Monday, January 25, 2010


I've been doing "Poetry Friday" with the fifth graders at school all year long. Most Friday afternoons, I go into the fifth grades classes for an hour, and we read poetry and share poetry and write poetry. Sometimes we have a theme, e.g. poems about friendship, or poems about Christmas. Sometimes we read poems by a particular author. Sometimes we look for poems where the poet has used a certain poet's tool, e.g. repetition. And sometimes we just read and share poems.

I love connecting with kids in this way. I love watching the fifth graders fall in love with poetry. I love watching them read poetry and perform it. I love when C, a tough gangbanger wanna be, shyly stands at my shoulder to show me an alliterative poem he describes as "kind of a tongue twister. " I love when J, a tiny nine year old who lost his mom last year, stops by my office, writers' notebook in hand, to share a memory poem he has written.

For years, I have talked to kids about how readers prepare themselves to open a book- how they think about whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, and what they know about the author or topic. Recently, I have worked with kids a lot on nonfiction text structure. We talk about how the author "built" the text-- whether it is a house (all about one thing), a duplex or triplex (comparing several different things) or an apartment (a little bit of information about a whole bunch of different but related topics (e.g. all about bears, with one page devoted to grizzlies, and one page devoted to polar bears, and one page devoted to brown bears). All of this prereading work has seemed to really support kids and help them become more active readers.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been messing around with a kind of framework to help the kids think about poetry. I've been calling it "Poet's Purpose," mostly for lack of a better term. I want kids, before they ever start to read, to consider why the poet might be writing.

  1. Entertain or make us laugh- I started with this one, because these are the poems that kids love first. Humorous poets like Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, and Kenn Nesbitt are a doorway for children to enter into the world of poetry.
  2. Play with language- Language play is another category my kids love. They love concrete poems in books like SPLISH SPLASH by Joan Bransfield Graham. They love Betsy Franco's MATHEMATICKLES. They also love the language play- made up words and rhyming twists- in Doug Florian's dinosaur poems.
  3. Story poems- Poems that tell a story are another category that kids seem to find really accessible, both for reading and writing. Don Graves' "BASEBALL, SNAKES, AND SUMMER SQUASH" is a book I revisit again and again.
  4. Capture a feeling- Sometimes I share a feeling poem or two. Poems about being lonely, or sad, or lost seem to really resonate with the kids. Often, the poems they bring to share with me are feeling poems.
  5. Capture visual or sensory images- We talk a lot about how poets create images in our heads, or help us smell or taste or feel things. These seem harder and less interesting to the kids, but I keep trying.
  6. Compare two things- Poets often compare two things that I would never, in a million years, think of comparing. Jean Little's poem, "Clothes," where she talks about the difference between new and old clothes, or new and old friends, has been a terrific for this. Last week, the kids loved "December Leaves," where poet Kay Starbird compares the leaves on her lawn to cornflakes in a bowl. Valerie Worth is another poet who does this all the time.
  7. Teach a life lesson- Poetry often teaches important life lessons. Some, e.g. those of Shel Silverstein, are easy to pick out, other are much more difficult. I usually just kind of let the discussion go where it may, and the kids often have huge insights. Sometimes, at the end, I'll say, "Some people think…" and show the kids support from the text for this thinking. The fifth graders listen respectfully to my ideas, but don't see these as any more valid or legitimate than their own thinking, which is exactly what I want them to do.
This framework is not intended to be all inclusive (poets probably have a million or more reasons why they write), and a single poem could definitely have more than one purpose. Shel Silverstein's "Jimmy Jet and His TV Set" for example, is a story poem, but it also has a life lesson. I also don't want the framework to become so all encompassing that it turns the reading of poetry into one of those gosh-awful poetry dissection exercises that most of us remember from high school or college lit classes, where one person, the teacher, knows what the poet means, and everyone else takes turns guessing what the might be in the poet and/or teacher's head. I just wanted to create something that kids might use, if they found it helpful.

I'd love to hear what people think…


Patrick A. Allen said...

What do I think? I was sitting here thinking about the writing work we'll be doing over the next few weeks and your blog was just what I needed to read... What a natural way to think around poets and their purpose...thanks for thinkin'

Joan said...

Carol, I think your students are very lucky to have a teacher who shares poetry with them every week, all year long--hooray for you! Thanks for your kind words about my book SPLISH SPLASH. I wish you and your students all the best in writing your own poems. Cheers, JoanBransfieldGraham

Unknown said...

You paint a rich portrait of possibilities! Wow, love it :)

Mary Lee said...

Here's what I'm thinking: Why did I let Poetry Friday fall off the map in my classroom this year???? (and is there any way to get it back on?)

Karen said...

I agree with Joan. My immediate thought was how lucky these students were to have you touch their lives with the gift of poetry.