My basic attitude towards volunteering in my children’s schools can be summed up in three words.
Less is more.
Perhaps it is considered a bit selfish that I routinely ignore sign-up requests for volunteer jobs, like classroom work folder organizer, event flyer maker, or glue gun enthusiast. As a mom of three rambunctious boys, I have absolutely no desire to spend the time that they are in school meandering my way through rote–albeit teacher helpful–jobs. My rule–perhaps a bit non-altruistically–is that I agree to do the things at their schools that interest ME. So, when an Inspirational Museum was being organized at my youngest son’s school, and the call went out for a writer in residence to organize a poetry slam, I readily offered my services. I have been teaching creative writing, in one capacity or another, to children and adults for years, and I wholeheartedly believe that teaching writing in a meaningful and fun environment is one thing at least that I am able to do well. Would I be willing, I was asked, to teach the entire second and third grades to write poetry that they would then perform at an evening “slam” as part of the school’s yearly Inspirational (and interactive) Museum? I must admit I briefly paused when considering that the nine classes included in the request meant many, many more than several hours of my somewhat selfishly hoarded time. But I was being asked to participate in something about which I couldn’t feel more passionate–and the task did fall within the parameters of my volunteering rule–so I agreed.
TEACHING KIDS ABOUT POETRY: CAN I REACH “NEW HEIGHTS”?
From the outset, I realized the importance of creating a lesson plan that would both inspire and delight. I also knew I had to move the kids beyond some of their misconceptions about poetry, such as the necessity of rhyming. Most of the classes I would be working with had completed a poetry unit or two, but these had routinely been taught by teachers who had more experience with reading and math than the nuances of poetry writing. Additionally, I wanted to introduce a simple concept with which the kids could run wild! Consistency was a final consideration, as I wanted the slam to be somewhat easy to interpret for the less poetry-oriented members of the audience. The theme of the Inspirational Museum – “Soaring to New Heights” – lent itself rather nicely to a poetic interpretation, so I felt pretty confident that a carefully chosen and executed lesson would yield a desired result.
Hmmm…which lesson plan would satisfy all of my requirements? As I had so often done in the past, I looked over my notebook full of notes that had been inspired by Kenneth Koch’s 1970 seminal work on teaching children to write poetry, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams. AND then it hit me, quick as a flash of light and sudden as a rainbow in a storm: SIMILES!
THE PLAN: POETRY IN ACTION
After establishing the classroom mood as one of excitement and experimentation, I introduce similes as comparisons using “like” or “as,” and encourage the kids to use unexpected non-cliché language while brainstorming their own comparisons. Using unlikely objects and sounds – a piece of chalk, a garbage can, the view outside the window, a book slammed shut, a whisper as compared to a scream – I help to facilitate this process. I then read examples from past workshops to establish the wide open use of language for this exercise: “Wooden desks are like woodchucks” and “I am smart as a butterfly” are two examples. I have compiled a good list of similes, and I generally hand them out and have the children take turns reading and reacting to them. This both gets their creative juices flowing and stems their inhibitions, so that they feel more inclined to take linguistic risks.
Next, I ask the students why they think a writer would use similes in his/her writing. As a group, we discuss how some of the best writing enables a reader to see something—even something everyday or ordinary—in a new and perhaps surprising way. To illustrate this point, I hand out Mary Oliver’s lovely and vivid poem, The Snakes. After having two children read the poem aloud, we locate the similes that Oliver uses to describe the snakes as they “hurr(ied) through the woods.” “Two black whips” is certainly more obvious than “love affair,” and the students really enjoy thinking about how the description moves from the concrete to that which is less tangible.
Additionally, I read a couple of pages from the gorgeous Caldecott medal-winning book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (illustrated by John Schoenherr). Not only is the story’s text written in stanzas, but the language used is at once beautiful and accessible. I like for the class to see that similes are used by many writers writing in a variety of genres, that figurative language—when used well—can bring all sorts of writing to life, that their use is not just reserved for the rarified world of “Poetry!” The children are treated to:
Owl Moon; illus. John Schoenherr
Then the owl
pumped its great wings
and lifted off the branch
like a shadow
If there is time, especially for very young or very reluctant writers, the book, Quick as a Cricket by Audrey Wood is a good and focused introduction to similes. Each page’s text is a single simile, describing the young child about whom this book is written (and what young child—or adult for that matter—doesn’t enjoy writing about him/herself), and the illustrations are both bright and engaging.
Quick As a Cricket by Audrey Wood. Illus. Don Wood
Weather permitting, I then take the students outside to complete their actual writing, either a series of similes about one thing or a collection of similes describing what they see and hear around them. I have always found the natural world conducive to thinking and writing and hope that this will be true for the second and third graders as well. Also, the excitement of conducting class outside is generally a novel one, and—after establishing some ground rules—I have found that a change of scenery produces original and unique ideas. In fact, in class after class, the students were so excited with their creative comparison thinking, that I spent the entire 20 minutes allotted for the writing going from one to another, as they excitedly read their new way of perceiving their familiar surroundings. “The sky is like water;” “flowers are as bright as words;” and “the spider is as still as a silent tree,” are just a few of the wonderful examples they shared.
Finally, I end the lesson back in the classroom, allowing those who want to to share their poems with their classmates. I am pleased to say that almost every lesson I taught in preparation for the poetry slam went beyond the scheduled time, because the now young writers’ enthusiasm proved greater than the need to adhere to the class schedule—a definite indicator of success!
Over the next couple of weeks, the second and third grade writers will revise and “publish” their simile poems, so they are performance ready for the Inspirational Museum’s first ever poetry slam.
STAGING A SLAM
So many students opted to read their work, that the audience was informed that the performance would not be a short one. Wanting to keep the focus on the poets and their work, the slam organizers and myself decided to go minimalist with costumes and stage design. Also, we tried to be cognizant of the evening’s overarching theme: “Soaring to New Heights.” Because many of the poems focused on the natural world (a product no doubt of our writing outdoors), a blue sky backdrop seemed appropriate. The children dressed in earth/nature tones, such as green, yellow, and red, suggesting that standing on stage each was representative of the earth meeting the sky; their reading would then suggest a “soaring” of sorts, an elevation…an inspiration.
We had two microphones set up on the stage, and the poets filed in, one line from the left and one from the right, one after another they stepped up to the microphone and–proudly, confidently, enthusiastically– read.
Leanne Tankel studied poetry writing as a UC Berkeley undergraduate and was fortunate enough to work with the inimitable Thom Gunn. She earned her M.A. in Creative Writing at Boston University, where she held a teaching fellowship. Currently, she is writing prose, and her manuscript, Broken Hallelujah: notes from a marriage (originally titled The Adulterer’s Notebook), was a 2011 short-list finalist for the Santa Fe Literary Awards program. Leanne lives with her husband, three sons, and two pugs in Northern Virginia.