Why Teach Poetry To Children?
As Steinburgh says, "Poems often contain powerful feelings in small spaces" (p. 43). Poems can be very intimate and are often given to loved ones as gifts in special moments in their lives. They are an intense expression of the writer's feelings so there is a certain vulnerability which is entrusted to the receiver. Ralph Fletcher, in his book,
Poetry Matters: Writing A Poem From The Inside Out
, likens the writing of a poem for another with giving blood because "it comes from the heart of the writer and goes to the heart of the receiver" (p. 7). In addition to being a medium through which you can express your feelings, poetry also attracts children because it can make you laugh, start you wondering, tell you wonderful stories or send you powerful messages. The images described in poetry often linger in our minds. The special rhythms of particular poems prompt us to clap or stomp or dance to what X. J. and Dorothy M. Kennedy in their book entitled,
Knock At A Star: A Child's Introduction To Poetry
, call the "word music" of poems (p. 50).
Poetry truly can delight the reader and excite him/her to write. The great charm of poetry lies in its ability to become a shared experience between reader and writer. Through the power of poetry, readers are able to make connections to the poems they read. By bringing their own background experience to the poem, young readers find more meaning in them and are able to appreciate them more. Through the use of vivid imagery, the poet is able to help the reader envision the picture he/she had painted with words. The beauty of poetry, say Susan and Stephen Tchudi in their book,
The Young Writers Handbook
, lies in its ability to capture "small experiences in a compact and vivid way, so readers can see and feel what the poet has seen or done or experienced. In just a few words, the poetry can give you new insights into something familiar and ordinary or can touch off emotions and recollections" (p. 93).
Teaching Poetry To Children: The Pitfalls To Avoid
Not all teachers nurture a love of poetry. Instead they actually stifle children's natural attraction to poetry. One way they do this is by limiting the writing of poetry to a series of preset, rule-bound forms like haiku or cinquain that children are to use to express their thoughts. Writing poetry becomes formulaic rather than inspired and the resulting poems are often awkward and stilted. Regie Routman in her aforementioned book praises free verse poetry because it provides the young writer with a lot of freedom to experiment with size, language and content. They are allowed to play with words and images and to create their own rhythms and patterns. "Their voice" says Routman, --each child's unique and personal style--emerges" (p. 5). Reluctant writers are often especially drawn to such poetry and enjoy writing it.
A second pitfall that teachers should avoid is spending the majority of the class time on over-analyzing poems, pulling out all the symbolic language and parts of speech and thereby, as Fletcher says, "smashing them up into the tiniest pieces" (p. 9). As a result of this kind of approach, children view the study of poetry as tedious and boring.
A third pitfall that many teachers succumb to is to limit a student's experience to poems that rhyme. Writing poems that rhyme is hard for most children and Routman maintains that they wind up "spending most of their time searching for rhymes--whether they make sense or not--and often their poems end up sounding contrived" (p. 5).
Three Wonderful Poets Who Write For Children
The three poets whose works I have chosen to use in my curriculum unit are: Karla Kuskin, Patricia Hubbell and Valerie Worth. All three poets have written numerous poetry books for children. What follows is a little information about their lives and some advice each one gives to children who want to write poetry.
Karla Kuskin, born in New York City, attended both Antioch College and Yale University. She not only has written but also illustrated many books for children and is the winner of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Presently she resides in both Brooklyn, New York and Arlington, Virginia. Kuskin's advice to young poetry writers is to begin by thinking about a special thing and figure out what you want to say about it. Brief descriptions using phrases will provide a kind of snapshot of the subject. Then she says to listen for the rhythms you hear as you read it. She advises not to worry about grammar at this stage but rather be concerned that you have gotten your main idea or feeling written down. Through many revisions you will shape the poem to your liking. She encourages children to read different poets' works and look for the rhythm used, tapping your foot as you read them. Then she suggests making up a tune to go with your poem and see how it sounds.(http://teacher.scholastic.com/writewit/poetry/ karla_booklist.htm, p. 1)
Patricia Hubbell was born in Easton, Connecticut and continues to reside there. She went to the University of Connecticut where initially she planned to study agriculture but wound up studying English. It was way back in third grade that she started writing poems. Hubbell likens writing poetry to gardening, because you have to use the same care to help a poem to grow. Her advice to young poetry writers includes reading a lot of poetry. She suggests experimenting with the length of lines in your poem, weeding out unimportant words and adding some important ones. She says to use comparisons to express some of your ideas but she cautions not to hold on too tightly to a subject. Rather, she says, let the poem do what it wants and allow it to lead you in different directions. Hubbell suggests that a writer should try being what he/she wants to write about. You should experiment with rhyme, repetitions, and the use of lively verbs and interesting words. At the time you are writing, she says, you should write freely and then revise later. (http.//www.kidspoet.com/tips.htm, p. 1)
Valerie Worth was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her travels with her family included living a year in Bangalore, India. She attended Swarthmore College where she studied English. In 1991 she received the NCTE Poetry Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Valerie Worth died in 1994. Worth's advice to young writers is included in a profile written by Lee Bennett Hopkins in a journal entitled
, (vol. 68, October, 1991). In this article Hopkins pays tribute to Worth. Worth advises young writers to write about things they love whether they have beauty or not, are extraordinary or ordinary. What's important, she emphasizes, is that you hold some strong feeling about it. Consider that the subject you are writing about is as important as the feeling you have toward it. She cautions young writers not to allow the subject to get lost in the poetry because in a variety of ways the subject is the poetry (p. 500).
Learning to appreciate and later to write poetry does not happen in a vacuum. We must immerse our students in poetry. In the next three sections I have followed Steinburgh's suggested sequence of skills to teach poetry to children.