Friday, April 11, 2014

Poetry Isn't Just About Love and Flowers

Happy National Poetry Month! I want to step aside for a moment from our typical discussion of middle grade novels and talk about middle grade kids and their experiences with poetry.
It's interesting to see that at a very early age, kids already form biases about poetry. In my teaching days, when I'd start my poetry unit each year, kids would invariably say all poems were about "love and flowers." It didn't matter where I was teaching or what grade. It didn't matter how immersed kids had been in Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky and the like. I got these answers every time.
A Light in the Attic Special Edition  The New Kid on the Block
Part of my goal in presenting poetry to upper elementary and middle school kids was for them to see poetry is much broader than they'd previously thought.* I shared poems everyday on varied subjects, served as "museum director" in a classroom-turned poetry gallery, assigned secret poetry pals, pounded out the meter of poems we chanted as a class, sang Emily Dickinson stanzas to the tune of Gilligan's Island (it works!), and ended the unit with a coffeehouse, where kids presented their memorized poems and filled up on sugary coffee and cookies.
Before we got very far, I made the point to share a few things with my kids:
Poetry should be seen and heard.
You can understand poetry by listening. You can admire its interesting look on the page, but I think you miss out if you don't blend the visual and aural together. Poetry is pleasing to the ear (word choice, rhythm, repetition, rhyme) but is also pleasing to the eye. A poet uses structure to communicate (line breaks, for example) just as language is used.
Poetry packs a punch. 
Each word counts and better deliver.
Poetry creates mental images.
Words build pictures. Readers must approach with their eyes and minds open. Often readers will be given a fresh way to see the familiar.
Poetry speaks to the emotions.
This fits with the "love and flowers" idea my students were initially sold on. But poetry is so much bigger than one emotion and one topic. A poem is really a request for the reader to respond.
*This is what Sharon Creech tackles so beautifully in her verse novel, LOVE THAT DOG.

What is your gut reaction when someone brings up poetry? Is your response something that formed in your early years?


  1. I don't remember being introduced to poetry until at least middle school.

    After that, I had two stages as a young man:

    1) In High School, I loved the English classics like Coleridge, Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and so on, then ...

    2) I got over poetry, and thought I was too cool for it, until ...

    I discovered Slam Poetry. Then I was hooked ever since.

    One of my favorite poets (who is not always safe for MG, so don't Google him), Shane Koyczan, wrote and performs one of the most beautiful and MG appropriate poems I have ever heard.

    To This Day

    1. Yes! To This Day is incredible. I subscribe to Shane's newsletter, too. So glad you found your way back.

  2. Poetry was my first attempt at creative writing. I had a couple of poems published in a student literary journal in college. And, like Matt, the classics were what inspired me--in my case to give writing poetry a try. My MG novel has some poetry in it--song lyrics that the main character writes.

    Last year, when I taught fifth grade I used some exercises from "How to Write Poetry (Tips and Writing Exercises for fun and serious poems) by Paul B. Janeczko and my students really had a great time giving poetry a try.

    1. Paul B. Janeczko is a hero of mine. My adolescent lit professor introduced his books to me, and I used his books and exercises in my classroom. Last year I reached out to him, asking if he might write a post for my blog for National Poetry Month. He did! And because he's a class act, he asked if we might exchange books. I sent him a May B., and he sent me two of his anthologies. I was truly honored.

  3. Yes! I always wanted to read poetry but don't remember ever studying it in school. Instead I would read about characters who loved poetry and try and dive in, but In many ways it still feels daunting. I love your idea of having your students present their own coffeehouse!

    1. "I would read about characters who loved poetry and try and dive in."

      I love this, Marissa!

  4. I always enjoyed reading it, but when it came up as a writing task, ugggh. Defiantly not one of my strong suits, but I'm glad it's still being encoraged to read in our school. I think the favorite has been Guyku by Bob Raczka and Peter Reynolds.

  5. I feel the same way. Sharon Creech's Love that Dog is used at my school as part of the poetry unit. Wish kids got even more exposure in school.


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