Sometime around 3 o’clock on a Tuesday or a Wednesday or a Thursday, no matter, I put the dented silver kettle on the stovetop. While the water heats, I rustle through the cupboards looking for my box of chai and packets of hot chocolate.
If I’ve planned ahead, I assemble shortbread biscuits or maple leaf cremes or Pirouettes wafers artfully on a plate. If it’s been a hectic week and I am barely keeping my head above water, vanilla wafers or graham crackers are worthy understudies.
When the season allows, I cut zinnias and marigolds and Queen Anne’s lace and set them in a glass jar. I light a candle. I strew some books across the table. Then I call my boys.
It is Poetry and Tea Time, and it might be my favorite piece of our homeschooling repertoire.
If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
—Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
Our ritual was originally inspired by Bravewriter, a curriculum created by Julie Bogart that aims to “enhance the parent-child relationship through the teaching of writing.” Poetry and Tea Time is just one activity that contributes to the “creation of a language-rich lifestyle.”
And my boys love it.
My boys who are 10 and almost 13, who get lost in Dr. Who marathons and Minecraft tutorials. My boys who still have to be reminded to say “excuse me” after burping at the dinner table. My boys who throw underwear at each other. These very boys relish this ritual of tea (or hot chocolate) and victuals and verse.
Their go-to choices are the words of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky and Roald Dahl. I occasionally throw in some Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, or Mary Oliver. We take turns reading our favorite poems aloud to each other while nibbling and sipping and laughing. More than once, after the end of a tragic story poem, like “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service, we have sat together in comfortable silence.
My boys are having fun with words. Rhyme and rhythm to the childhood ear is like birdsong to creation—a natural soundtrack that invites hearers to gather ’round, to listen, to enjoy. These boys are slowly waking up to the power that words have to convey the gamut of human emotion. They are learning that, whether structured in stanzas or splayed out freely across the page, words can be safe places to explore ideas and to express what is hidden. They are experiencing poetry as a portal to places beyond themselves, and harbors deep within.
Each person present is invited to choose poems that he enjoys. My boys have particular favorites that they return to, again and again.
My mother made a meatloaf
that provided much distress,
she tried her best to serve it,
but she met with no success…
We gave you a chance
To water the plants.
We didn’t mean that way—
Now zip up your pants.
Reading cherished poems on repeat, week after week, has helped my boys become comfortable with poetry. We don’t pick apart verses or get bogged down by prosody. Although I will casually mention poetic forms when rich examples are read aloud, I am not pushing analysis or even classification at this stage.
Poetry and Tea Time is all about falling in love with words.
Face of Earth
With midnight fingers
The language of eternal noon
With unexpected dawns
In his larder of memories
In his heart
The sun sleeps
Poetry and Tea Time is also about introducing gorgeous vocabulary and expansive ideas while dipping hazelnut and chocolate creme wafers into steaming hot beverages. My boys are incredibly receptive to the likes of “diaphanous” and “deleterious” and “debutant” while licking their lips and sighing into their cuppas.
My boys don’t know it, but Poetry and Tea Time is just as much for me. I love how this ritual restores my weary soul and breathes new life into stale corners. It can be overwhelming to be totally responsible for your children’s education and, honestly, some days it feels like my kids are getting the short end of the Teacher of the Year stick.
But just when it feels like everything has gone south for the day (or week), I feel pulled to that shelf of my cupboard where I store the emergency stash of Danish butter cookies. I believe my heart knows better than my brain what will restore a disaster of a week. And it always includes cookies. And poetry. Always.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish