Saturday, March 27, 2010

Children and Poetry

My normal gig is teaching gifted students, which I absolutely love. I will not go so far as to say my job is easy; teaching gifted students comes with its own challenges. Gifted children suffer from perfectionism, anxiety and depression at a higher rate and often become lazy when the realize they can work half as much and still excel beyond their peers. They also deal with being different from a young age, since gifted students realize early on that they are not like other kids their age. But there are many challenges I do not face. For example, my students can work in small groups or independently, I explain something once and they grasp the concept, the read above grade level, and are almost always motivated to learn something new. However, I did want to gain experience teaching all students, especially the ones that might struggle in some areas.

A few weeks ago I began teaching a creative writing club at the school where I teach. This is part of the after-school program and is open to all students. I decided to make my club for grades 5-8 and also use it toward my field experience credit needed for my creative writing teaching certificate as part of my MFA at Chatham. I have assistance from two other grad student volenteers and another who is also getting field experience credit. We met for at least a month beforehand to gather materials, plan out the scope and sequence of our curriculum, organize who would lead each session and share resources. We would continue these meetings to discuss student work and reflect on that week's lesson.

Our original plan was to have five weeks of fiction writing and five of poetry. Then the program lost a week due to scheduling conflicts at the school, so we cut a week from the poetry. The first class was tough. The students were much different than my own; rowdy, boisterous and dramatic. Some did not take direction very well. A majority though, were good kids who just loved to write. We began with a lesson on plot structure. Most were engaged. Some, however, we harder to motivate.

One student in particular, we'll call her Samantha, was really difficult to work with, especially the second week. The week prior she only would write fiction if she could coauthor a story with her friend. I acquiesced in order to keep this student involved. The second week her friend was absent and of the grad student volunteers was having a heck of a time getting Samantha motivated to discuss her story's characters. I decided to intervene, since I knew Samantha was more interested in writing poetry. In fact, the literacy coach, who also runs the after school programs, told me this student was particularly gifted in poetry writing. I asked Samantha if I could see her poems and she handed me a notebook filled with pages of poetry. While a lot of it was what you would expect from an 11 year-old writer, all of the poems had an honest quality. Dark even. It was clear this child wrote poetry to express herself and to work through her feelings on a deep level. She was experiencing severe loneliness, which I think a lot of children feel but do not know how to name it. Samantha named it with rain, solitude, darkness; one poem even made this lovely leap at the end describing how the world turned into a "golden cello." This student was a poet. I sat with her during the rest of the meeting and we even wrote a poem together about the rain. She hugged me when she left.

After having a break through with a difficult student, the group decided to simultaneously teacher poetry and fiction. I would begin by offering a poetry activity to any of the students. During my conversation with Samantha, I asked her if she ever goes back and revises her poems. She said she never does because she believes them to be perfect the first time they come out. Allen Ginsberg's quote came to mind; "First thought, best thought." I immediately decided to not focus on revision or editing, but rather focus on exposing students to reading the work of famous poets and giving them the chance to write their own poems.

I really do not like most of the children's poetry they teach in school. It is overly simple, cliched, naive, sweet and rhymey to the point of nausea. It's no wonder kids don't like reading poetry. This kind of poetry assumes that children do not have the capacity to examine real poetry or the ability to relate to it. My opinion was, if the teacher could make the poem relatable, then the students would be on board. Good thing Kenneth Koch agrees with me.

In his book, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, Koch outlines his experiences with teaching adult poetry to public school children in grades first through sixth. He includes his process of approaching a poem from the angle of teaching it to children. He insists upon finding the poems emotional drama and making that feeling meaningful to the students. In his book he teaches Shakespeare, Whitman, Blake, William Carlos Williams and Federico Garcia Lorca. He also includes works from his students over the years, which are - in short - amazing. I strongly recommend this book to folks who want to teach children about reading and writing poetry.

So I planned a lesson for Tuesday. Along with a fun writing game using similes and metaphors, I will teach the students "This is Just to Say" by Williams. Because, really, who hasn't experienced apologizing for something they were secretly still glad that did? I can't wait to see what the students come up with. Hopefully I'll be able to copy a few and post them here.
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