The Meaning of Freedom: An Exploration Into Self-Portrait Poems


This November, students at Bronx Envision Academy (BEA) are exploring their voices in order to encourage changes in themselves, community, and the meaning of freedom. Teaching Artists Pamella Allen and Samantha LoCoco are using visual arts and writing to help students discover the power of their own voices and how they can affect change. 

The students recently began working on Self-Portrait Poems, asking specific questions to prompt their writing: What is a portrait poem? What is a (self) portrait poem? In writing, what tools do we use to paint a picture? How would we create a picture of ourselves from our community using only words?

The objective is to introduce students to (self) portrait poetry and its use of poetic devices to paint a portrait of the poet. To do this, they’re using one of two prompts:

  1. I was… / I am…
  2. I’m afraid… / I hope…

Last week, the class worked on gathering their fears. This week, they will brainstorm about their hopes, so that students can begin to use relational thought to create their text. They will think about how one can transform the other and how they can relate to each other on the page.

In future classes, they plan to read together an example poem of each prompt and discuss what they notice, identifying uses of simile, metaphor, sensory language, alliteration, and repetition. They will also discuss what the words look like on the page and what that can tell them (placement of text on the page, use of columns, line breaks, stanzas are used to create tension, conversation, pace, etc.). This way, students are exploring their emotional experience through community activity and poetry writing.

Samantha says, of one student: 

“We are proud of this work because, ‘Kai is a quiet young man who very obviously has a lot to say, but is shy about sharing it. We had talked that day about what writers use to paint a portrait. If painters have paint and brushes and canvas, what can writers use? We made a list of answers that included metaphors, similes, and alliteration. Kai uses all three in his poem and was very proud of his work. A week after he wrote it, he quoted one of his lines to me as he left for the day. He said, “Miss, do you remember when I wrote, ‘My thoughts are the ink that fills my pen’?” I smiled and told him I did remember that. He nodded and smiled to himself as he left, saying “Yeah, yeah, the ink in my pen.'”

We are proud to share Kai’s poem with our CWP community:

Kai Tobee

I am slug
I am like a sloth on a sunny
stupid sluggish sad sleepy day
I am an artist the world is my
My thoughts are the ink that
fills my pen
And my words are my paint that
I can mix and use to create my