I recently heard Katie Wood Ray at the Ohio Reading Recovery Conference. She told us that kids need to read a hundred poems before they start to write poetry. Her point is that kids need models – mentor authors and mentor texts. She wants kids to apprentice themselves under a poet, notice what that poet does, and “try it on” for a while. In a few video clips, she shared how the student brought a mentor text to the 1:1 conference and how she supported the child in noticing what the poet did. She helped the child envision how his/her own poem could look and sound. I, too, believe in immersing kids in great poetry books to make discoveries about what poets do. I’ve learned so much from teachers like K. W. Ray, Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher, Regie Routman, and Lucy Calkins. All of them have acted as mentors to me — so that I can improve as a teacher of poetry.
No matter what grade I am teaching, I want the students to get the message that we can all write poems, that poems can be about anything, and that poets choose their words carefully, reading their poems over and over to make sure they sound the way they want. One of the easiest ways to get them started is to show poems written by other students, as Regie Routman does in her series of books on poetry from Scholastic. Regie gives us many poems written by students (both very able students and ones who struggle with writing). I began with several of Routman’s before I collected an assortment of my own. We discuss the whole poem, the title and topic, the shape or rhythm, the word choice, the expression of feeling – whatever the students notice. By reading and discussing several, my students can’t help but think, “Hey, if those kids can do it, so can I!”
I’ve also used many of Lucy Calkins’ lessons (from her Units of Study Poetry book, K-2) on various ideas to get kids writing poetry.
* Write about what matters to you (pages 32-38)
* Start with a strong feeling (pages 81-87)
* Poets write with fragments or phrases (pages 115-123)
* Poets sometimes surprise us and compare things in interesting ways (pages 89-102)
Poets often write about vivid memories. I remember Georgia Heard writing about that in one of her early books. Georgia suggested getting the kids to 1) start with a strong feeling, 2) then connect that feeling to a memory, 3) now write about the memory. I always think it’s important for teachers to actually do what they are asking students to do, so I model this in front of the students before sending them off to try it.
I tend to stay away from the formula poems, like acrostics, diamontes, cinquains, and so on. Kids will write more (and better poems) when not constrained by rhyme or a formula. Free verse takes a lot of the weight off their shoulders. I’ll share what I learned from R. Fletcher in the next post. If you have any thoughts on how you get your students writing poetry, please feel free to comment.