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Where I’m From: Using Technology to Connect Students Across Cultures

By Tim Flanagan
 | Nov 17, 2017

Where I'm From“Thank you for teaching us to find ourselves through poetry.”

One of my students made this comment at the end of the semester I spent teaching autobiographical poetry in Vietnam as a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher. One of my goals was to increase students’ global competence.

Finding your voice in another language

Over several months, I taught middle school, high school, and college students how to write poems about themselves, using templates such as “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon and “Fourths of Me” by Betsy Franco. All were native Vietnamese speakers, with varying levels of English proficiency. Few of the students had ever written a poem before.

Although many students struggled to find the words in English, they were eager to get their ideas on paper. I was struck by the small details of their lives, especially the details that reminded me of my students in Connecticut, a half a world away. Pop culture (especially Korean pop bands), love, pressure from parents, stress from too much homework, challenging stereotypes, and understanding one’s place in the world were all popular themes throughout the poems. Here are a few notable excerpts:

I am from my mother
From love and sweetness
I am from the colorful kite in the sky
I am from the sunshine around the sunflowers giving me inspiration
From my countryside where I run to my horizon
Lying on the grass and feeling my heart
But at that moment
I am from a boy who I always think of
From his eyes when we meet
Oh my boy! Please understand me and feel my soul.

(Trang, “I Am From”)

one fifth of me
is standing on the ledge of a rooftop
wondering if today's a good day to die

one fifth of me
is sitting on a tree
yelling out me! me! me!

one fifth of me
is doing espionage in Europe
moonlighting for the Commies

(Claire Daring, “Fifths of Finch”)

My mom makes me every meal
My dad drives to dig for every “dong”
My sister is seeking love from the other side
My family is forced to find what is needed for our future

(Thang, “Frustration”)

Connecting across cultures

My students hesitantly submitted poems to the website I created. They wondered if their English was good enough, if they had anything important to say, if anyone cared. There were shouts of joy when I showed them that visitors from faraway places such as the United States, Australia, and Palestinian territories had left comments for them. At that moment, the students realized the power of their words and felt a connection to the outside world. And the students who read and commented on their poems began to understand that Vietnam is more than a war.

Today there are nearly 200 poems from students in four countries on the website. Visitors from 45 countries have read poems and written over 500 comments.  And more poems are being submitted.

I am a general who loves peace.
I fight for peace, to save my Karen people.
I hear the Karen people need freedom to be free.
I dream for my people and my country.
I am a general who loves peace.

(Saw Char, “I Am”)

The power of poetry and technology combined can help students form a deeper understanding of people from around the world on their journey to becoming globally competent citizens.  

Tim FlanaganTim Flanagan is a sixth- and seventh-grade language arts and social studies teacher at Pawcatuck Middle School in Stonington, Connecticut. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter. Teachers can access a complete Where I’m From Curriculum Guide online with poetry lessons, model poems and directions for how to submit student poems to the website.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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