As Karla Kuskin says in her book,
Dogs & Dragons Trees & Dreams
, "One introduction leads to another. The poetry reader often becomes a poetry writer" (introduction). Teaching children to write poetry helps them to develop both their language and their critical thinking skills. They are called upon to be keen observers of their world, to explore relationships between things, use symbol and metaphor to express meaning and attempt to describe abstract ideas. Because poetry is so concise they must choose their words carefully when they write (Steinburgh, p. 55).
It may take numerous revisions. Teachers should encourage young writers to revise their poems by reminding them that that's what real writers do and that it is part of the whole writing process. Harrison and Cullinan describe revision as a "natural part of composing our thoughts, determining what we want to say and how we'll say it" (p. 106). My students are used to following the writing process format of brainstorming for ideas, writing a first draft (sloppy copy), conferencing with a teacher, writing a second draft (neat sheet), publishing the writing and then sharing it with the class during author's chair time.
Routman suggests using poems written by children to motivate the class to try writing their own. Her book is filled with such poetry. She suggests introducing a poem by reading it twice, first displaying the rough draft written in the child's handwriting, and, during the second reading, displaying the published poem. It is important to discuss the poem as a whole, looking at all its elements in order to "help them internalize the essence of the poetry" (Routman, p. 12). Listening to and looking at these poems will spark students' interest in writing their own poetry.
After this introduction to a poem students are then to write a poem on any topic they choose and are given ample quiet time (20-30 minutes) in which to do it. During this time the teacher walks around to give assistance. During sharing time I do what Routman suggests, which is to "celebrate the writing gems" (p. 16) by calling attention to and reading aloud students' poems that demonstrate effective use of imagery, word play, use of comparisons, etc. This affirms the student's writing at the same time that it shows good examples of poetry for others to imitate.
Ideas For Writing Poetry
There are many good books available to teach children how to write poetry so I will only mention a few activities that I have found especially valuable and plan to use in this unit. Because I have already worked many years with haikus, cinquains, clerihews, acrostics and the like, I want to venture out and attempt teaching free verse poetry to children. Free verse poetry has no set rhythm or rhyme. Paul b. Janeczko in his aforementioned book suggests focusing on four types of poems that will give the young writer varied practice in writing free verse poetry: a list poem, a poem of address, a persona poem and a narrative poem.
List poems describe or name things. The writer uses specific details to describe a memorable part of his/her life such as the years he/she lived down South with grandparents or the year spent in kindergarten. This is called a history poem. Another type is the how-to poem which involves listing sequential steps to follow when doing something. The subject may be ordinary like making a model airplane or unusual like giving a flea a bath. Janeczko recommends beginning by listing in a journal all the things related to your chosen subject. It's a stream of consciousness type exercise and the young writer is to jot down whatever comes to mind about this subject. When reading over the list the student is to look for related things that may help him/her to narrow down the topic. The creation of this list may well take a few days and will involve additions and deletions. When editing the list, the writer should be careful to choose things that give a clear picture of the subject to the reader and choose words that convey the intended meaning. As the poem is refined, the writer needs to consider the order of ideas, where his emphasis will be, the sound of particular lines of words (i. e. putting together words that start with the same consonant) and the rhythm (use of short or long lines). By reading the poem out loud, the writer can hear the sound and feel the rhythm he/she wants to create in the poem.
Poems of Address
This type of poem is written to a person or a thing. It is important to clarify that it is not about the subject. Janeczko suggests choosing a person whom you may have some unfinished business with such as a relative who has died or a good friend who has moved away. Other possibilities include writing to a pet that keeps chewing on the legs of mom's antique chair or expressing thanks to a teacher who has helped you conquer division or to express anger toward people who continuously litter the city park. In addition, poems of address can be written to favorite rock stars, TV personalities or characters in a book. Things can also be the subjects of poems of address--such as your worn-out sneakers that have accompanied you to each basketball practice. It is particularly apt to try using personification in such a poem. Perhaps those old sneakers cheered with glee when you slam-dunked that ball in the final minutes of the game.
Just as with list poems, Janeczko advises the writer to jot down all the reasons why he/she wants to write a poem to that particular person or thing. It is good to include a salutation in the first line. The teacher should remind the students to use 'you' and 'your' in these poems of address. Word choice should convey the feelings you hold toward your subject.
In this type of poem the writer becomes another person or thing and writes the poem from that point of view. Janeczko cautions the writer to first understand the subject before attempting to write the poem. If you plan to write a poem about an infant sibling it would be good to crawl around and see things from his/her perspective. The writer should ask himself/herself, if I were in that person's shoes, what would I think about, how would I feel, what might I say? In choosing subjects it is a good idea to consider people and things that are around you and to use your five senses to experience their world. The subject may also be a favorite character from a book. Imagine writing a poem where you take the point of view of the Big Bad Wolf.
Narrative poems tell a story and a writer chooses as his/her subject some special event in his/her life. A good source of such memorable times can be your diary. When you write this type of poem, you need to describe not only the event but also your feelings toward it. Another source to get ideas from may be a scrapbook or memorabilia box, the contents of which may spark interest in some long lost memory. Janeczko emphasizes that a writer does not need to be strictly factual in his/her poem and can use details that are exaggerated or more entertaining.
One way to get started on such a poem is to write out the chosen event in prose first, adding details, imagery and feelings. In reading through the story, the writer can then circle the words or phrases that are essential to the story line. These circled items are then copied on a new draft. Revising the list involves a lot of word play and moving around of ideas until the writer is satisfied that the poem expresses the treasured memory well. It is an opportune time to experiment with similes and metaphors in this type of poem.
Poems That Imitate The Style of A Poet
Routman suggests encouraging students to write in the style of another poet. I have chosen Valerie Worth's style of writing small poems. (See Lesson Plan III). After exposing my class to many of her poems, I will model her style by writing my own poem (thinking out loud as I do it) in front of the class on large chart paper. I will select an ordinary object and in staying true to Worth's form I will keep it short. Then I will ask the class to write their own small poems. To encourage young writers to follow a short format by using phrases rather than whole sentences, Jodi Weisbart, in her aforementioned book, advises using 'poetry paper' which is line paper that is half the width of regular loose-leaf paper. In a minilesson she discusses with the students how using long sentences when writing a poem makes it end up sounding and looking more like a story. She suggests and demonstrates taking out some words, thus making phrases and the writing takes on the appearance and sound of a poem (p. 55).