“FINDING ‘HOME’ in POETRY”
When I was growing up, my middle sister was the storyteller in our family. Her vivid imagination and ability to embellish details to suit the occasion came in handy whenever it was time to write.
I was not that kind of storyteller. I did my assignments as asked, but never once did I think of myself as a writer. It wouldn’t be until years later, towards the end grad school, when that changed. How? My professor complimented my writing. She’d admired the way I’d organized my thoughts and supported my opinions succinctly and thoroughly. Though it was a completely different kind of writing – preparation for the comprehensive exams – it was the boost I needed.
Strange, isn’t it? One sincere complement changed my relationship to writing. As soon I finished my advanced degree, I was ready for a new challenge, and I knew exactly what it would be: I wanted to write for children.
My experiences in the classroom had already introduced me to hundreds of picture books. It was the late 80s, early 90s, a time when Whole Language was a buzz word and using “real books” to support reading and writing was common practice. I loved everything about this kind of teaching and discovered a new-found appreciation for the complexities and possibilities of picture books.
Also at that time, as a bilingual educator in California, primary language instruction (Spanish, in my classroom) was the rule of the day. I loved that, too, but as a first-grade teacher responsible for helping kids learn to read, I was looking for more…
I remembered a favorite record of Mother Goose rhymes that my sister and I had listened to as kids the week we were both sick in bed with the mumps. (No vaccines yet!) I wondered – what was the Spanish version of those early childhood rhymes that I remembered so fondly?
That’s when I discovered poems and songs in Spanish: “Luna, Lunera/ Cascabelera/Cinco pollitos y una ternera.”
I began to integrate more poetry – rhymes, songs, anthologies, and collections – into my classroom. We read oodles of children’s poetry in both English and Spanish, and we began to write it, too. The same lessons that inspired my students to write became inspiration for me. But it took a while to realize that my most true writing home – my querencia, as poet and teacher Georgia Heard speaks about in her book, WRITING TOWARD HOME – is poetry.
So that’s my invitation to teachers. Bring poetry into the classroom. Perhaps your students will find their home there, too.
Here are 3 ways to do that:
- Start with something familiar. School. Someone special –a grandparent? A friend? A pet? Or something as ordinary as the coming and going of a rainstorm, the inspiration for my first book, BLUE on BLUE. Brainstorm a long list of words related to the topic. Nouns. Strong verbs. Phrases. Colors. Include words that address the senses. Think image and sound, taste and touch. Kids don’t need to be overly fussy. Nor do they need to rhyme. Let them play with words, moving them around, breaking the lines, and experimenting with the shapes of their poems. This is poetry exploration at its best. Let them have fun creating!
- Pick a subject you’re studying in class or a discovery the children have made. I remember one morning, as the bell rang and the kids lined up, a child spotted a praying mantis waiting for us beside the classroom door. We picked her up and placed her in a container, poked some holes in the lid, and settled ourselves in a big circle to share our discovery. This would become our writing workshop for the day. We observed, noticed, asked questions. I pulled up a photo of a praying mantis on the smart board and we looked closer, noting the three body parts, the mandible, the spines on the front legs. We used our imaginations. What did this photo remind us of? An alien? A warrior? A conductor? Then, we wrote, starting with an image and a simile: “Like a conductor, the praying mantis raises her baton…”
- Write a riddle, as I do in my latest book, LOOK and LISTEN: Who’s in the Garden, Meadow, Brook?, illustrated by Amy Schimler-Safford. Have each student choose an animal and then describe it in the form of a question. Feel free to use the structure of the first riddle in the book as a poetry frame (example below). Don’t insist on rhyme but do let kids experiment. And while you’re at it? Why not have them draw an imaginary animal and describe it! They can choose a SOUND their creature makes and a made-up (rhyming) NAME for the last line.
One of the best parts of writing workshop is sharing new work with an audience. Short on time? Do a version of “popcorn reading” – one student reads a line from their poem, pauses, makes eye contact with another student, who then reads a line, and so on. Although this takes a little practice, once kids get the hang of this version of “shared reading”, it’s a nice, centering way to close out the day.
Happy Poetry Writing!
Look and Listen: Who’s in the Garden, Meadow, Brook?
Author: Dianne White
Illustrator: Amy Schimler-Safford
Published June 14th, 2022 by Margaret Ferguson Books
About the Book: A guessing game in a book that celebrates the curiosity and delight of a jaunt through a garden, meadow, and alongside a brook.
A child steps outside and strolls along, taking in the sights and sounds of nature. Rhythmic, rhyming text tracks his journey through a garden, meadow, and next to a brook, introducing a new color and animal found in that ecosystem with every turn of the page, transforming an ordinary walk into a feast for the senses.
Complete with material that explains the rich variety of wildlife and natural habitats found in the book, author Dianne White’s playful text is paired with the vibrant collage artwork of Amy Schimler-Safford, making for an exciting read-aloud and guessing game for budding nature lovers.
About the Author: Dianne White is the award-winning author of numerous children’s picture books, including Blue Blue, Green on Green, and Who Eats Orange? As a teacher who was privileged to share her love of books and poetry with many students over many years, she now has the pleasure of writing full-time. Most days, she strolls the neighborhood and fields near her home in sunny Arizona, looking and listening for buzzing bees, hopping bunnies and croaking frogs. Visit her at diannewrites.com.
Thank you, Dianne, for helping bring poetry into the classroom!