The Power of Poetry & Place

In my teaching career, it didn’t matter much to me whether the class was a lecture or a smaller discussion group.  Making connections with my students and seeing them build a sense of community with each other always felt like job #1.  Yes…learning names was the starting point…but I found it useful to go deeper and deploying a technique based on George Ella Lyon’s brilliant poetry, her “Where I’m From” template, became a regular activity.   Lyon (pictured above) demonstrated the power of prose, allowing each student to become a storyteller. A poet.

What do I mean?  Here’s George Ella Lyon’s original poem, written in 1993:

Where I’m From
By George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush,
the Dutch elm
whose long gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I am from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it
and the pass
from perk up and pipe down.
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures.
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments —
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree

George Ella Lyon

Lyon holds a PhD in English from Indiana University and has written 40+ books, including volumes on poetry.  Her work is known around the world thanks to her travels and teaching. Lyon’s prompt is suitable for students of all ages; inclusive because the goal is the development of individual voice.  “Where I’m From” is brilliant and impactful for its simplicity.

I invite you to listen to this short, 7-minute showcase from NPR which provides an excellent overview (including a surprise message from Lyon herself).  I promise it’s worth a listen. You will be inspired, perhaps, in the same way that hosts and poets Kwame Alexander and Rachel Martin were as they described the potency of Lyon’s work. 

The power of “Where I’m From” poetry?  “We feel better about what’s to come when we’re grounded by remembering what matters…helping us move forward.”

As a college professor I was fortunate to work alongside many talented professionals who were passionately dedicated to the growth and development of our students.  We discovered, firsthand, the power of STORY along with potent life lessons about vulnerability, with a capital “V”. Watching students learn that ‘the giving = the getting’ (a beloved comment from a former student) was a profound privilege.

We included a unit on vulnerability, self-disclosure and life stories and every student had the option to participate at a level most comfortable.  Disclosure and sharing are not without risks, but we were thoughtful in our scaffolding of the curriculum.  The “Where I’m From” activity wasn’t the typical warm-up endeavor early in the sequence of content.  The syllabus was clear about the experiential nature of the course…each activity was a building block toward greater self-awareness and discovery in a group setting.  Group ground rules were carefully crafted by the students and adhered to. Stringent confidentiality requirements…like Vegas.  What happened in class stayed in class. 

It became my favorite course because of the outcomes.  Creating a safe space for sharing, connecting, bonding and bravery – even with students most reluctant – resulted in lasting friendships and a couple of marriages.  And babies.  And I was there.  (No, no – not for the baby-making…for the introductions!) 😉

In order to be effective as the professor, facilitator, and counselor/therapist, I needed to know the content inside out and backwards and I, along with my amazing colleagues, were thoughtful about leading by example.  In that way, I often wrote a fresh version of “Where I’m From” poetry, for demonstration purposes – encouraging students to be brave and ‘in the moment’.  I tried to strike a balance in my examples that provided slices and snippets of my life and my values, focusing on glimpses of challenges and triumphs.  Here’s an example from a class where students opted to focus on childhood memories, families, and parents:

Where I’m From – One of Vicki’s Versions

I am from affluence and poverty,

From tenderness and torment

I am from loving reminders that life is good

And the prickly thorns of a mother’s regrets

I’m from strength, thanks to my father and

Oodles of vulnerability, courtesy of mom

I’m from truth telling – but only when I’m careful

And distortions to ensure safety

I’m from sister love and laughter with

Side orders of secrecy because I SEE everything

I’m from trying and trusting, caring and scaring

Tip-toeing and denying

I’m from ME because I am strong

I am my father’s daughter after all

He who is tall and foreboding, loving and kind but

Unlikely to be fooled forever

I’m from adversity, yet I am resilient

I survive


I have a dozen or so examples, taught across the span of my 25+ years as a professor.  I’ve kept them, in part, because they provide a snapshot of my head and heart – like a spiritual timestamp; candid glimpses of what mattered most at each juncture of my journey…me becoming me.  I’ve never been good at journaling or keeping a diary, but my treasured keepsakes from my teaching days and the peeks into “Vicki then” connect me to George Ella Lyon’s purpose. 

“Where I’m From” poetry can be literal, figurative, and revealing – all at the author’s discretion.  Pausing to ponder the evolution of the individual, the scenes and memories that resonate and reside within?  Reflection at its best and I agree with Lyon.  Poetic.  To be sure.

-Vicki ❤

What is poetry?  Good question.  When terrified Psychology students asked, I had a consistent answer.  Take a peek at today’s post on Victoria Ponders where I share my best response to prose-averse students.  It usually worked!

41 thoughts on “The Power of Poetry & Place

  1. The description of your coursework, the POWER of story and vulnerability with a capital V is so wonderful. I loved this beautiful version of “Where I’m From” that you shared Vicki. The line “I’m from trying and trusting, caring and scaring” really hit me right in the heart as did “I’m from ME because I’m strong.” Wow wow wow – powerful, strong AND inspiring!! ❤ ❤ ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow right back to you, dear one, for your lovely comment. Thank you. It was a lot 😉 of “Vicki” to share and I debated…wondering which version of my “Where I’m From” poems to use…but that one felt right. I love that a couple of those lines resonated for you. Good, good. xo! 💕💕💕

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with Ally, what a great way to encourage self-reflection and awareness Vicki! As someone who is very slow to inch into the cold waters of self-revelation made public this exercise is just enough. It grants a bit of insight but still maintains a level of safety until, or if, more is revealed. I have a hunch there is a lot of ongoing self discovery in participating in this exercise every so often and I like the simplicity. It doesn’t bring the dread of poem writing that I too used to cringe at. I think it appeals to my logical side 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’re right on, Deb. I watched students…sometimes the most reluctant…find their own way, their voice and balance about what and how much to disclose. Simplicity but powerful and you said something I’d forgotten. The structure was a comfort to students who preferred logic and science…the consistent prompt was just enough of a guideline to provide encouragement. Great point you make. Thank you so much for that. 🥰

      Liked by 1 person

      1. LOL…there are a few people in my life who might shout “Jump at that offer, Vicki!” You’re getting to know me tooooo well. I love having a more logical friend on ‘speed dial’ (is that still a thing?). xo! 😉🤣😉

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You sound like a wonderful teacher, coach and mentor, Vickie. I love your approach because it is these soft and personal touches that create the safest spaces for learning, connection and growth!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ab…your comment gives me life! Thank you for that — I know I benefited from amazing mentors and teachers who gave of themselves…showing me the way. There’s no better compliment in life than knowing I may have created a “safe place for learning, connection and growth”. I hope so — even just a teensy bit. Big smiles to you! 😘

      Liked by 1 person

  4. ‘the giving = the getting’ . . . a provokingly thoughtful insight from your student. Were that more people would implement this proven life formula in our society. Thanks Vicki.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A sense of community. Wow. Oh, the introvert would’ve probably hated the notion of that idea at first, automatically thinking group assignments and looking deep inside of myself, but I would have come around. I was not a big fan of poetry as a kid, but I’ve become a big fan thanks so many great posters on WordPress. I think it takes a deeper commitment, a vulnerability that can be scary. I love the idea of where are you from. I can see why you used this in your class and why it can be so profound and helpful. I’ll definitely be checking out here site and maybe trying out my own version. I can see how writing your own version helped you, maybe even set the stage for writing your book! Thanks for sharing Vicki!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh….look at you…peeking behind the curtain. Yep – helpful for me as I found my voice…the courage to write about family. You’ve got me! And yes – it’s so simple but still risk-taking behavior. I didn’t mention that the activity typically culminated in a ‘silent gallery walk’ so students could read each other’s poems, sometimes anonymously written, and soak up the storytelling. That was a good way to honor and respect those who were willing to comply with the assignment but also wanted to preserve a little privacy. 🥰

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I love that idea – the silent gallery walk. I bet it could be very emotional. I’m guessing but the students seeing their stuff out there for everyone to see, but even more, seeing for the first time what others are dealing with and the chance to see that I’m not the only one going through this. Wow. Wish I had your class!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’ve captured the experience perfectly! Watching others read their poems and seeing others’ work…yep, it was often very powerful and emotional. Thank you so much for your always thoughtful comments, Brian! 🥰


  6. Congratulations on your incredible journey in the world of education! I am sure your dedication and passion set an exemplary standard for all. Lucky, lucky students! I hope you will continue to share your collection of poems created during this creative period, because I believe your work will continue to inspire us too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my…you honor me so with your kindness, Mary! Thank you! You’re giving me inspiration…I could easily continue to share poems…anonymously, of course, from my students and share a few more of my own. I might do that! I wouldn’t want it to become tiresome, but maybe a few dear readers/followers would join me in sharing a stanza or two — prompted by a post? Hmm…what lovely ideas! Big hugs! 🥰

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Why thank you! I think I was a lucky one…I had so many wonderful teachers, mentors, guides…and Lyon’s example was an inspiration, for sure. Cheers back to you, Dr. Stein! 😘


  7. One of the sixth grade teachers at the school I used to work at always had the students write a poem like this at the beginning of each year. They were displayed on the wall outside their room, and were always fun to read. Many of them were quite good.😎

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A perfect example of just how broadly George Ella Lyon’s template reaches! Yes — the examples from children…some as little as first or second grade…are so endearing. Thank you so much, Todd, for sharing! Always fun…yes. Especially from the little ones. 😎😉😎

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Your class sounds incredible, Vicki! I have such deep appreciation for educators that go above and beyond. In this case, rather than simply analyzing literature, you promoted greater self-awareness and discovery. Wow! ❤️❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so sweet…I think we both had terrific teachers, mentors, guides. The older I get the more I admire those who took risks in their teaching…both personal, giving of themselves and challenging their students. I think I benefited from both! xo to you, Erin! 🥰

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Your writing exudes accomplishment and caring. It must be fulfilling to reflect back.

    I have also written about George Ella Lyon and a few bloggers responded here with their own version of the poem. I, like you, could write it differently at different phases of my life. Here is the one I published on my blog if you are interested in reading.

    Where I’m From – A Crowdsourced Poem

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How beautiful, Maggie: “I am from those moments slowly slipping away
      but forever in my DNA.” That last line is amazing…and I also appreciated seeing the family photo, your grandmother looking directly at the camera…and the mention of divinity fudge…which I’d long forgotten – a favorite of my Nanny/Grandma. 🥰
      Thank you for pointing me to your post about George Ella Lyon and your poem. Grateful to you for sharing! 🥰🥰🥰

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have often written lot about those roots, those recognitions that come from generations ago. Life is full of complex and beautiful connections. My mother loved divinity fudge and she was skilled at making it. Oddly, it was never one of my favorites.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s