While studying poetry in the past, I found that my students are usually divided into two groups: those who love to write poetry but remain within the sing-song confounds of rhyme and rhythm forced on them by years of elementary teachers confined to simply teach basic poetry through nursery rhymes or Dr. Suess (not that there's anything wrong with either) and those who have consistently failed at writing on the Connecticut Mastery Tests as well as other classes and believe themselves to be terrible at writing and therefore refuse to even attempt poetry. They seemingly try to avoid the failure; however, in their minds, they've failed before they've even begun, therefore not avoiding anything. Needless to say, neither group of students view themselves as poets, much less authors.
It is essential to begin such a unit by initially assessing students' skills. Introduce Suniti Namjoshi's quote, "Poetry is the sound of the human animal." Ask students what they think this means. Point out that within each person, there lies a shadow of a creature. Make a list of well known people like performers, athletes, or popular singers (students can make a list of teachers and administrators as well; however, this has the potential to get inappropriate). Ask students to write which animals each of these people seem to strongly connect to. Then ask students to write down which animal they relate to the most.
Use William Blake's "The Tyger" as a model. Discuss the questions Blake asks of the animal in the poem. What questions might they ask of the animals that represent them? What responses might the animals provide? Ask students to describe the animals and their connections to the creature in a poem. They may pretend to be the animal and begin the poems with "I am a…" or they may be speaking with the animal asking it questions as Blake does. Allow students to go wherever the poems take them. In other words, there should be no rules or specific forms for these poems. Use these poems as a starting point to assess students' comfort levels with style devices, sound, word choice, and rhythm. While reading the poems, either personally or during a classroom share, point out natural use of any of these skills.
Meanwhile, I turn again to Koch who found that "Children can be fine musicians when the barriers of meter and rhyme aren't put in their way."
Koch specifically notes that although rhyme is a wonderful tool, "children generally aren't able to use it skillfully enough to make good poetry. It gets in their way."
I found this to be true in my classroom as well. My students had been able to write lines that had rhyme but little depth, and whenever they tried to give the poems depth and meaning, the rhymes impeded their thoughts. Koch writes, "The effort of finding rhymes stops the free flow of their feelings and associations, and poetry gives way to sing-song."
Rather than encumber students with rules or forms, he initiated his poetry lesson with a collaborative poem including one line from each child beginning with "I Wish" followed by individual poems using the same line. They could be real or crazy but they were not to have rhyme. Begin with this assignment, first a collective "I Wish" poem written by the class. Then ask students to write their own "I Wish" poems.
Here Koch makes one point very clear on the subject of language: the choice of words during instruction must be conducive to the students. In other words, the "I Wish" poems he asked of his students would not have been as successful if he had asked for students to begin the line with "I desire." He says, "The various poetry ideas should be presented in words children actually use."
One has to know the students well enough to be able to decide which words will be familiar and comfortable and which words will be construed as "teacher talk." He notes an example from one teacher who asked students to begin every line with "Love is" and found the students hadn't responded wholeheartedly and the assignment flopped.
Very often students are expected to have an idea of these adult concepts; however, they haven't had enough personal experiences to develop original ideas of these concepts. It is essential to put yourself in these innocent shoes no matter how mature the students may come across.
Writing a class poem accomplishes two goals: it takes the pressure off of apprehensive students to turn a blank page into a work of poetic art and makes it a collective and cooperative piece, and it eliminates the distraction of rhyming. To get this activity going, ask students to complete the "I Wish" line, collect them, and while students are considering their own "I Wish" poems, put the lines together in a thoughtful way. When sharing, ask each student to read only one line of the poem while remaining at their seats (each student will likely read someone else's line). Display the poem somewhere in the classroom. Then ask students to share their own "I Wish" poems.
The poems written in Koch's classroom had repetitive sounds which, inconspicuously, gave the poems form and unity without the boundaries of rhyme and meter. In fact, each line gave students a break from reality because they could extend beyond their wildest dreams, and it allowed them to start from scratch at each line, carefully peeling away any hesitation or insecurity. In Koch's words, the lines the students wrote "had a lovely music."
He had stumbled upon an unobtrusive path into a child's natural poetic soul and found a way for the child to bring that to paper. This is what true poetry is all about. In this way, we can help students to see inside their souls and find a way to express that and, in turn, help them become poets.
As I mentioned, Koch's books are rich with poetry, not classical or well-known, but poems from his own students. Often many of these poems do not have titles, so I refer to the first line as the title of the poem similar to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. In Koch's book
Wishes, Lies, and Dreams
, Andrew Barish provides an excellent example of a wish poem "I wish I could find a chest full of money."
This poem is lush with imagery, onomatopoeia, and other styles devices to point out. Erin Harold writes a great example of how repetitive sounds provide structure in "Sometimes I wish I had my own kitten."
These are just two examples; however, the book is filled with many more.
One great classic poem to introduce at this time is "Sea Fever" by John Masefield. This poem discusses a longing desire and simultaneously produces a natural rhythm that echoes the sea. Point out in stanza 1 the rhythm of words and lines as they are each divided and almost mimic the sound of the waves coming in and out:
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.
Note the author's use of repetition throughout the poem. Try to connect the ideas of longing in the poem with the "I Wish" poems as well as the use of repetition. Ask students if the ocean has some form of repetition. Notice the pattern repeats in the poem just like the ocean waves. Point out the sound of the poem. Ask students to hum the sounds of the words rather than the actual words. Ask students if they hear any sounds being repeated. Again, notice how the sounds of the words seem to roll back in each line, almost like the ocean. Be sure the students become aware of the alliteration in the lines such as in line 1: seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky. This continues into line 2: star to steer her by. Try to find some alliteration in their "I Wish" poems. Very often alliteration comes very naturally to children and is organically intertwined in their lines. For instance lines starting with "I wish I was…" are almost inherent in such poems.
It is vital to consistently point out the poetic style devices purposely used in Masefield's famous poem are also found in their own poetry. By making these parallels to classic poets, you will help students begin to see themselves as poets as well.
Another excellent poem to discuss repetition is "At the Zoo" by William Makepeace Thackeray. He begins his first line with "First I saw…" then continues each successive line with "Then I saw…" He too demonstrates, like Masefield, the use of alliteration and also brings in color. It is a great lead into the next practice in poetry writing – "Color" poems.