By: Suzanne St. John
Ugh! The dreaded poetry writing unit. I’m not sure I'm a poet myself, so it's hard to introduce poetry in a manner that will be fun, learning-filled and inspiring. This year, though, the introduction of two new mentor texts changed the way I taught and will teach poetry in the future.
The day I started poetry writing, the children were skeptical and somewhat disinterested. My new enthusiasm changed that notion quickly. We took a look at different types of poems each day. We read fun, silly poems that allowed the children to express the funny, creative side of writing that only needed a few words (maybe a potty word or two). Acrostics were a great place to start. Next, we moved into the tapping and blending experience of haiku poetry. We learned how to write cinquain poems, good news/bad news poems, and other fun, quick poem writing experiences. The best part was sharing. My students would laugh while their peers read aloud silly poems, giggling and squealing with delight. At once, they began to understand the use of language to affect the reader’s emotion, so we were ready for a more in-depth poetry experience.
In Poetry: Powerful Thoughts in Tiny Packages, book seven of Lucy Calkins' and Stephanie Parsons' Units of Study for Primary Writing: A Yearlong Curriculum, she explains an interesting procedure for teaching "seeing with poets’eyes." As instructed in the text, I placed three or four items on each table where the students sit. I then asked them to describe the items, not an exact description, but through the eyes of a poet. How does it make you feel? What does it remind you of? What do you think it feels like? Because students could only observe the objects, they had to come up with similes and metaphors to describe their items. It was challenging at first, but as I walked around and found good examples, I would share them out so students having difficulty would understand what it meant to "see with poets’ eyes." One student described a pink feather as, "A piece of the rainbow that fluttered off in the wind," another described a green holiday jingle bell as, "A shiny gumdrop, plump and ready to eat." This was a wonderful start to seeing like a poet! In addition to sharing student work, there are excellent examples provided in Calkins' & Parsons' first chapter. This also allowed students to consider items they were looking at from a fresh perspective.
Another important mentor text was Daniel Finds a Poem by Micha Archer. This book is beautifully written and children easily relate to the boy, Daniel. Daniel speaks to different animals, insects, and items in nature to identify "what poetry is." We read this book several times. Each time we identified different things that could be considered poetry. As we started writing our own nature poems, I did get some resistance as this task was not quite as easy as silly poem writing. I referred back to the lesson we shared on "seeing with poets' eyes" and using one’s senses to describe things we find in nature through a poem. Many of the poems started something like, "I like the splattering sound of rain on the window." This is nice, but five lines of, "I like, I like," felt less than poetic. The revelation was to take the "I like" portion off the poem and help the child see the beautiful line within the "I like" statement. The verses in the poem moved into lines that now read, "The splattering sound of rain on the window." This was the beginning of some beautifully written poems.
After working on nature poems for several days, we finally published an anthology of first grade nature poems.This became a typed and illustrated book of student poetry that was reflective, introspective, and written through the "eyes of a poet." It is one of the most rewarding pieces I have led my students to create. In addition to their beautifully written work, the children simply refused to quit writing poetry and insisted we continue to work on it, "At least another week." I am thrilled that these children have learned to love writing expressively, creatively, and poetically. I am grateful to Lucy Calkins and Stephanie Parsons for their guidance in all things writing. I am equally thankful to Micha Archer, author of Daniel Finds a Poem, for the beautifully written mentor text that took us on a reading and writing journey. I am thankful for Sarah Svarda, my school librarian, for passing along an incredible book to use as a tool to inspire remarkable writing.
About the Author:
Suzanne St. John is an early childhood educator. She is passionate about teaching writing and developing a love of reading and writing in her students. She currently teaches 1st grade in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.