My friend and I met weekly with our kids to teach writing. Over the course of several weeks, she walked our kids through the process of writing a research paper. When that wrapped up, I offered to lead something creative. “How about poetry, ” I suggested.
“Oh, my kids aren’t poetic at all, ” she said. “Prepare yourself for a big flop.”
Aghast at her lack of hope, I exclaimed, “All kids are poetic!” I leaned in and insisted, “Grownups, too.” She shook her head and grinned. She’s used to my idealism, but struggles to relate—to agree. An engineer who teaches high school physics and geometry, she leans toward concrete, sequential, calculating kinds of projects.
“You can try, ” she said, “but I can’t squeeze more than three words out of the older two.”
The following week, on a sunny spring day, I took all seven of them outside the library to sit at the back of the parking lot on a stretch of grass. The older kids started to fidget before we even started. “What are doing out here?” they mumbled.
“We’re going to look and see what’s around us.”
One of them, probably a fifth grader, started pointing with his pen. “I see sky, clouds, cars, building. Done.” The others laughed.
“We’re going to be quiet and listen, too, ” I added.
“I hear birds. Done.” More chuckles.
“Before we write, ” I began, “Let’s look at that sky. What color is it?”
Someone said blue.
“What kind of blue? There are so many blues. Is it dark blue like these navy pants? Or is it blue like turquoise? Is it the kind of blue you want to swim in? Or the color of your mom’s eyes?”
They stared up at the sky for a few seconds. When the fifth-grade boy had pointed with his pen, no one had bothered to even look up.
“Write down phrases that describe this particular blue at this particular moment of this particular day. Compare it to other things that are blue.”
I waited, wondering if those kids would jot down more than three words, or anything at all. They studied the sky, and one by one, each started writing.
“What else do you see—you mentioned clouds. What kind of clouds? Puffy white cumulus clouds that look like the kind a preschool kid imagines when he pastes cotton balls onto construction paper, or light and filmy cirrus clouds?”
They kids started writing about the clouds, and then we looked at the railroad tracks and the trees—maple and oak trees—and a line of black ants crawling along a crack in the curb. Every once in a while, I asked them to say something out loud, and then forced them to be more precise.
Then we switched to other senses. We listened together as crows, perhaps forty or more, cawed from the branches of one of the oak trees. Then a flock of Canada geese squawked and honked as they flew in formation overhead. The kids noticed the sounds of traffic, and then a siren started up from the nearby fire station.
We set down our notebooks and walked around touching tree bark and running our fingers over the concrete—what did it really feel like? We compared it with the asphalt, and with some pebbles we found by the trash bins, and with the mulch spread around hostas that were just poking out of the soil. The ground was really scratchy, one of my daughters observed. I sent them back to their notebooks to write down all those sensations.
We took some time to identify smells, too, and then I was about to give up on taste, but the one who had made the others laugh licked the ground. “Tastes like dirt, ” he shouted. Everyone laughed that time, including me.
When they captured enough notes I thought they could piece something together, I had them group their ideas into sections by sense, so that each stanza began, “I see…” and “I hear…” and “I smell…”
They arranged their poems right there in the parking lot, scribbling into spiral notebooks balanced on bony knees. I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a record of their poems, but when we brought them back inside, I had each child read his or her poem aloud for each other and the other mom, who had stayed inside while we worked.
We applauded after each poem. The kids fairly glowed, some of them making excuses because if they’d had more time, they would have made the poems even better. One of the kids read a simple, beautiful series of images. When he was done, he looked up. We applauded. He grinned a sheepish grin and then shook his head after he made eye contact with his mom. I looked over at her, and she was wiping away tears.
“That was beautiful, ” she said, stopping to swallow and press her forefingers into the corners of her eyes to try to dam them up. She smiled and looked at each child. “They are all so, so beautiful.”
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- Interview with an English Teacher, Pt 2: The Heroic in Literature - January 27, 2017
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