A Poetry Curriculum

A Poetry Curriculum:

Some Ideas and Exercises for Teaching Poetry in Elementary Schools


Ann Keniston

This project has been funded, in part, by a grant from the Nevada Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

Acknowledgments:  Thanks to the students and teachers at the Mt. Rose School in Reno, Nevada, for naming me their Poet in Residence and in inviting me into their classes and participating the workshops with such openness and enthusiasm, and to Jane Addington of the Mt. Rose Parents Group for facilitating the poetry sessions and for helping to reproduce and distribute this curriculum.  And thanks too to the Nevada Arts Council for a encouraging me to write this curriculum and for providing a grant that made doing so possible.

About the Author:  In addition to teaching poetry workshops at Mount Rose School, Ann Keniston is an assistant professor of English at University of Nevada, Reno, with a specialty in American poetry and creative writing.  Her poems have been published in a range of periodicals, including Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review, and her first book of poems, The Caution of Human Gestures, will be published in February 2005 by David Robert Books (http://www.davidrobertbooks.com/).  She lives in Southwest Reno with her husband and 6-year-old twin sons.

Introduction

Below are some ideas I have developed for integrating poetry into the classroom in grades K-6.  These ideas come from sessions I taught as Poet in Residence at the Mount Rose School in Reno in 2003 and 2004.  These sessions have confirmed my belief that children see the world around them with the kind of freshness that leads to wonderful poetry; the best exercises encourage their ability to see, play, and make connections.  At the same time, the integration of poetry into the curriculum can help students work on a range of language arts skills, as outlined by the Washoe County School District’s Standards for English/Language Arts.[1]  I hope what follows will offer a way for teachers who have been hesitant or even a bit afraid of poetry to begin talking about and working with poetry with students.  The ideas below may also offer some new ideas to teachers who are already working with poetry in the classroom.  Although these ideas are designed for elementary-aged children, they work well with older students as well; I have used some of them with junior high school students.

What these exercises share is an emphasis on what I see as the basics of poetry—careful and original observations, attention to language, and an emphasis on connecting things generally seen as separate (or metaphor).  There are, of course, many other strategies for writing poetry, including a form-based approach (students write poems in a range of fixed forms, from haiku to acrostic to ballad, etc.) and a thematic approach (students write poems about particular topics—their favorite person, an incident that took place at school, etc.) The Bibliography lists some books with class exercises based on these methods.  Such strategies can work well with particular students and groups, although they are risky:  the formal approach can emphasize rhyme and/or syllable count over the kinds of fresh and funny observations that make poems so delightful to read and write.  Thematic assignments may make some students feel uncomfortable about what they can and should disclose about their private experience; they may often encourage clichés of feeling that, while they can be addressed in class, can also be frustrating for teachers.  In an ideal situation, in which poetry is a central part of the curriculum, a range of assignments and exercises might be followed by unstructured writing time.  (For a good general guide to teaching poetry in such a setting, see Heard.)

 

The Poetry Session

Each session that I teach devoted to poetry tends to be structured in a roughly similar way.  If you are teaching a longer unit about poetry, this program can of course be modified.  But especially at the beginning, it has worked well for me to adhere to the following order:

Discuss poetry in general.  I begin by asking students what a poem is.  As I listen to and synthesize their responses, I get a sense of their level of familiarity with poetry and their relative enthusiasm and anxiety about it.  This initial discussion also lets me correct some common misconceptions.  For example, some students generally define poetry as something that rhymes, something I’m eager to amend, especially since for some students the compulsion to rhyme can obstruct their pleasure in writing and their access to natural language.  This early discussion also lets me lay the groundwork for whatever elements of poetry I will be emphasizing in the lesson (for example, the notion that poems describe specific objects in interesting ways or the idea that poems can describe one thing in terms of another).  For real beginners, I might read some poems—nursery rhymes for young kids (they generally don’t know these are poetry), or some children’s poetry (I like to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Windy Nights” because it reveals the ways that sounds function in poems—the poem really sounds like a horse galloping).  Once a poetry unit is underway, it might be useful to review previous exercises and what they’ve shown about poetry and to encourage questions or ideas about what might come next.

Introduce the concept and theme for the writing exercise.  Generally, I do this by providing an example of a published poem.  It’s important to make enough copies so that each student has his/her own to consult.  Real poets are often inspired by the work of poets who have come before them, and young poets can be inspired in similar ways.  There are plenty of great poems that are suitable for children:  I tend to use “real” poems as much as possible so that children can begin to become familiar with the diversity of poetry.  We discuss the poem, what we like about it, what’s confusing, etc.  For the more difficult poems (e.g., Wallace Stevens or William Blake), I either read only excerpts or heavily paraphrase the tough parts.  Using poetry especially written for children can work as well, although it’s always a good idea to avoid the most cutesy poetry.  Using poems that are very silly can work well, though I’d suggest including a range of kinds of poetry.

Write a group poem and/or brainstorm some ideas for individual poems.  With younger or less experienced children, it can work well to write our first poem together, with me transcribing the poem on the board.   This process helps children get the idea of how to write a poem and also introduces the idea that poems are written in lines (generally I use one sentence per line).  Brainstorming a list of ideas for poems based on the theme can help shy or inexperienced children know where to start.  When someone is stuck during individual writing time, I can direct them to the list and ask them to choose one of the options.

Give students time to write (and perhaps illustrate) their own poems.  Sometimes I allow students (especially younger ones) to work in pairs on their poems, but mostly they work alone.  I circulate through the classroom answering questions, offering ideas for people who are stuck, and offering encouragement and praise.  Young students enjoy decorating or illustrating their poems.

Include a sharing time.  Students tend to be very eager to share their work.  They do need to be reminded to read extra loud and slowly.  It’s nice to applaud after each reading.

Think about the next poem.  I often ask students, either in a written assessment of the poetry session or orally, what their ideas are for their next poem.  And before I leave, I encourage them to remember the skill I have been focusing on and practice it.  Looking closely at the world around them, playing with language, thinking about what resembles what—these are all skills students can practice when going about their daily routines.  My hope is that they’ll cultivate these skills and then remember to write them down into another poem.

If possible, include an opportunity for publication.  Students who’d like to can include their work in a class or school anthology to by typed up by the teacher; or they can prepare a special clean copy to be photocopied.  If time and/or finances don’t allow this, a bulletin board where poems can be posted works too.  Along with allowing the student to feel like a published author, this final stage allows students to revise their poems and lets other students to read the poems silently and/or aloud.

 

Exercises

Most of these exercises are adapted from exercises I found in books.  I’ve included with each previously published exercise its source.  See the Bibliography for a list of some of these titles; they are a great resource for further ideas.  For reasons of copyright, I have not included the text of published poems, but these are mostly readily available in anthologies (compilations of poetry, such as the Norton Anthology of Poetry) or on the internet (I’ve included web addresses where possible).

1.  Describing Something Ordinary/Metaphor (grades K-2)

I begin this session by bringing in an apple cut in half crosswise (not the usual way).  I pass it around and encourage students to think about what the apple reminds them of—not just a piece of fruit but something tiny or enormous.  I write down the lines they give me and we read back our poem.  Then I pass out copies of Nan Fry’s poem “Apple.”  We read the poem, and I ask them to talk about lines they like, don’t understand, etc.  I make sure they can see the image described.  After this, we list some other ordinary objects that might be written about in a poem.  Then students work individually to write a poem about these objects, especially in terms of what it reminds them of.

2.  A Riddle/Description (grades 2-3)

This variation on the previous exercise works especially well as a strategy for encouraging students to pay attention to each other’s poems.  We begin by reading several riddle poems, including William Jay Smith’s “The Toaster” and poems from the web sitehttp://www.catb.org/~esr/riddle-poems.html.  I read the poems and ask students to guess what is being described.  Then we write a poem together about some object in the classroom, trying to focus on describing parts or aspects of the object in ways that hint at what it is but don’t entirely give away its identity.  We generate a list of possible topics, and students write individual poems.  The sharing time for this exercise is especially lively as students must closely listen to one another’s poems to guess their titles.

3.  A List Poem about the Senses/Description and Sound (grades 2-3, or higher)

This poem, based on an exercise in Koch’s Rose, involves writing a series of lines that emphasize a particular sense.  This is also a poem that can be written collectively; doing so allows for some of the wonderful variety of Whitman’s lines.  Koch’s book excerpts part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (section 26; available on http://lennon.pub.csufresno.edu/~kds31/wit3.html or http://www.bartleby.com/142/14.html) that emphasizes hearing and all of whose lines begin “I hear….”  I encourage students to write similarly long, expansive lines that focus on another sense (sight, or smell, or taste).  Before we do this exercise, I introduce students to the idea of alliteration by asking them to list a series of words beginning with a particular sound.  Then using the list, each student writes a line of poetry.  I point out the alliteration in Whitman’s poem and ask students to think about the sounds of the lines they are writing.

4.  A List Poem/Repetition (grades K-2)

This exercise (actually, several related ones, all from Koch’s Lies) work especially well with children who are just learning to write or are not yet writing.  The idea is to write a poem with a series of lines all of which begin with the same phrase.  Some examples:  I wish; I dreamed; I used to be/but now I.  Or students can write “lie” poems comprising lists of lies.  (The title would be “Lies” and the poem would be the series of lies.)  A final option is a metaphor poem.  “An x is like a y because they both…”  With preliterate children, I transcribe their dictated lines with lots of extra space; they each illustrate their line and we glue the pictures onto the master sheet.  Those who can write a bit better can copy their line onto their own sheet of paper and then illustrate it.  Or I have also tried giving out a poetry “form” with the repeating phrase on it and a blank line; children who have trouble writing need only write to the original part of their statement.  In the first-grade class I taught, I did a combination:  we did a group poem with the phrase “I wish.” Then children worked independently on “I used to be/But now I,” some filling in forms and some writing out the whole poem.  The trick with these exercises is to be zany and illogical.  “I used to be a superhero but now I am a frog” is far more interesting than “I used to be a baby but now I am a big girl.”  Koch’s book has great examples by children; I generally read a range of these poems before students write their own to give students an idea of how free they can be.

5.  Being Sort-of Sorry/Description and Tone (grades 2-3)

This exercise (also from Koch’s Rose) begins with William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say” (http://www.poets.org/poems/poems.cfm?prmID=1380).   I begin by reading the poem, then ask students to decide how sorry the poem’s narrator is about eating the plums. Students easily figure out that he may be saying he’s sorry, but the deliciousness of the plums (and the delight he takes in describing their taste) show that he actually isn’t so sorry after all.  Then I ask students to think of situations in which they were sort of but not too sorry and list them on the board.  The more students can grasp that the emotion of not being sorry is in the way that Williams describes the plums, the more they will enter into the guilty pleasure of what they’re describing.

6.  Describing Something Ordinary/Description and Imagery (grades 2-6)

I use Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” (http://www.poets.org/poems/poems.cfm?45442B7C000C07060171) and “Between Walls” (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/enam312/2004/wcwwalls.html) to help students understand that poetry can be about ordinary things and can use ordinary speech to describe them.  Williams’s poems work by juxtaposing concrete details (colors, different kinds of objects, textures) and using short lines to focus the reader’s attention on these details.  I encourage students to do something similar, to choose something ordinary, in the classroom or outside of it, something they may see every day and never really notice.  Their poems should simply describe it.  It might help to start out with “So much depends on.”  Here too a group poem and a list of possible topics may help students get started. The internet has a number of silly parodies of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  (This exercise is also from Koch’s Rose.)

7.  An Unlikely Ode/Description (grades 4-6)

A more complex version of the previous exercise grows out of Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes, poems written in celebration of ordinary objects.  I like to use “Ode to Salt” (http://www.poetryconnection.net/poets/Pablo_Neruda/11736, English only); first asking students how they might celebrate salt and eliciting from them some lines, then reading Neruda’s poem and asking what surprises and confuses them.  (A bilingual edition is nice, and perhaps a student could read the poem in the original Spanish.)  It’s important to see that some of the lines are funny and exaggerated.  Then I list some of the other objects to which Neruda wrote odes and ask students to supplement the list, making sure to include some silly things (a toothbrush, dirty socks, etc.).  Then students write their own odes.  It’s also nice with older students to look at Lisel Mueller’s poem “Love Like Salt” (http://www.ba.tyg.jp/~kitada/lls.html) as a different way of approaching the same topic:  here the observations about salt work as ways of describing something else altogether:  love.

8.  Asking Questions/Repetition and Tone (grades 3-6)

This exercise, from Koch’s Rose, builds on William Blake’s “The Tyger” (http://www.felid.org/activities/page_79.htm) a poem which asks a series of questions of an animal.  I begin by asking students what they might ask a tiger if a tiger spoke English, encouraging both literal questions (“how do you see in the dark?”) and more metaphysical ones (“do you ever feel sad?”), then read the poem.  They like to see Blake’s original version of the poem, complete with his illustration of the tiger (http://www.blakearchive.org/cgi-bin/nph-dweb/blake/Illuminated-Book/SONGSIE/songsie.c/@ebt-raster?filename=songsie.c.p50-42.300.jpg ); I also pass around his illustrated version of his poem “The Lamb.”  Blake’s poem is difficult, and with young kids I paraphrase it as I go; the idea is that the poem is a list of questions to a mysterious creature.  Like Koch, I like to linger on the lines about the spears and tears and ask students what they think Blake was talking about.  Then we choose a creature—something somewhat frightening is good—and together think of questions we might ask it.  Then we list creatures, and they write their own poems.  This is a poem that (like Blake’s) lends itself particularly to illustration.

9.  Thirteen Ways of Describing Something/Description and Imagery (grades 3-6)

This exercise, also from Koch’s Rose, emphasizes the different ways that a single object can be seen or transformed.  A good way to start is with Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (http://www.poets.org/poems/poems.cfm?prmID=1724).   First, I ask students how they might describe a blackbird (a photo helps).  Then I read selections from Stevens’s poem, emphasizing the interaction between ordinary descriptive passages, little narratives or mini-stories, more mysterious passages; passages in which the blackbird is central and in which it is peripheral.  This is a great poem to use for a group activity.  Pick another object to describe, ask students to each write a single “way of looking” at it, then work together to put them into a suggestive order.  Afterward, students can write their own multiply-seeing poems.  It helps to have some actual props for this poem—either objects gathered from the classroom or brought in from outside—to help students really “see” what they are describing.

10.  Fruits, Vegetables, and Kitchen Implements/Metaphor (grades 2-6)

This is one of the most fun exercises I have found (from Beth Joselow’s Writing Without the Muse).  To introduce the idea of metaphor, I bring in an ordinary but funny-looking object (a binder clip works well)  and ask students to suggest things that it resembles.  Then we do the same thing with a pineapple, and then we read an excerpt from Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together.”  I ask students to choose a line they like and a confusing line and we discuss them.  Then I pass out an assortment of funny-looking fruits and vegetables (beets, ginger root, bok choy, cauliflower, kiwi, coconut, etc.) and/or household objects (a corkscrew, an accordion file, etc.) and ask students to write their own lists of comparisons about what these objects are.

11.  A Dialogue Poem/Repetition and Structure (grades 3-5)

This exercise works especially well with students who have grown up in other countries.  I begin by suggesting that poems can be conversations and then introduce “You ask me, What Did I Dream?” (http://bugok.ms.kr/intnation/htm/2-02-01-14.htm), a poem by a 14-year-old child.  We talk about how the poem is structured, how each question follows from the previous answer, and how the poet knew when the poem was over (the poem at the end returns to the imagery from the beginning).  We also talk about the mood of the poem—how it uses simple language and imagery to express deeper feelings of sadness and longing.  I ask students to think about dreams they have had that are filled with mystery and desire.  Then students work in pairs, one writing the questions, the other the answers.  The first line of their poem is generally the same as in the model, and then each poem goes off on its way.  Once they’ve written one poem, I ask the pair of students to switch roles.  At this point, they may want to try another opening question (for example, “You ask me, what did I forget?” or “You ask me, what did was I afraid of?” or “You ask me, what did I wish for?”

12.  A Poem About Part of the Body/Description and Imagery (grades 1-6)

This poem can be adapted for different age groups.  I begin by talking about the thumb, the subject of Charles Simic’s “Bestiary For The Fingers Of My Right Hand.” I ask students what they might say about this part of the body if they had to celebrate it or describe it; I write down their observations.  Then we read Simic’s poem.  I help students see the variety of kinds of description in the poem—it may personify the body part (imagining it as an independent character); it may describe its function; it may compare it to something else (metaphor). Then we list other lowly or unpoetic-seeming parts of the body, especially those the students can study while they are writing, and students work on their own poems.  Passing out little mirrors increases the possibilities.

13.  An I-do-this-I-do-that Poem/Description, Imagery, and Structure (grades 3-6)

This exercise builds on a group of poems written by Frank O’Hara on and about his lunch hour break from an office job in New York City.  O’Hara also called them “I-do-this-I-do-that” poems.  We talk about what kind of a poem we might write that takes place in the here and now, that talks about what is happening at this particular moment.  What descriptions might we include?  What about overheard speech?  How much might focus on what each of us is doing and how much on what we see around us?  How might we write the poem so that it gives a sense of immediacy and being in the present moment?  Would a poem be written differently if we were bored or interested?  Then we look at O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” (http://plagiarist.com/poetry/849/) along with excerpts from “A Step Away from Them” (http://plagiarist.com/poetry/4634/).  It’s useful to note and discuss why O’Hara uses “and” so much:  that conjunction gives a sense of immediacy and simultaneity.  We also look at the kinds of things he includes and the vividness of the language in which he describes them. We list poetic strategies and possible locales for poems.  Then students write their own poems that describe something ordinary—either the present moment or some other moment. 

Other Ideas and Options

Magnetic Poetry/Found Poems (grades K-6)

This exercise works well, especially with students who are hesitant about poetry and/or worried about misspelling words.  Provide them with a group of words and encourage them to form them into sentences and then into poems.  There should be a range of kinds of words, along with lots of objects and pronouns.  A magnetic poetry kit works well, but so do Xeroxed word lists.  A slightly more complicated version involves allowing students to write found poems.  Give them a page from a magazine or a document of some kind (something very unpoetic like a legal document works well) and encourage them to take words and/or phrases from it to make their own poems.

Poems in Form  (haiku, limericks, ballads, acrostics, etc.) (grades 2-6)

Children like to play with language, and work with these forms can help them be silly while also learning about the ways that lines, rhyme, and syllable counts can add to the effects of poems.

Poems about Themes/Topics (grades K-6)

Poems on topics such as “My First Memory,” “My Dream,” “School,” etc.  can give students access to their own experience.  These exercises may be more successful for students who are  already comfortable writing poetry, as they may open up emotional vulnerabilities and/or raise problems about cliché vs. original ideas.  It’s especially important to emphasize the use of concrete details in such poems.

Poems about Artworks  (grades 3-6)

There are some wonderful poems about works of art, including Williams’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and (for more advanced students) Atwood’s “This is a Photograph of Me.”   It’s a good idea to emphasize a range of approaches to writing poems about art:  the poem can describe the artwork, or use it as a trigger for a memory or different image.  Start with a reproduction of an artwork and encourage students both to describe it and to use it as a jumping off point.  Then hand out a sheaf of postcards and let students write their own poems.

Bibliography:  Some Ideas for Further Reading

Selected Books on Teaching Poetry/Poetry Exercises for Children

David L. Harrison and Bernice E. Cullinan’s Easy Poetry Lessons that Dazzle and Delight emphasize form, but also contain other ideas for poems.

Georgia Heard’s For the Good of the Earth and Sun : Teaching Poetry offers a good introduction to teaching poetry in school, with emphasis on revision strategies.  She is also the author of Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School and The Revision Toolbox: Teaching Techniques That Work.

 

Paul B Janeczko’s Favorite Poetry Lessons and Teaching 10 Fabulous Forms of Poetry emphasize exercises in form.

Kenneth Koch, Rose, Where did you get so Red?  By far my favorite book, this incorporates wonderful poems with exercises.  Koch is a bit of a surrealist himself, so some of the exercises might be a bit difficult for younger children.

Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, is another useful book, especially for younger children.  The book includes a series of exercises based on repeated phrases along with sample poems by children.

Teachers and Writers Magazine.  Ideas for teaching in the schools, available by subscription.  The Teachers and Writers Collaborative has also published numerous books on teaching poetry.

The internet also has many web sites devoted to teaching poetry.

Poetry Collections for Children

Maggie Anderson and David Hassler’s Learning by Heart : Contemporary American Poetry about School has some good poems, especially for thematic lessons about school.

 

Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 is a collection of poems suitable for high school students, some of which work well for younger children.

Kenneth Koch’s Talking to the Sun: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems for Young People is a lovely anthology with fine illustrations.

Naomi Nye is one of my favorite children’s poets.  Her poems are not condescending or cute; rather they deal with a range of experiences, with an emphasis on multicultural issues.  Come with Me:  Poems for a Journey contains her own poems; she has also edited several anthologies, including 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, The Flag of Childhood : Poems From the Middle East, This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World, and Salting the Ocean : 100 Poems by Young Poets.

 

Michael Rosen’s Classic Poetry:  An Illustrated Collection is a nice anthology of more traditional poetry.

Liz Rosenberg’s  The Invisible Ladder features photos of all of the included poets as children, along with some ideas for exercises in the back.


[1] In the area of reading, poetry sessions help students gain skills related to context, syntax, and literary allusion (standard 1.x.5); develop vocabulary (1.x.6); identify literary devices, including rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, simile, and onomatopoeia (3.x.5); help them gain familiarity with the genre of poetry and encourage their skills in both reading and listening (3.x.7).   In writing, they help students with narration (involved in the writing of poems) (5.x.3), generating ideas through brainstorming (6.x.1), editing their writing (6.x.5), considering the importance of audience (6.x.6), and sharing their writing with others (6.x.7).  At the same time, the process of writing will give students practice with literacy skills including grammar (7.x.1) and capitalization (7.x.4).  In listening and speaking, students follow multi-step directions (8.x.4), participate in a group discussion (10.x.1), share and generate ideas in groups (10.x.3)and work on the interpretive speech skills needed to expressively read their poems aloud (9.x.4).