Introducing Poetry throughout the School Day
For millennia – even before Homer started reciting The Iliad and The Odyssey – we humans have been telling one another poems. Even today, children and adolescents often spontaneously make up poems to tell one another, in jump-rope rhymes, insults and comebacks, riddles, and other verses. What is it about poems that so appeals to us?
On the other hand, many adults today feel turned off to poetry, never venturing to scribble a verse and rarely listening to it, except when tuning in to a song’s lyrics. What happened to make us so wary of poems?
Poems intrinsically appeal to us because of their rhythm, their rich imagery, and and their ability to extract the pot-liquor from the boiling cauldron of our experiences. Here’s an example: Fog by Carl Sandburg. Click here for the full text of the poem.
How does Sandburg do that – capturing the essential images and impressions of fog in twenty-one small words? To be honest, we can’t tell you exactly how he does it. Perhaps we have to admit that – like electricity – it seems to happen as if by magic.
The secret to the magic isn’t in the topic he chose. In the many anthologies containing Sandburg’s poems, you may find a wealth of other poems about almost any classroom topic you and your children can think of. For instance, you may find Sandburg’s poem in Jack Prelutsky’s (1983) anthology, The Random House book of Poetry for Children (p. 96), New York: Random House.
Prelutsky’s anthology also includes poems on ferns, wind, George Washington, smells, boa constrictors, Halloween, being rude, basketball, waking up, cockroaches, the taste of purple, feeling frightened, a hog-calling competition, family members, unicorns, toasters, flying, and so on – even poems on the whole universe.
Why have poets written about so many different topics, expressing so may different feelings and points of view? Because poetry can work like a magnifier, to enlarge the very small and bring it into view, or to focus sunlight on something to intensely that it catches fire. Throughout this blog I hope to inspire you to incorporate poetry into every aspect of your curriculum, adding its distinctive insights to whatever you teach.
Why do so many of us avoid writing poetry and teaching poetry to our students? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that for too many of us, our early love of poetry was drilled out of us by teachers who felt obliged to teach us poems that we didn’t love – and that they themselves didn’t love, either. The key to teaching poetry is – as you might have guessed – your enthusiasm for an enjoyment of the poems you share with your students. If you relish a particular poem, your enthusiasm will infect your students, and they’ll enjoy it, too.
Throughout my staff development sessions with teachers and my blog entries, I make many suggestions for poems, teaching strategies, and ideas for extending poetry concepts across the curriculum. Please feel free to take whichever of these suggestions appeal to you and to modify or to reject altogether any that don’t speak to your heart and soul – or that just seem foreign to your own teaching style. Try to remain open to trying new things, but recognize when your guts are telling you, “This poem doesn’t work for me,” or “My students and I don’t have fun with this activity,” or “What were they thinking? My students and I could never do that!”
I have come up with a basic format for introducing poetry to your students, which I believe is effective. Give it a try, and see whether it works for you and your students, then adapt it to suit your needs. First of all, immerse your students in the sounds and the language of the poem or poems you are introducing. Next, encourage your students to explore the poem, considering how it’s put together and how it might be modified. Finally, encourage your students to experiment with the kind of poem you introduced, perhaps creating a class poem or creating individual poems similar to the poem or poems they explored previously.
When immersing your students in the sounds and language of a poem (or set of poems), introduce the poem, invite your students’ responses to the poem, and then extend what they have learned across the curriculum. Before you introduce the poem, however, you may have to do some advance preparation.
For whichever poem you introduce, you will need to post the poem in some way. If you like the poem and plan to use it again later, you may wish to prepare a wall chart with the poem written in large manuscript printing. If you aren’t yet sure about how well your students will respond to the poem, you may prefer just to write it on a chalkboard or whiteboard at the front of the room. Throughout this book, I offer suggestions for advance preparation. In addition to the poem, you may need to prepare other materials or to introduce other experiences or activities.
INTRODUCE THE POEM
Once you have posted the poem for all your students to see it, read the poem aloud to your students. Use your whole body, your voice, your facial expressions, and your gestures to highlight the drama and rhythm of the poem. For instance, if you are reading Sandburg’s “Fog,” crawl (or stoop) as you creep on quiet catlike feet across the floor; sit silently, leaning and looking; then quietly move on. Emphasize the pauses and the silences Sandburg suggests with his line breaks. Read the poem a second time, inviting your students to read the poem with you. For the third reading, invite them to read the poem, using lowered voices, pauses, and silences, as you feel appropriate. Invite small groups of students to act out the poem, as the remainder of the class choral-reads the poem aloud.
INVITE RESPONSES TO THE POEM
After you have introduced the poem, ask your students to respond to three kinds of questions: a viewpoint or empathy question, a language question, and a poem-structure question.
* Viewpoint or empathy question. Ask questions that prompt your students to see the experience as the poet sees it, or to see it from the viewpoint of a person or object in the poem. Example: For Sandburg’s “Fog,” you might ask, “What does the word ‘haunches’ mean?” “What does ‘harbor’ mean?” “Why did Sandburg choose those words? What words could he have chosen instead?” “What other animal moves quietly? How would the feeling and imagery of the poem be different if Sandburg had used a different animal for his poem?”
* Poem-structure question. Ask questions that incite your students to think about how the poet structured the poem and about how the poem might be different if it were changed in some way. Example: Ask,” How well would the poem work if Sandburg wrote out the whole poem on one line, and we didn’t take any breaths or pauses in the whole poem?” “What would happen if we dropped the last line of the poem? Would the poem still give us the whole story of what fog does? How would that change the poem?” “How else could we change Sandburg’s poem” (you could try experimenting with the lines on looking, too, such as with “It waits watching” or…)
EXTEND YOUR STUDENTS’ KNOWLEDGE ACROSS THE CURRICULUM.
Build on the concepts, the language, and the poetry forms introduced in the poem, extending what your students have learned across the curriculum areas of literature, science, mathematics, social studies, art, and music and movement.
Literature. Just a couple of the children’s books that you may want to link to Frost’s poem are Lapp, Eleanor. (1978) In the Morning Mist. Chicago: Albert Whitman. Shaw, Charles. (1947) It Looked Like Spilt Milk. New York: HarperCollins. Science. Experiment with water and condensation. Put a sponge in the bottom of each of several resealable plastic baggies. Pour some water into each baggie, thoroughly soaking the sponge. Tape the baggies to sunny windows and to other spots around the classroom. Observe what happens to the water in the baggies. (If the temperature is right, you should be able to see a minicloud form in the baggie in the window.) If you’re reading this poem during cold weather, you can invite your students to create “fog” on your classroom windows, by exhaling onto the windows. Another option is to freeze a clean, dry glass, then let it sit out in the classroom, and observe the water condensing on the glass.
Math. Invite your students to count the syllables for each line in Sandburg’s poem. Next, have them choose another poem they enjoy (e.g., a familiar song or a verse book). Invite them to count the syllables in the more predictably rhythmic poem. Which poem is more fun to read aloud? Why? Which poem is more mysterious and creepy to read? Why?
Social Studies. Set up a TV-news-studio dramatic-play center, with a chalkboard for the weather report, a news desk and papers for reading the “news,” suit jackets or other clothing suitable for news reporters, and an assortment of photos from National Geographic, People, and other newsy magazines. Encourage your students to be camera operators, producers, and other members of the “news team.”
Art. Create water-drip and -blow paintings. Add water to tempera paint, and offer students one sheet of highly absorbent paper (e.g., paper towels or art paper) and one sheet of glossy paper (e.g., butcher paper or fingerpaint paper). Give each student a small container of the watery tempera, and offer each an eyedropper and a straw. Have each student use the eyedropper to drip some of the paint solution onto the paper, then use the straw to blow the paint across the paper. Invite the students to compare what happens with the absorbent paper, as compared with the glossy paper. (The straw won’t blow the liquid as easily on the absorbent paper as on the glossy paper.)
Music and Movement. Invite your students to sing and act out a “foggy” version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” For instance, here’s one possible verse to this familiar tune: On cat’s feet, you move so slow Creeping, creeping, softly go Softly, slowly, on the ground Never ever make a sound Moving slowly, you tiptoe Down along the ground so low.
Exploration Once your students have been thoroughly immersed in the poem – its language, its form, its concepts – they are ready to explore the poem more deeply. At this point, you can encourage them to take the poem apart, play with it, modify it, and try putting it – or a variation of it – back together. In exploring Sandburg’s poem, you might try thinking about how it would work if it were about a thunderstorm. Would it simply “[come],” or would it “stomp” or “stamp” or “pounce” or move in some other way? Would it enter “on little cat feet?” Probably not. What kind of transportation would it use? Would it be a tyrannosaurus rex, a thunderboat, a locomotive, a polar bear?
Would a thunderstorm simply “[sit] looking?” What would it do? Where would it do it? Surely it wouldn’t sit “on silent haunches.” Would it then just “[move] on?” Would it trickle away into a fine mist, would it march on to the next city, or would it go out with a bang of thunder? Work as a class to come up with your own creations, using Sandburg’s poem as a starting point, but not limiting yourself to the words or even the format he used for describing fog. You may even have a different point of view about fog. Perhaps it’s a terrifying invader, who sneaks up on unwary drivers or bicyclists, enshrouding them. The poem you and your students create will be unique to their personal experiences, their interpretations, and their linguistic repertoire.
Encourage your students to experiment with the kind of poem you introduced. When you are first introducing your students to poetry, you may wish to create class poems during your experimentations. A little later on, you may encourage your students to work alone, in pairs, or in small groups, to create individual poems similar to the poem or poems they explored previously. During experimentation, you will probably also want to emphasize the writing process: brainstorming for ideas, developing and organizing ideas, drafting, revising for content, and editing.
If you are working as a whole class, use a chalkboard or a whiteboard while you are generating ideas. If your students are having trouble getting started with ideas, you might try one or more of the following ideas:
· “If you look inside me, you’ll find…” (either about the poet or personifying an inanimate object or an animal, from that point of view; e.g., a crocodile’s viewpoint or the literal or figurative contents of a pencil or a computer)
· “If I were…” or “I wish I were…” or “If only I…” · “What if…” (these can be about ordinary or personal hypotheticals, or about historical or scientific possibilities)
· “The problem [or trouble] with…” · “What’s terrific about…” · “Gee, I was surprised when…”
On another patch of chalkboard or whiteboard, work with your students to develop and organize your ideas. For instance, in coming up with a poem about wind, you and your students might sort your brainstorming into ideas about wind’s properties, what it does to objects (e.g., papers, leaves), what it does to people (tosses hair, makes goose bumps, etc.), and so on. Once you are content with your organization of ideas, transfer them to chart paper (or butcher paper).
Write your first draft on a whiteboard (or chalkboard). Play around with the words, the format, the sequence. When you are ready to go to a more permanent form, consider using a pocket chart with sentence strips. That still gives you a lot of flexibility to revise the poem, playing around with the sequence and with individual words or phrases.
Once you and your students are satisfied with your revised poem, transfer it to chart paper. Invite them to help you edit the poem, making sure that the line breaks, spelling, punctuation, and so on are the best they can be for your purposes.
If your students are working in small groups or as individuals, you may want to introduce them to critics’ circles when they are ready to revise their works. A critic’s circle may include your entire class, small groups of students, or even student pairs or trios. At first, you’ll need to guide the critics circle closely, modeling how to be a constructive critic. The idea is that each poet takes a turn reading her or his poem aloud. After each poet reads, fellow poets take turns telling one thing about the poem that each listener particularly liked. Every listener can come up with at least one thing she or he liked – it may be a luscious word, an ear-pleasing phrase or alliteration or rhyme, a soothing or prickly or eerie tone, a fascinating or appealing topic, a well-structured format, effective line breaks, or almost anything else.
For most poets, on most occasions, the positive comments constitute all of the feedback on the poem. If the poet requests help, however, she or he may ask fellow poets for suggestions for improving a particular aspect of the poem. For instance, the poet may ask for help with a particular word, phrase, or line, help in improving a rhyme or rhythm, help in shaping the tone of the poem, help in concluding the poem, and so on. At the poet’s request, the listeners may then offer positive, constructive suggestions for improving the poem. General comments such as, “I just didn’t like it,” or “I hated your phrasing,” aren’t acceptable for two reasons: (1) They’re hurtful and useless to the poet, and (2) they don’t teach the critic how to think critically about poetry. For the critics and the poets to learn the most, the comments must be highly specific suggestions for improvement. Initially, these critics circles may be a little rough, and they may require a lot of energy and guidance on your part. The payoffs for your effort are tremendous, however, as your participants will learn about how to create and revise poems, both as critics and as poets.
When revising your poems, you may profit from listening to what a few children’s poets have said, quoted in Bernice Cullinan’s (1996) anthology, A Jar of Tiny Stars: Poems by NCTE Award-Winning Poets (Honesdale, PA: Wordsong, Boyds Mills Press):
* On choosing the right word – Eve Merriam (p. 33) said, “I’ve sometimes spent weeks looking for precisely the right word. It’s like having a tiny marble in your pocket, you can just feel it. Sometimes you find a word and say, ‘no, I don’t think this is it…’ Then you discard it, and take another and another until you get it right.”
* On choosing one correct recipe for creating a poem – Arnold Adoff (p. 53) said, “I want to do more in my poems than just present facts or feelings or communicate. I want my poems to sing as well as to say.” John Ciardi (p. 39) agrees that with poetry, “maybe you can make language dance a bit.” According to Barbara Esbensen (p. 67), “Poetry should knock your block off.” May your students’ poems make the language dance as they gently, effortlessly knock your block off!