Saturday, November 5, 2011

Delicate Dancing: Reflections on Teaching Poetry to Children

In the category of "spending time reflecting on how lucky I am, despite continued levels of high stress" I've been pondering my classes and thus falling more in love with teaching poetry.

It began when I went to Tam Valley Elementary to observe veteran poet-teacher Karen Benke teach a lesson on poetry writing for California Poets in the Schools. I had the opportunity step back and watch her drape this magical poetic enchantment over the classroom with her general demeanor, metaphorical explanations of writing, and the infusion of poetry into every moment of her hour of class time. Her teaching was an elegant dance, the kind of gentle balancing that comes with years of practice and reflection, and a deep understanding of her students' developmental needs and abilities. I am interviewing Karen about her teaching and depth of experience for the blog and I can't wait to share it with you.

Since I'm super fond of lists these days, I'm sharing what has happened and what I've learned so far over the first six weeks of teaching poetry translation to fourth and fifth grade students in San Francisco.

1. As a poetry teacher, your role is different than the regular classroom teacher. 

After teaching gifted education for two years, I gained solid teaching experience. I developed a persona of "loving authority" with my students, but there was definitely more authority upfront. I have a loud voice, and that was an important factor in controlling my newest classes here in San Francisco. However, after a few weeks, I was have trouble figuring out why my students were still so concerned with the rules of each assignment, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to express themselves. I realized that I had somehow drained the fun from my classes because a few problem students were forcing me to be more strict than the poetry teacher should. That's where this teaching role differs from the regular classroom, because while the classroom teacher sees them daily, all day, and has time to set expectations, I do not. My persona needed to reflect that while these students were in school, this class was different. In poetry class, we do a different kind of writing. Yes, we revise like they do in their regular classroom, but the tools are different. Also, I can use those very tools to set the tone. Karen is great with this by using explanations like, "Now we have to go deep underwater and be silent to really find our poems" or "Sometimes we find poems behind our knees!" Children understand this kind of thinking, because it is how they think, if you can manage to tap into it.

2. Structure and discipline are essential to creating a safe space for poetic expression.

The tone you want to strike in your classroom must still include structure. This informs each decision you make: seating arrangements, group work, scaffolding, and the rules you give your students when the write original poems. It takes a lot of support to let students "write anything." They want rules. This includes rules about expected behavior. I teach two classes twice a week, fourth and fifth. The older students took this class last year and came to me somewhat disillusioned. While I had a standard for "three strikes and you're out" for misbehavior, I wasn't following through with it. It was growing worse each week with my fifth graders, so finally, after some students were rudely yelling while I began the lesson, I told them they'd lost their "three strikes" privileged and were down to one. If they misbehaved today, they were out. Within five minutes I sent two students back to class and after another five minutes, I sent two more. The remaining kids knew I meant business and the rest of the class went smoothly, for the most part. The big change came the next day when the kids I removed were on their best behavior and I had so many chances to give them positive feedback. They wrote some of their best poems.

3. When they have questions about what to write about, say, "Yes" as much as possible. Except when you have to say, "No."

This is related to point two, except it specifically as it applies to the writing prompt or exercise. In school, kids are trained to expect rules. This is what school is for, essentially, especially at a young age. For the most part, kids will learn how to do things on their own. Teaching requires about 90% classroom management and 10% subject matter knowledge. Therefore, they get really used to following the rules and being scolded when they don't. When I give them assignments, especially at first, the students shower me with "can I write about this? can I write about that? what do I do next? is this right?" and so at first I said yes to just about anything. Then some students wrote about the same thing every week. Or they got super hooked on the fact that I let them use the word 'hell' in their poems, as long as it was the opposite of 'heaven' and not a curse. The boys wrote endlessly about violence. The girls wrote about rainbows and flowers. Much like discipline, they needed more structure in their assignments, just enough to get them to a place where they felt safe. I have now banned violence from poems and also any curse words and bathroom humor. It was too distracting. Also, I made assignments that tapped into universal emotions like anger and loneliness, which pushed them to find new words to describe these feelings. Eventually they got the hang of it and I could say yes more often. But it takes time.

4. Praise should be given in thoughtful abundance.

I generally avoided praise in my last teaching job, because kids will become praise junkies. However, I only see my kids twice a week now and when a child comes up to me with something original they have written and they want me to read it, just the effort of sharing deserves to be rewarded. Maybe they don't have opportunities to hear a teacher say, "Wow! I love this image!" or "This line is so original!" I know they don't because teachers are busy and overworked and have way too much to squeeze into the three or four solid hours of daily instruction time. Also remember this: when you are 10, there isn't a wrong way to write a poem. Seriously. Yes, some kids will pick it up faster than others, but in general, there is something praiseworthy in every poem. Even praise for their hard work and creative use of language gives them a positive feeling that makes them want to write more and more, which should be the goal of the writing classroom. The more they write, the better writers they become. Of course, balancing praise with thoughtful feedback is key. Including revision in your curriculum will assist with this and encouraging the use of literary devices (that you've taught them already) will only give you more chances to praise and offer feedback. Again, a delicate dance.

5. Though it may take time, eventually the magic of writing poetry transforms your students.

The Artistic Director of Poetry Inside Out, John Simon, told me that somewhere between class number five and eight (of a sixteen lesson residency) everything shifts. It happened sooner with my fourth grade students than my fifth, which I expect to happen next week. I'd struggle through my lesson with fifth grade and then my fourth graders came in saying things like, "Yay it's time for poetry class!" or "Miss Davis, I love writing poem so much!" They write poems for you and make you adorable gifts like origami flowers. In short, they're hooked. And this just feeds the delicate dance of structure, discipline, praise and persona. They want to be there, so the behave. They want to feel good about their writing and they take it seriously. They love learning new ways to express themselves. I can't begin to tell you how incredible it is to watch a room of children thoughtfully revising their writing, asking their neighbor for advice about which word sounds better, asking you if it's ok to write another poem, coming up to you with ideas about what they want to write about. If you can manage to navigate your way through those first weeks and get to this stage, well, pat yourself on the back, because it's a hard road. But also, take a moment to recognize how essential opportunities for creative expression are for children and how poetry has an ability to transform a group of loud, video-game obsessed kids, into the thoughtful, creative voices of our future.
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