We have quite a challenge in the 21
century: children today are bombarded with video games, cell phones, and Internet lingo that do not place the accent on quality writing as we once knew it--even with the most basic sentences. Quick and easy is the trend of the day! How do we creatively engage students to connect with descriptive writing, to connect with visual images depicted in written form? How do we help young learners recognize that stories can be created without zeroing in solely on the technical aspects of language? How can we help them grasp that vivid images can be portrayed with the use of words in creative form? Bringing literature to life across genre is, thus, crucial at the elementary level. By sparking interest in written art forms at this formative age, we can help children grasp that the written word is the spoken word penned in creative ways. By rousing that interest--intentionally tapping into children's audio-visual, kinesthetic, and tactile learning styles--we can ultimately set the tone for a love of language among young learners (across cultures, ages, and ability levels) to last a lifetime!
How can we effectively achieve this end? One way to creatively engage children is through the use of the poetic voice. Poetry is a blend of lyrical, rhythmic, kinesthetic motion that draws young learners in. The use of words and thoughts packaged in musical syllables and special structures helps to create a welcoming literary environment for even the most disinterested child. Poetry--whether written in sonnet form or short verses--if masterfully created, can help children dig deep into their innermost selves to understand and connect with a larger, global community. It is for this reason that I created Poetry Alive! Grabbing Young Readers Via the Lyrical Voice.
My curriculum unit, targeted at third graders, is modifiable for students in Grades 4 through 5. The poetic works of Edward Lear ("The Jumblies"), Eloise Greenfield ("Nathaniel's Rap"), Langston Hughes ("Mother to Son"), and Arnold Adoff ("Black Is Brown Is Tan") will each be explored beginning in May, to kick off National Poetry Month. Depending upon the length and intensity of the poem coupled with student engagement, each poetic work will be studied over a one-to-two week period, three times a week at 50 minutes per session. The works of our noted authors herald life encounters and emotions often embraced and experienced by people across cultures. Through the poetic voices of these authors, children across ability levels will be introduced to descriptive writing using such literary devices as simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, and more. Story content as it applies to each poem will be accentuated with a focus on the first or third person character(s) contained therein.
Using mime and role play, coupled with interactive writing activities, Poetry Alive! becomes an interactive teaching tool through which students make meaningful text-to-self-to-world connections. Equally important, students will be given opportunities to "meet" each author. By doing so, they will get a feel for how personal life experiences can serve as a foundation for poetic story creations and writing in general. Students will learn to identify the author's craft and will examine possible explanations behind each author's poetic creation. Equally important, students will work on a collaborative basis, making Poetry Alive! not only a language arts but also a social development experience.
The works of Lear, Hughes, Greenfield, and Adoff span culture, purpose, and rhythmic style, yet they each hold common focal points: They each possess a definitive narrator's voice--some omniscient and others as inside observers. Each poem (see attached bibliographic and on-line resource listing to access these poetic selections in their entirety) contains a repetitive line or stanza that seems to embrace what many might consider strong and/or empowering aspects of the human spirit! Also to be accentuated is the time period in which each poetic work was created. Lear's "The Jumblies" was written in or around 1866. Greenfield's "Nathaniel Talking" was created in 1982. Hughes' "Mother to Son" was written in 1922. Adoff's "Black Is Brown Is Tan" was created in 1973 but is based on social concerns that impacted America during the '60s. Despite the differing time frames in which the works were written, these literary creations and their respective messages are timeless. The rationale behind my choosing this select group of poems is thus intentional: first, they each herald an empowering message. Second, they each use rich, engaging language to bring its characters to life, forcing us to take into consideration the power of the author's voice and craft overall.
Through an up-close examination of each poetic work and its author, young learners will experience that words spark images and being able to visualize the written word helps the reader gain insight into understanding the literary creation overall. To stir the excitement, students will first have the opportunity to listen to and experience each poem. The key is for you, the instructor, to read the poetic work with such fervor and expression that our young audience is captivated by its lyricism. The Q&A process begins thereafter, during which young learners will discuss, debate, evaluate, and affirm their view of the text: "Who is the narrator in each of the poetic pieces? What message does the narrator convey to his or her reading audience? Is the narrator's view that of an omniscient outsider or that of a first-person inside viewer? Are the characters in each poetic work believable? What is the overarching message is each respective poems?..." These and other questions will be explored. At the end of the study, students will be required to demonstrate their understanding through Q & A, mimed reenactments of the work, and/or written responses.
Highlight the Author
To provide students with insight into the depth of poetry and story creation, I deem it necessary for young learners to learn about the writers of select literary creations across genre. By introducing the author, we help children recognize and experience that the author is a real, living being whose life may have in some way influenced his or her writing. Thus, after introducing the poetic works of the four authors noted herein, share a bit about them with your young learners. Be certain to have each of the authors' photos on-hand so the experience will be both visible and tangible (see on-line poetry selections by designated authors and bios in the bibliographic resource section of this unit).
In addition to introducing young learners to the author, before beginning each poetic work, introduce students to key vocabulary words as they relate to the style and content of each poem. To assist in this regard, the poetic selections that follow are prefaced with a listing of key vocabulary words. In this way, young learners will not only build a strong word base, but will also grasp the essence of the poetry selection. Before starting this unit, be sure to generally introduce students to some attribute of poetry and basic words associated with poetic creations as follows:
Comprehension Connections Through "Mime"
Beyond learning about the poems themselves, we want students not only to articulate their understanding of the poem in oral and written form, but to demonstrate their understanding through mime. Thus, "mime" should also be included as a reinforced vocabulary word with each poetic presentation. Emphasizing it will serve as a reminder for young learners to brainstorm on how to act out the poetic work. Thus, as the poem is read, students will be required to listen intently, zeroing on words that convey images and actions.
To help students grasp the mime concept, you will demonstrate that miming the poem is like to playing a game of charades. As students listen to each poem, they should think about the way the character might respond or act when conveying a specific action, message, or ideas within the poem. As a trial exercise, call on students to role play the qualities of anger, sadness, happiness, fear, hate, love, indifference, selfishness, fright, bravery, curiosity, and other character traits. Go a step further, and have them role play verbs and prepositional phrases like sailing across the sea, listening intently to Mom, cuddling with Dad, "rapping" with friends… (My third graders enthusiastically tried their hand at this. The laughter proved contagious as they executed their moves. When you introduce this lesson, you will find that something "clicks," and the children take on a serious stance, really getting into the feel of the literary work and the characters and images contained therein.) The primary goal here is to help students internalize language, bringing words to life and conveying meaningful messages through the art of using facial and body gestures.