After reading "Raised by Women" twice, I asked students, "Who were you raised by?" Although Ellis discusses only women, I wanted to open other possibilities. I salted the pot by generating a few: mother, father, coaches, church. But I also wanted them to reach out beyond the traditional, so I encouraged them to think about neighbors, neighborhoods, musicians, novelists, civil rights activists, the halls at Grant. After students wrote their lists, we shared them out loud so they could "steal" more ideas from each other. I pushed students to get more specific as they shared. For example, when Melvin said, "Coaches," I asked which coaches raised him — all of them? What did his football coach say or do that helped raise him? When Alex said the men at the barbershop, I asked which men and what did they contribute. Because the best poetry — and writing in general — resides in specific details, I pushed students to move beyond their first response and get deeper.
We also looked at other verbs they could use besides "raised." Students generated a list: brought up, taught, educated, nurtured. I wanted them to see that they weren't limited by the original verb, raised.
When we completed our initial brainstorming about the repeating line, we went back to the poem and noticed the specific kinds of details that Ellis included: The first stanza was about food, the second stanza focused on hair, the third was about physical appearance — skin color and clothes — the fourth about choices, the fifth about music, the sixth about attitude, and the seventh about professions. Because I didn't want each poem to turn out the same, I used those as potential categories. We also brainstormed others: cars, songs, languages. I encouraged them to create a list of categories like Ellis' — food, clothes, music — and to fill in each category with specific details. After they brainstormed, we returned to the form — looking at the repeating, but changing line — and the use of dialogue that gives Ellis' poem so much flavor. We also noted that she named specific people — Angela Davis and James Brown — which was something they could do in their poems. Students pointed out that Ellis used home language rather than standard English. Because I knew that some students' home language was Spanish, I encouraged students to experiment with language in their poems. Students started their poems in class and completed them at home.
Before the students read their poems, we arranged the desks in a circle, so students could see and hear the reader. I asked students to pull out a piece of paper to take notes on what they learned about each classmate through their poem: "Who raised them? What's important to them? Who's important to them?" I discovered that students pay more attention during the read-around if I give them a specific task. For the most part, student poems were stellar, and even those that lacked the style and sassiness of their classmates' gave us a glimpse into their lives.
Students found their own ways into the poems by celebrating more than one person. Anaiah Rhodes, for example, wrote a stanza each for her mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, church folk, music, cousins, and track. Her classmates loved how she used language and details to capture each one in turn, but they especially loved how Anaiah wrote about her church: