Over the course of the year my overall objectives are these:
To expand students’ experience and exposure to poetry by restoring it to a place of prominence in school activities and life in these ways:
1. ceremonial: assemblies, plays and projects
2. celebratory occasions: Halloween, Christmas
3. entertainment and shared experience: writing poems or reciting them to provide fun for each other
To increase students’ higher thinking skills through analysis of the ideas, techniques, and devices employed by poets.
To widen experience with the many poetic forms and devices by urging students to use them as they write their own poems.
To give students a freer outlet for the expression of feelings and ideas through the poems they write.
To improve reading, expressive, and communicative skills through memorization of worthwhile poetry.
To “freight” student memories with poetry that will increase their chances of sharing in the wider cultural background of Western society.
To give, especially to those children of an introspective turn of mind—-and there are always a few—the gift of poetic expression that will provide “touchstones” for personal experience throughout life.
All this may seem a bit grandiose in sum, but I am convinced that poetry isn’t merely a form of entertainment, though it is that. When it’s in touch with the things that matter, it can help to provide a framework of meaning for our lives, and help us understand better what it means to be human.
STRATEGIES: The three strand attack.
STRAND ONE: Reading poetry
Reading is a complex skill. In my school, most 4th grade children have mastered the basics of decoding and simple comprehension. Their oral reading skills, however, often are somewhat halting or unobservant of the nuances of meaning. They often cannot sort out the meanings of what they read through inference, comparison, or synthesis. They need experience in analyzing what they read, whether reading aloud or silently: who is speaking? What’s going on around the speaker? What’s the ‘message’ of the whole during?
Analysis of selected poems, using the “Great Books” discussion approach, can appreciably increase these skills. Homework assignments, with appropriate written prompts, can be added as they acquire facility. With grasp of meaning will come the ability to communicate the ideas of a poem orally and more fluently.
To get experience in reading aloud, and to give poetry its rightful place in this experience, I will use these approaches:
begin each day with poetry, read aloud by the teacher at first, then by children who have chosen a particular poem.
insert poetry, chosen or written by students, into every possible school occasion, such as assemblies honoring presidents or special achievers (Dr. King’s birthday comes to mind). It’s true chat poems on Dr. King are as yet in short supply (quality ones, that is) but we can use poems kids write themselves which other kids can identify with and enjoy. Some really fine poets have written about Lincoln, and a few about Washington.
use poetry in conjunction with celebratory occasions, such as Halloween, our Christmas revels, May Day. If we can’t find good ones, we’ll write our own. At least they’ll be tailor-made for the occasions.
create occasions to showcase poetry reading skills: exchanges with other classrooms, parent and literary “teas”, using both chosen and student written poems.
record and do group and self-critiques of poetry readings. Did the way it was read do justice to the meaning? Was it appropriate to the mood? Did the pauses come in the right place?
use reading of poetry to enlarge concepts and understanding of other subjects, for example:
Create verse form mnemonics to help memorize math facts.
: Find and read aloud “work songs” from various occupations and cultures (Casey Jones, John Henry. Every culture has work songs; our 4th grade social studies text quotes a beautiful Eskimo caribou calling song for Eskimo hunters).
Poems about animals, especially endangered species, of poems that touch on ecological issues. Stephen Spender’s
fits into the modern issue of leg-hold traps and Shel Silverstein’s
Sara Sylvia Cynthia Stout
(who WOULD not take the garbage out!) are possible examples.
Poems obviously lend themselves to a study of parts of speech, especially adjectives and adverbs (think of the “adjectives” in Lewis Carroll’s
. Children can rewrite a current “rap” song into grammatical form, or punctuate, capitalize, and put into lines that yield clearer understanding an e. e. cummings poem, such as
The Balloon Man.
: There are of course many good poems, especially long narrative ones such as
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,
which make wonderful group or choral readings. Many shorter poems, too, are biographical—based on famous figures like Columbus or Lincoln, which can start a fine discussion on historical happenings.
Cutting across the three basic strands of reading, writing, and reciting would be a concern for the claims of ethnicity—it’s important to choose poems that grow out of the various students cultures and which contribute to all students’ understanding of cultures other than their own. And since you want students to know that poetry can be fun, I’ll choose some that are sheer fun, like Shel Silverstein’s.
STRAND TWO: Writing Poetry
In early October or even with the first day in school, writing poems for various purposes will begin, along with daily readings of poems as part of our opening each day. Writing will continue weekly to the end of the school year. It will be necessary to set up a well-understood set of criteria for both reading aloud and for approaches to meaning. For reading aloud I usually set these:
1. It must be heard.
2. It should be accurate.
3. It should do justice to the meaning.
4. It should fit the mood of the poem.
As for criteria for approaches to meaning, I think students should be able to answer the questions of (1) who’s the speaker, (2) what’s the background? and (3) what’s the purpose or ‘message’ of the poem? Fourth graders who can do that are well prepared to advance in the art of understanding poetry.
Writing sessions will begin with simple forms, such as acrostics haiku, couplets, etc., and progress through tankas, senyos, concrete poems, and two-word descriptive poems. Then we’ll move through more difficult forms like lanternes, diamentés, cinquains, and rhymed forms. Along the way we’ll touch on and make use of poetic devices, and rather tricky for 4th graders, limericks and clerihews.
Finally, I would like to try working from the model of an existing poem, after the manner of Kenneth Koch, for instance, as in his
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?
I have read the Koch book mentioned but have been afraid to try it on my classes. That model, which takes off from the poetry of others, seems to encourage a freedom of expression, both in feeling and ideas, which would be new to me and might be fun for my class. If it works, I can add it to my teaching repertory with more confidence.
Obviously students should be encouraged to use poetry to express their feelings in writing sessions, and all far-out ideas should be welcomed. All poems except very personal ones (they usually tell you if they don’t want to read it aloud) should be shared with the class, with ground rules firmly established: some poems ARE personal, and no poems will be read aloud which are pejorative for persons in the class, or for ethnic or religious groups.
Nothing encourages writing like an attentive audience, though, and I will work to develop this through monthly publication of a “literary magazine” which will be circulated among other classes at school and sent home to parents. This, of course, will be profusely illustrated and made as attractive and diverse as we can make it. Besides this, any poems written by students for a special occasion at school will be added to the program, and special bulletin board displays of interesting work will be arranged throughout the year.
We are fortunate to have in our school-parent population a published poet and writer for the
magazine, Alice Mattison. She has expressed willingness to come in and read her poetry and discuss how she gets her ideas and shapes them. We would take advantage of this resource early in the year.
All work will be done in spiral notebooks kept just for this area of activity. This allows students to look back on work from previous months and assess progress or perhaps make changes, since a poem is never finished until the poet says so. The notebooks also avoid that fourth grade disease, the I-don’t-have-my-poem-teacher-because the-cat-ate-it syndrome. It also assures a steady supply of material for the literary magazine and the school newspaper. The spiral poetry notebooks can be taken home at the end of the year to be kept as a record of all the forms and new ideas tried during the year.
In addition, as an art/writing project, we will develop, perhaps from the New Year on, an anthology of favorite poems for the class to pass on to next year’s group. It will include favorites from among their own writings. Children who wish to do so could make personal anthologies as well. Covers and illustrations can be an additional source of fun and creativity.
An alternative to the personal anthology will include a “publishing” venture, creating a book that includes all the year’s writing in printed form, since next year the school system hopes to place a computer with a working printer in each classroom. We can then branch into bookbinding, making covers with stitched bindings and handsome overleaves.
STRAND THREE: Reciting Poetry
In recent years—at least during the 17 years I have taught—memorization, or “rote learning”, has been in disrepute. No one wants to revive the bad old days when almost all learning was done by rote. But I am sure many a teacher struggling to teach division to fourth graders wishes SOMEONE had forced a little rote learning on certain students who have absolutely no permanent recall of the multiplication tables. And I feel there are real values to the memorization of poetry, especially at this age, or, if I were Queen, even younger than fourth.
For example, I can still recite poems that my father, when I was 7 or 8, gave me a nickel apiece for memorizing (cheap enough, but it was the Great Depression), and they recur at odd but usually appropriate times of my life, proving their value in the culture. He learned them by heart in a tiny Kansas schoolhouse where the “basal” was
McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader
There are many good reasons for having children memorize. First, in the effort to remember the lines of a poem and to make sense of them, they study it more closely and do a better job with the stopping place. Fourth graders have a regrettable tendency to call a marked halt at the end of every line, to the detriment of the meaning. If at the beginning of the school year we discuss standards to guide recitation—loud enough to hear, accurate as to content; and most of all, do justice to what the poem is trying to say, it’s bound to improve their understanding of how to read a poem in general.
Second, the memory at age 9 and 10 is very receptive and retentive, and good poetry learned then sets an unconscious model for future exposures. It can also become part of a value system, as well as raising the level of taste if poems are chosen with care. If “there is no frigate like a book”, there is little more precious freight that can be carried in the memory than the work of poets like Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, e. e. cummings, Langston Hughes, and William Blake, to mention a few of my favorites. Children get a real sense of accomplishment from knowing a beautiful poem, and this activity improves reading recognition skills, oral delivery, and fluency, and sharpens memory. I have done this regularly for years, and the children seem to like doing it. Often a student returns to visit and proves they still can recite “Stopping by Woods” or “Ill tell you how the sun rose”, after the lapse of several years. Therefore it should be a worthwhile part of my Poetry Year.
In addition, there is a place for group memorization of choral readings when there is a special occasion where longer narrative poems or historical poems are suitable. I will use them particularly where some children are very shy of reciting alone, perhaps at assemblies, but can do well as part of a choral version or when they are part of a group that recites serially. Usually I find that many of the children in groups end up knowing the entire poem without trying, because of the practice necessary to perfect it.
So I will include memorization throughout the year, with a monthly memorization task. If there is no special occasion to learn poems for, we’ll create one: a contest, parent-school performance day, or because the poem fits a social studies or math or science unit.
The three strands of this unit will be intertwined in a not always predictable manner, because it depends on the vicissitudes of school and classroom life. But I feel sure that well accomplish enough through the school year to make the Poetry Year more than worthwhile, and I expect to learn a lot.
Strand one, the intelligent reading and interpretation of poetry on a regular basis, I have dealt with earlier. I will incorporate a daily poem into opening exercises. Sometimes I will choose the poem and sometimes a student will be appointed to choose and read it. School assemblies and special occasions will also allow such readings, using appropriate poems. Sometimes we will take time out to question the reader on meaning or poetic devices employed by the poem. Sometimes we will seek discussion on whether read-aloud criteria have been met: was it loud enough? Did it do justice to the meaning? Was it read in an appropriate mood?
Other occasions for analysis will arise with poems from the readers. Other occasions for reading aloud with care will arise when preparing our “Revels” Christmas celebration, when everyone recites poetry along with dancing and singing, and again for the “Author’s Tea” listed in the calendar for June, when an adult audience—in addition to other 4th graders—will be invited.
Strand Three, regular memorization of poetry, has been incorporated into my calendar on a monthly basis. The poems chosen for memorization in this unit have some connection either with what is going on in the writing process, or a unit from some other subject than reading. I will submit copies of these mostly well-known poems to be kept on file with this unit in case anyone has difficulty finding them. These monthly assignments will be homework, with grades given to show serious intent. (They don’t take it seriously unless you do that, even in the 4th grade.)
The same basic criteria as for reading aloud will be sought, except that accuracy as to content and emphasis on dramatic delivery will be more important. Really shy children may be offered the chance to say it with two or three others, but they are usually willing to try it alone.
Strand Two, the writing of poetry on a regular, weekly basis, also appears on the school-year based calendar below. I have not included detailed lesson plans, because the approach is basically similar. We will have notebooks used just for poetry, which will allow us to see what progress we have made. In some cases, “brainstorming” is employed, to get a list of rhyming words, for instance, or a list of alliterative or onomatopoetic ones. Sometimes, as with a “sense” poem, it may be necessary to review the five senses and list some samples of how they may be used. Sometimes—usually, in fact—it is helpful to discuss variations on ideas, as in a poem about war and its effects. If a particular form is asked for—a ballad, diamenté, a haiku—it helps to give the formula, and have the group as a whole write one like it. I usually ban colorless words like “nice”, and unless writing Clerihews or limericks or epitaphs, prohibit the use of names of people in our classroom. (This prevents verbal skirmishes that soon prevent more real attention to the task at hand.) I also make it clear that we are sharing to be helpful, and that ad hominem comments are out; we stick to constructive comments. Most students soon understand the ground rules and with a little boost, will try any form, once clearly delineated.