Teaching Poetry to Children
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.”
Photo by RobsComputer, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Teaching Poetry to Children post by Ann Kroeker.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In January we’re exploring the theme Coffee and Tea.
- Life Notes: Tea is Necessary - February 3, 2017
- Interview with an English Teacher, Pt 2: The Heroic in Literature - January 27, 2017
- Interview with an English Teacher, Pt 1: Texts and Teaching - January 20, 2017
Megan Willome says
Wow, Ann. You are a Teacher! Your lesson absolutely lived “show, don’t tell.” And then the kids found their own pride in their work, and that mother crying … (pardon me while I sob).
Yes. We want this for our kids. Very few know how to help it to happen.
Ann Kroeker says
Megan, I haven’t taught it enough to be 100 percent confident that the kids would produce, so I lived with some tension the entire time.
But sometimes we all need someone to remind us how to see, listen, touch, feel and even taste the world around us. And to be specific.
You do that well. I mean, your tea? We can smell it, and curl our hands around your warmed cups and mugs, breathing deeply of the aromas.
Marcia Terwilliger says
I loved that Anne, how you got to work with the kids, let their minds wonder and appreciate the things we often miss as we march by in life. I adore working with children. Before disabilty kicked in I worked ten years with nine through 12th graders. The boys would come in the room and I would look dead pan serious and say “You can’t stay in class today because you wore the wrong color shirt,” today is blue shirt day. Bless those big boys heart, they believed me and would look so confused when leaving the class. By the time they hit the door I would give in. They would go, oh Mrs. T. you really got me on that one. Now I volunteer at my grandchildren’s school. Story telling is so much fun also and I recite poems to them by heart. Usually I’m babysitting a class while they are taking TPack tests. Once finished the teacher gathers the papers and leaves and the class. They think they will pull a fast one over me. I grab a stool and without a word spoken their attention is right on me. With rolling eyes, hand gestures, arms flapping and whatever I can image they are doing exactly what I am doing. We are quiet but the smiles on their faces are priceless. Communication without saying a word, a fun and easy game. Sounds like a bestseller game to buy for Christmas 2013 don’t you think?
Ann Kroeker says
Marcia, you are so creative! What fun those students must have when you are behind the teacher’s desk, teasing and flapping your arms and–be still my heart!–reciting poetry by heart!
Thank you for taking time to write out these reflections on your days working with children.
Marcia Terwilliger says
We march to a different beat, my little
grandson and I as we let our imaginations take over and learn how to fly. Lance grabs a round tupperware bowl and places it on his head, we are off to kill “Dragons” he said. So out the back door we flew looking for sticks as swords, they have to do. We walk using big steps and pretend we have a shield, then Lance screams “He’s green and right over there.” Oh my, he’s huge I say, what will we do, no problem Grandma I have my sword and I’ll kill him for you. Goodness Lance he’s big as a house looks like we’ll have to throw him over the fence for now. So we huffed, and we huffed again and finally got that beast out of sight. Lance looks at me with those big blue eyes, I’m hungry now can I have something to eat? We lay down our sticks and Lance takes off his bowl as we head towards the house sleepy head starts to roll. You look a little tried after killing that beast I think I’ll read you a book, you may even fall asleep.
L. L. Barkat says
What is it about the stringing together of images that can bring us to tears? It can. It did here, for this listening mother. It’s not even necessarily well-crafted poetry at this point. Just the images and the stringing.
I am thinking about this.
What a wonderful article. I too have seen my children delight in the writing of poetry. All it really takes is a simple prompt and bit of space to wonder. I am amazed at what they come up with. Thanks for this post.
Ann Kroeker says
I was just chatting with an acquaintance who coaches football to high school kids. He said, “I used to use analogies to explain different body positions during plays. But I don’t anymore, because the kids don’t get it. They used to use their imaginations and could picture it, but not anymore. They just stand there looking confused.”
I asked how recently he’s seen this shift. He said he’s coached for about ten years, and he’s seen a shift in the past four.
I say this only because I wonder if kids will need to be coached to wonder? It makes me sad.
Younger ones still seem to have it, that imagination and sense of wonder.