My friend Lisa is a first-grade school teacher at a local elementary school. That she is excellent at her job I have absolutely no doubt, for I know her to be smart and kind and thoughtful and organized, all of which are excellent traits for a first-grade teacher. Lisa invited me to come to her school to do poetry visits for all three of the first-grade classes. Most of the first-graders there haven't written any poetry before today. Many of them hadn't heard much poetry before today, because poetry, you see, is extra. With the recent penchant for standardized testing and the onset of the illness known as NCLB, teachers have to spend more and more time teaching to the tests, and less time on actual learning. Gone are the days of opening owl pellets (as one second-grade teacher at my kids' elementary school did) or reading poetry. There simply isn't time when all the kids have to be made test-ready. (Trust me when I say that this makes me want to YELL. LOUDLY. But for today, I'm sticking with pointing out the "what is" and moving on.)
How to get kids thinking about writing their very first poems? Well, first, I recited and read some poems. I made the general theme "spring," based on the season. I read about 7 or 8 seasonally-appropriate poems (discussing spring, and trees, and wind, rain and mud). And then, we created a concrete poem of sorts using props I created yesterday: poster board with the outline of a leafless tree on it and green construction-paper leaves (on the back of which I used some 2-sided adhesive).
First we brainstormed words that had to do with the body of the tree (tree, trunk, branch, etc.), and I added those words inside the trunk (or on the branch or roots) in brown marker. And then we brainstormed other tree and spring words, which I wrote on the green leaves in dark green marker, and stuck the leaves on the tree. Each classroom currently has their own poster art, a concrete poem of sorts - a tree composed of words. A tree of knowledge, even, if you want to get all metaphorical/metaphysical.
And then each child took pencil and paper, wrote their names and today's date at the top, and began writing a poem, using some of the words on the tree poster. Some kids knew precisely what they were about. One boy wrote about how "blossoms blow in the breeze." Another boy wrote about spring as if it were a person "Spring is my friend. I wish I could be with spring all day." One girl wrote about birds - in the middle of what was a fairly verbose first draft was this killer line: "fly. fly like no bird has ever flown." Some kids managed to rhyme; most didn't try. Some ended up with stories or essays instead of poems, but they all applied a tremendous amount of effort to their work. (And it was real work for them, since some of them are still working hard to properly form their letters, let alone figure out spellings and the logic of grammar.)
The teachers all thoroughly enjoyed the poster exercise. The kids did, too. Every single kid participated more than once during the classes, even the ones who were visibly reluctant to be drawn in in the first place. Which brings me back to a point I've made before, but which cannot be made too often: Poetry is powerful magic. It has the ability to reach the kids who aren't always good at listening. Not because it's short, either, but because of its compressed nature - how the very best words are what gets used in the best poems. How the rhythms and the music of the poems - even the ones that don't rhyme - pull you into the poem and get you involved. How concrete words can be used in new and surprising ways (as when Janet S. Wong concludes her poem "Tree" from Twist: Yoga Poems with this description:
At the tip of each branch
there is an eye.
First graders understood that she didn't mean the tree had eyeballs. And most of them were able to work out that some leaves are shaped like eyes. It was exciting for them, just as they were all excited when I read Christina Rossetti's "Who Has Seen the Wind?" because they've all heard it before (it's in an oversized book that they all use in their classrooms). And their excitement glowed in their faces as they reached for pencils and paper with very wide lines and started to write.