teaching Friends' Central School first graders modern poetry

spring 1999
Al Filreis

I knew it could be done, having read Kenneth Koch's remarkably helpful Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? - Teaching Great Poetry to Children (1973; reprinted in 1990, a Vintage paperback , $12). Koch used a system of models, feeling strongly that it's better to teach kids poetry in which, while the words might be beyond them, the structure of pattern of the language was familiar, accessible.

Koch's book is full of examples like this: take William Carlos Williams's short, precise poem, "Between Walls"--which depicts some broken green glass lying in a lot between urban buildings--and, after discussing the poem, ask the children to write a poem "about something that is supposed to be ugly, but which you really secretly think is beautiful, as Williams thinks the broken glass shining in the sun is beautiful." I didn't use this exercise, but it gives you a sense of what Koch offers.

I spent a very short amount of time with two classes, "1a" and "1b," taught wonderfully by Elizabeth McMillan and Heather Hudgins (1a) and Chris Ramsay and Mary Ann Sheldon (1b). The children were fabulously receptive--rowdy at times, with hands shooting up everywhere at once, but collectively very creative. We didn't so much try to make whole poems, but to talk together as a group about what the poetic possibilities were in several given situations.

Both classes were already well along in the process of writing--writing freely, writing creatively, telling short personal stories, working on extending vocabularies, etc. My hope was to introduce two basic concepts particularly relevant to modern poetry:

  1. that poetic language says things by arranging words in patterns
  2. that poetic language often uses the sounds of words to mean what it means ("beyond" the dictionary definition is the sound of the word itself)

I took up these points each in a 30-minute session for each group.

First I asked the students to accept a rigid pattern, modeled on:

Dog, where did you get that bark?
Dragon, where do you get that flame?
Kitten, where did you get that meow?
Rose, where did you get that red?
Bird, where did you get those wings?
(This was a poem one of Koch's students had written in response to William Blakes' "The Tyger.") I then asked the students to stick to a single topic or scene. One was the classroom. Here is what 1b wrote together:
The Classroom

Kimono, where did you get those pictures and colors?
Clock, where did you get that tic-tock?
Cherry blossom, where did you get that pink?
Word wall, where did you get those words?
Tree, where did you get that bark?
Letter, where did you get that sound?
Book, where did you get that color?
Snack, where did you get that taste?

And here is what 1a wrote:

The Classroom

Counting chart, where did you get those numbers?
Globe, where did you get those countries?
Chalkboard, where did you get that green?
Lego, where did you get those bumps?
Cubby, where did you get those clothes and backpack?
Teacher, where did you get so smart?

I asked if we could create a "poem" based on the same pattern, limiting ourselves to thinking about our families. 1a produced this:


Grampa Milt, where did you get all that reading in your head?
Aunt Eileen, where did you get all that funness.
Uncle Tommy, where did you get so fun?
Pop-pop Freddy, where did you get that cancer?
Uncle Wayne, where did you get so cool?
Grandpa Sam, where did you get so old?
Grandma,  where did you get so strict?
Mom, where did you get so nice?

After some fun discussion about how we had just identified objects and people with certain really important ("essential") qualities--and in doing so had asked some hard ("fundamental") questions, questions difficult to answer and probably not meant to be answered, just to be asked--we moved on.

I asked the students to think about writing words that described a simple object but which described the object by some visual likeness. I pulled out of my "magic poetry bag" a pineapple, and read lines from Wallace Stevens's "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together"--and they loved Stevens's visual analogies. One was: "This is how yesterday's volcano looks." Another was: "A owl sits humped. It has a hundred eyes." They got it. I then pulled out of the bag a hammer. This was what 1a wrote collaboratively "about" the hammer:

The Hammer

A little kid's play horse,
A miniature golf club,
A duck,
A goat,
A headlight of a car,
A skinny pig,
A monkey with long ears,
A sabre-toothed tiger that is hungry.

I think we all agreed that a hammer could be thought with some imagination to resemble a "monkey with long ears" if you thought hard enough about it!

1b produced this fun poem:

The Hammer		

A wrecking ball hitting a building
A rabbit with a very stretchy body
A woodpecker pecking at a tree
A bowling ball pin got knocked over.
A person with hair split in two
A duck swimming
A go-go with a long body
A baseball hat with two weird part on it
An L or a T.

When I pulled out a corkscrew, the childrens' eyes lit up. And both classes went to town:

The Corkscrew

A person from Outer Space without legs.
A person on a pogo stick.
A person with one leg.
A very tall penguin which is metal.
A duck in the pond flapping its wings.
A robot person doing jumping jacks.
A robot with a long neck.
A robot bouncing.
A robot soldier.

As you see, I didn't discourage the repetition. And 1b even went in for some rhyming:

The Corkscrew

An angel flying in the sky,
A person waving goodbye,
A penguin flapping his wings,
A robot flapping his wings trying to fly,
A ship flying in the sky over the sea
A person waving at me.

After the first session, I was fairly proud of the kids for having come up with ideas such as that a corkscrew can, in poetry, be said to be "a person waving at me."

A few weeks later I reappeared. Now I defined poetry as language that often used words as pure sounds. Wasn't it better for a sleepy child to hear words like "Sleep, sleep, lullaby, drift sweetly into dreamy dreamy sleep"--with all the soft sounds in the words--than to hear words with hard g's, t's, k's, etc.? They meant the same thing but the sounds made them different. I said there were several kinds of "sounds that mean" in poetry. One was obviously rhyme, and we began with that.

I gave the students lines to rhyme (and asked them to try to repeat the meter, too). I gave 1a the line:

My bird forget to fly
and they offered:
Then his head got stuck in a pie.
1b offered:
And so he started to cry.
I gave them the line:
Willie, Willie, where'd you go?
and 1b gave me:
He went around the Merry Go. 
(oh, I liked the playfulness in that). And 1a gave me, among other good lines:
I went to the mountains to play in the snow.
I gave them:
The best things in life are free,
and 1b gave me:
Like pizza and me!
We then talked about how effective it can be to repeat a word three or even four times--for emphasis. It was one thing, I suggested, that say:
Last night I was tired, and then went down into sleep.
and quite another to say:
Last night I was tired, and went down, down, down into sleep.
One student, when asked, said that "down, down, down" made it sound like falling a sleep happened slowly, which of course it does--and which one "down" doesn't quite convey. Nice. I also suggested that if you were really hungry you might say:
I looked at the spaghetti and meatballs, 
and at the fresh bread, and then
I ate, and ate, and ate.
To say merely that "I ate" might not convey as well how much you enjoyed it, how much the process of eating such a tasty meal meant to you. Etc. They got it, and offered some wonderful examples of what might be called purely rhetorical repetition. Here are some of their wonderful suggestions:

I am a very nice, nice, nice girl

I went to my backyard, and I dug and I dug and I dug.

We decided that in that context "dug" itself was a sound-word. The line gave the sense of digging. And more:
I put my cat on my lap
And she meowed, and meowed and meowed.

I pulled out my biscuit and gave it to Otie, And she barked and barked and barked.

We then talked about pure sound words. Examples: "buzz," "rumble," "murmur," "whisper." After we "made rain" by making noises with our bodies (rubbing hands, snapping fingers, tapping tables, stamping feet, etc.) we decided to try to make a volcano erupt by using not noises but actual words--sound-words.

1a actually came up with "explosion" as a sound-word, which I hadn't thought of--but it's true. That word stood at the middle of 1a's volcano poem. It went:

lava		[yes, "lava" sounds like what it is!]
mist		[that's the lava hitting the sea--with all 
			those sssss's]
1b came up with this:
ooze		[we just loved this sound-word!]
"Yikes!"	[what people say when getting out of
			the way of lava]
The sessions were a bit volcanic themselves, at times. I leave it to the teachers to teach first grade (and honor them for doing so)! But I certainly enjoyed dipping my toe, as it were, in the lava.

Later this spring I'll be back to help "host" a poetry celebration of some kind. April is poetry month.