by Jean Prokott
I've been thinking about self-portrait poems lately. Not writing them, because I can never get a turn to work, more about what they can offer to students who don't need to worry about a turn.
For Valentine's Day, my creative writing students made self-portrait valentines along the lines of "Self-Portrait as Conversation Heart Trapped between Couch Cushions" or "Self-Portrait with ½-off Valentine's Day Candy." They halved cardstock, cut heart-shaped cards, opened the wings, and wrote poems on the stretch marks inside.
The students weren't overly jazzed about the activity—only a few meandered up front for a red marker—but they wrote little poems and shared with each other, or tried to anti-valentine if that was their vibe for the day (e.g., a persona poem about raccoon roadkill that ends with a smooshed striped tail), and we were able to put a little checkmark next to a cold February Monday, which is harder than it seems.
On day one of that class, we'd modeled Dean Rader's "Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry" as a more interesting version of "two truths and a lie." Last fall, we wrote "Self-Portrait as [insert Halloween costume here]," based on Sandra Beasley's poem "Halloween." The students love that poem, and I love the irony that they have to dress themselves up in order to understand what's happening underneath.
For context, a self-portrait poem is not much different than a self-portrait in art. In an essay featured on Silver Birch Press, poet Lisa Russ Spaar notes the poems took off in the mid-20th century with John Ashberry's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1975), inspired by the Parmigianino painting of the same name (1524). Spaar observes that all poems are self-portraits—consider Whitman's "Song of Myself"—but the title "self-portrait" itself suggests retrospection thematically and "That the use of 'self-portrait' is an overt nod to its long, fascinating, and complex tradition in art history."
A self-portrait is or is not an ekphrastic poem. (An ekphrastic poem is a description or narrative inspired by a work of art. One of my favorites is Anne Sexton's interpretation of Van Gogh, "The Starry Night," in which the tree is a woman drowning.) Ekphrastic poems are also wonderful, and they serve as a wonderful transition out of this tangent:
Where I'm going is that a "self-portrait" assignment could serve a number of purposes if you need a last-minute lesson plan on Those Winter Mondays™ when we get up early. Some of our professional development meetings this year have started with ekphrastics of sorts as ice breakers, if you've seen the model—a teacher shows four paintings, the students identify which best represents them or their mood, and they share why or journal about that personal reflection. This is one of few ice breakers I actually enjoy, because humanities lessons should always be snuck into our day—like one might sneak spinach into a strawberry smoothie for hidden nutrients.
Some ideas for self-portrait journals or assignments might look like:
While one could think it a stretch to use a poem in science class, I think the self-portrait works because you don't have to read a poem to get the jist of it. Sure, if you want a summative assessment, but one could simply start class with a review called "self-portrait" and define the term with the students:
Q: What is a self-portrait?
Teachers know that we need to get our students' I, me, my into our content as much as possible to make the schema stick. 
And, truth be told, many of the self-portrait poems I've linked can be abstract, complex, full lesson plans in themselves, perhaps over students' heads in a non-writing or upper-level literature course. If you're interested in a starting point, though, Mary Jo Bang's "Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror" is money:
"Some days, everything is a machine, by which I mean remove any outer covering, and you will most likely find component parts […] there is no turning back to be someone I might have been. Now there will only ever be multiples of me."
Why not throw "self-portraits" in your tool box, or in emergency sub notes this winter/ fake spring/ and then winter part two once again. It freezes, it slushes, the slush freezes. Always a good time for introspection.
 Or, literal self-portraits. I just had a vision of students drawing their faces as a nucleus of a cell, but it looks like the Sun Baby from Teletubbies. Quite haunting. And if you hung the portraits in your classroom, the nightmares alone would be enough for them to remember the material for the test and subsequently the rest of their tortured lives.
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