estimated 675,000 people in the United States alone.
They also would have begun to develop life skills, such as empathy, openness to new ways of thinking, and the ability and willingness to think reflectively—all skills that support the Common Core State Standards.
“I Am” Poems
One of the most effective ways to engage students with a text is through “I Am” poems. The I Am poetry format (see chart above) puts the readers into someone else’s shoes, so to speak, requiring them to read more deeply, closely, and critically as they explore text from a particular point of view.
I Am poems can be used in all disciplines. In English-Language Arts texts, readers can take on the perspective of major and minor characters and even characters who don’t directly appear in the text, such as the residents in the convent across the street from Mr. Pignati’s house in The Pigman.
Social studies offers countless opportunities for students to consider the perspective of persons in history, from General William Tecumseh Sherman to a nameless Confederate soldier or a native child forced to walk the Trail of Tears.
Science students can write as a famous scientist, as a scientific phenomenon, as someone affected by a scientific event, or even as a tree. In health classes, students can respond to articles about issues such as concussion in “I Am a Victim of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” or “I Am a Football Coach.”
Incorporating I Am Poetry
Use the following steps to incorporate reading and responding in the I Am poetry format:
- Distribute the text to be read.
- Assign the reading.
- Brainstorm with the class perspectives from which the text can be viewed.
- Explain how students will choose the perspective(s) from which they will re-read the text.
- Assign students to re-read the text from their chosen perspectives, marking details important to them from that viewpoint. This includes text evidence and inferences based on the text.
- Explain the I Am poem format and examine and analyze the text for ideas.
- Invite students to revise any verbs that may better fit their interpretations and responses and to add research from other sources.
I distributed the article, “The Great Pandemic of 1918–19,” to a class of eighth graders. As they read, they used a during-reading response strategy that I refer to in my book, The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension, as marginal notes. As they read, they marked in the right margin of the article:
√ = I knew this
N = new information (I didn’t know this)
! = important information about the pandemic
I then assigned the activity: Write an I Am poem, “I Am a Philadelphian in 1918–1919.” The class reflected on the content of the article and brainstormed various perspectives from which readers could re-read the article and write a response.
- I Am a Man/Woman Living in Philadelphia in 1918–1919
- I Am a Child Living in Philadelphia in 1918–1919
- I Am a Victim of The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919
- I Am a Funeral Director in Philadelphia in 1918–1919
- I Am the Mayor of Philadelphia, 1918–1919
I added an option to encourage creativity : I Am The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919.
Students based their poems on the facts given in the article, plus personal knowledge and research about influenza, Philadelphia, or the time period.
Students read, wrote, highlighted the facts they used in their poems, added “because” statements wherever appropriate, and shared their favorite lines. Some took their poems home to revise and further research. As they read each other’s poetry, the students observed that some classmates focused on the same facts in the same way, some perspectives interpreted the same facts in dissimilar ways, and some regarded different facts in distinct ways.
Hinton wrote from the perspective of a victim. Here is an excerpt:
I am one of the many victims of the Great Pandemic of 1918-1919.
I wonder about the other 675,000 Americans who died, leaving orphans or widows.
I hear about the eighteen cases of influenza that were reported in Kansas.
I see the results of the three waves of the Pandemic that occurred in late spring and summer of 1918, the fall of 1918, and the spring of 1919.
I don’t want the recovered men to develop secondary pneumonia, “the most virulent, deadly type.”
I am starting to become fearful for the world.
I pretend to be strong.
I feel that the Pandemic shouldn’t have spread from the military to the civilian population.
I touch my chest to make sure my heart is still beating.
I worry it will be too late before this outbreak is over.
I cry at the fact it has spread to Asia, Africa, South America, and back to North America.
I am trying to believe that everything will be all right.
The same format in a sixth grade science class required students to choose a famous scientist and conduct online research about that person. Integrating their class notes, they wrote I Am poetry from the perspective of the scientists.
Phoenix wrote as Maria Tharp, a female scientist born in 1920. Here is an excerpt:
I am Maria Tharp.
I wonder if the ocean floor is really flat.
I see girl scientists being neglected.
I want girl scientists to be excepted [sic] and respected.
I am Maria Tharp.
I pretend the ocean floor is rugged and bumpy.
I feel rejected because I was not allowed to board a research vessel that was going to cross the sea when all the men did.
I touch the maps that I create.
I worry that my theory of the ocean floor is incorrect.
I cry because girls are not being able to become great scientists even if they are smart.
I am a mapmaker of the ocean floor.
From this student’s poem, it is evident that she not only learned what Maria Tharp contributed to society but also recognized the struggles Dr. Tharp endured at that time in order to make those contributions, something this young reader may have missed if she had written from the perspective of a young woman living in 2016.
Choice, Creativity, Comprehension
In addition to encouraging, and training, readers to read and interpret from multiple perspectives, I Am poetry can be used as an after-reading response strategy for readers to take themselves back to the text multiple times, comprehending at a deeper level as they analyze to synthesize and manipulate text. In that way readers actually learn material.
And because writing I Am poems allows for choice, creativity, and fun, more students are engaged, the point of any academic activity.