Nurturing the Poetic Souls of Our Students: Moving from Reading to Writing Poetry

by Toni Czekanski, Intermediate/Middle Trainer

In our last blog entry we talked about reading and performing poetry, spending quality time exploring poetry anthologies, noticing what kinds of poems we like, and what kinds of poems there are in the world.  If you have been immersing your students in poetry for a few weeks now, it’s time to move on and begin to name what you have been noticing.  So let’s begin!

By now you might be having a regular time for poetry workshop in your classroom…once a week, replacing either reading or writing workshop.  Begin your poetry workshop by reading a poem or two aloud or talking about what poets do as writers (they notice things about their world).  Then students take time to read poems, select those that interest them, and copy them into their personal poetry anthologies.  About ten minutes before poetry workshop ends, gather students on the rug or meeting area, and ask them to bring their anthologies with them to share time.  Instead of asking students to read their poems, ask them what they have been noticing about the poems they have been reading and copying.  “To notice – to become aware of – the possible things to observe about the literate world, about oneself, and about others can open conversations among students who are noticing different things”  (Johnston, 2004, p. 13).

In the beginning, these noticings might sound something like:  some poems rhyme and some don’t; my poem doesn’t have any punctuation; this poet uses words that start with the same sounds; some poems are about nature, and some are about feelings; this poem is about a giraffe, and it is shaped like a giraffe.  Your job during this share time is to make a chart of all of the things that the students notice.  If you would like to add one or two noticings of your own, go right ahead…we want this list to be as inclusive as possible…but we don’t have to make the whole list in one day. We will add to this list over the next few workshops.  As students work at “further noticings,” they will become more specific and detailed in their descriptions, and the list will become a resource for you and them to use as they begin writing their own poems.

Once we have begun the list, we can decide where we would like to focus our next steps.  Like any kind of writing, this involves going through the writing process…and it starts in the writer’s notebook.   A great place to begin is to narrow our noticings to “what do poets write about?” Make a list on chart paper of the topics students are finding as they read poetry.  Once you generate this list of noticings together, they can use their writer’s notebooks to begin their own lists of “things that would inspire my poems.”  This might be narrowed to:  what I care most about; what I love about nature; things I notice in the world around me; what disturbs me; people I love; etc.

As they begin this work, the next step might be to choose one thing from a list and begin to jot down some of their thinking about that topic.  Students could write three word phrases that come to mind when they think of, say, their cousin, Tom:  bright shining smile; warm, caring heart; laughter like sunshine.  Try this on your own (never ask students to do something you have not tried yourself!).  Use your own writer’s notebook to make lists, choose from those lists, and expand your thinking about a topic in several ways.

Once you and the students have done this, the next step is to think about one or two of the poems they have found and copied into their anthologies.  What do they like about these poems?  How are they written?  Do they think they could try to write a poem about cousin Tom that resembles the one Ralph Fletcher wrote about his cousin, Linda, in Precious Linda, published in Relatively Speaking:  Poems About Family (p. 22):  “mud-brown eyes, fat, marshmallow cheeks, string-bean hair.”  Or perhaps write like Valerie Worth, in all the small poems and fourteen more, where she describes a soap bubble (p. 85):  “rises, shivering, heavy; a planet revolving; hollow and clear.”  Might our students notice how these writers craft phrases, borrow this technique, make it their own?

Georgia Heard, in her instructive text, Awakening the Heart:  Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School, says:  “A true understanding of poetry cannot emerge from the depths of students’ souls and hearts if we begin with the labels and definitions of poetic terms” ( p. 63).  If we give our students time to read, notice, and name what they are noticing, they are bound to come to a deeper understanding of what poetry is, and how they might craft it.  So for the next couple of weeks, expand your students’ understandings by documenting for them what they are noticing.  Make charts that contain lists of all they have seen. Then choose from that list, and  encourage them to try out some of the techniques on their own…begin their journeys into the world of writing poetry.

Resources:

Fletcher, R.  (1999).  Relatively speaking:  Poems About Family.  New York:  Orchard Books.

Heard, G. (1999).  Awakening the Heart:  Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Johnston, P. (2004).  Choice Words:  How Our Language affects Children’s Learning.  Portland, ME:  Stenhouse.

Worth, V. (1994)  all the small poems and fourteen more.  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

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