Can art be right or wrong? Can one's inner thoughts, feelings, and imagination be correct or incorrect? I believe the answer is a direct and final no. Kenneth Koch, an author and poet who taught poetry to students in New York City, agrees. Koch, who I frequently refer to, found himself in a similar situation to myself and many of my colleagues in the inner city. He has written several books on his experience teaching diverse learners and explains excellent strategies to use in order to help engage writers out of their shells. However, unlike many other teachers/authors who explain interesting strategies that may work, Koch publishes his students' poetry in his books, and the proof of his success, so to speak, is in the pudding. After reading his students' poems, it is easy to see that his strategies work.
Koch writes, "The teacher shouldn't correct a child's poems either."
To ask questions in order to clarify or encourage the use of new and interesting words is fine. I keep a pile of thesauruses and dictionaries in the front of the room and promote their constant use in class. It even makes an excellent word exchange mini-lesson. Ask students to revise a work of poetry by selecting one poem they have written and circling boring or common words (words that are frequently used and therefore lack uniqueness). For example in a line such as "Roses are red," the word red is a bit lifeless and vague. Ask students to look it up in the thesaurus. Words such as crimson, scarlet, or ruby are unique and rarely used, making the line more interesting. The words that students find can be added to a class word wall where words are exchanged for use in their pieces. I also suggest adding a revision stage to the poetry writing workshops where students can recommend new words to one another. However, never should a student's poem be marked wrong or imprinted with a heartbreaking, red F. If it is found that students continuously use the same monotonous words over and over such as nice, good, etc. simply ban their use in class. Similar to curse words, these are words I and my students have decided to prohibit and students must find a more precise word to suit their purpose in their text. "The child's poem should be all his own," adds Koch; "to change it in order to make it meet one's own standards" is not appropriate.
Although sometimes a necessary evil, try to stay away from assigning poetry writing as homework. There are some students who, once they've found the pleasure in it, do enjoy writing poetry for homework; however, most students despise homework and by associating poetry with the revolting idea of homework, the association becomes another strong barrier to overcome. As Koch found, "Once it had to be done away from school, poetry was part of the detestable category of 'homework,' which cuts one off from the true pleasures in life; whereas in school it was a welcome relief from math, spelling, and other required subjects."
Language Arts becomes a quick favorite even for the most restless students. There's also something to be said for everyone in class being in the same boat and writing together. Koch writes, "No time for self-consciousness or self-doubts," because there is just too much activity.
Students are also there to help and hear one another. That said, there is no reason to discourage poetry writing at home, simply do not force it upon students.
One of the major components of this unit is learning to share poetry in order to hear how sound is used to echo or enhance comprehension. It is urgent to nurture a secure and relaxed classroom environment where students feel safe in sharing their own poetry as well as reading others. It has never been my style to force anyone to read aloud their work; however, I think it's important enough to make it a goal for each student to have an opportunity to share his or her work with the class. While reading model poems, ask each student in class to read 1 or 2 lines in the poems as in a collective reading. This way, anxious students can prepare ahead of time and will not feel singled out. By practicing daily, even apprehensive students will begin to feel comfortable in sharing work. Also, asking other students to read someone else's work out loud can help in hearing the sounds of the poem. Make the open mic available on a consistent basis so that everyone can contribute in sharing.