“I have always liked the magic of poetry but now I’m just starting to see behind the curtain of even the best poets, how they’ve used, tried and tested craft to create the illusion. Wonderful feeling of exhilaration to finally be there.” ~ David Knopfler
As a musical person, I have always thought it was important to share a variety of songs and poems with children. Poems invite children to move, to visualize, and to hear music in spoken words. If given enough exposure to poetry, children can internalize important things about their sounds, rhythms, rhyme schemes and forms, and the feelings and images that poems can communicate. Children can begin to play with these ideas and learn to make their own music and paint their own pictures – with words. It was when my class had the opportunity to participate in a poetry writing contest that I began to consider how to make that leap from immersing children in poetry, to explaining poems to children, to supporting their efforts to write their own poems.
As part of this process, I explored a few resources to give me accessible strategies for scaffolding children’s learning. I first tried to get a sense of what children already knew about poems. Some said that they rhyme. Some said that they are words. Some said that you read them. One child who loves to sing said he did not like poems. I told him that songs are poems that are set to music, which got his attention. I continued to read a variety of poems, pointing out interesting details about them, such as the poetic forms (e.g., One Leaf Rides the Wind by Celeste Davidson Mannis is a beautiful collection of haikus. Douglas Florian has written many concrete, or shape poems). A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, selected by Paul B. Janeczko, includes examples of such forms as couplet, limerick, riddle poem, acrositic, found poems and lists. The children were interested to learn that poems have certain structures, and rules (though we would not worry about this too much).
Our next step was to think about where we get our inspiration for writing poems. Loris Lesynski‘s book “I Did it Because…”: How a Poem Happens, has many examples of her poems, and her thoughts on the creative process. She asks, “Why do we write poems? Where do ideas come from? How does a poem happen?” She talks about beat and rhythm, word play, how to recite a poem, and to use and put emphasis on certain sounds. She talks about inspiration sparks, and suggests some like: the noisiest noises I know, how many yellows, my funniest friend, the perfect room. She suggests ways for picking a topic, even an ordinary one, and how to cluster words that can be assembled into a poem. You can use yourself as a source of inspiration: your likes and dislikes, your wishes and goals, your curiosity. You can look around and write down what you notice and see, and the ideas these observations give you. Most importantly, Lesynski writes that ideas come from you – only humans can write poems, so we should listen to our senses and respond to what inspires us by turning our inspirations into poems.
A final, and very helpful book I used to help children with the writing process was Kids’ Poems: Teaching Kindergarteners to Love Writing Poetry by Regie Routman. Based on work the author did in her own classroom, Routman provided a framework that involved such steps as: reading poems written by children, writing poems in front of children, engaging the class in collaborative poetry writing, brainstorming topics, scribing poems for children, sharing and celebrating their writing, and connecting reading with poetry writing. Each chapter of her book elaborates on these steps. I tried to find ways to integrate ideas from all of these resources and ultimately I found an approach that worked for me, given the time frame set by the poetry contest. Since it was winter, it seemed logical to focus on poems about winter. I read two poems about winter, written by children, from Routman’s book. I continued to read winter poems written for children by N.M. Bodecker, Dennis Lee, Jack Prelutsky, Frank Asch, Shel Silverstein and a charming rendition of Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, illustrated by Susan Jeffers.
The poem that launched our collective writing effort was First Snow by Marie Louise Allen. This poem was perfect because it was short and simple, and yet it opened up the windows of children’s imaginations. To the poet, the first snow has transformed familiar bushes into popcorn balls. So I asked the children what new snow looked like to them and we brainstormed words like: clouds, cotton balls, sheep wool, vanilla ice cream and white dandlions. We then brainstormed adjectives to describe those words, and the result was a gorgeous poem called Snow. While the poems written by individual children were not as “sophisticated” as the one we wrote together, I still feel that the children in my class enjoyed a rich poetry writing experience that helped them begin to understand the poetic process, to gain a deeper appreciation of poems, and their own power to write them.
Bumpy, fluffy clouds
Soft, squishy cotton balls
Sheep wool nice to bounce on!
Vanilla ice cream cold and yummy!
Soft powder like fluffy pillows
The white dandelion blows, flies up and lands on the ground
Like the soft fur of bunnies, polar bears, cats and lambs
Shaking from a can of white pepper
Crunchy, rainbow popcorn!
“If you cannot be a poet, be the poem.” ~ David Carradine