Monday, March 17, 2008

Keep this Book within Reach

Today was St. Patrick's Day so I introduced my class to a new poem. Actually it is an old Irish poem from the 14th century:

The Irish Dancer

Ich am of Irlaunde.
Ant of the holy londe
Of Irlaunde.
Gode sire, pray ich the,
For of saynte charite,
Come ant daunce wyth me
In Irllaunde.

I had them try to read it on the board and figure out the old English. Then I read it out loud. The class even enjoyed my poor Irish accent. The class then enjoyed reading it together. It is a simple invitation and I showed them a translation:

I am of Ireland
And the holy land
Of Ireland
Good sir, I pray thee,
For holy charity,
Come and dance with me
in Ireland.

Tonight they are going to find out what country there ancestors or family comes from. They are to ask what sports, dance, or fun things that people do in that home country. They can also find out what that country is like.

Tomorrow they will spend a few minutes writing invitation poems of their own. They will tell where they are from, and invite someone to their land, where they can have fun doing something traditional in that place. For those who finish, or did not ask their parents the homework questions, they can simply write about any place they have been, or lived, or even wanted to be from. I know their poems will be easy to write and come out wonderful. How do I know? Because I have done this poem many times with different classes through the years and it is a fun and easy way to write a playful poem.

I got this poem from a book that is the most useful (and most used) book out of all the books on teaching that I have read. I first used it when I taught 7th grade more than 20 years ago and it is the one book that I know where I always keep it and (sorry) I will never lend it out lest it get lost! It is Kenneth Koch's, "Rose, Where did you get that Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children"

The author takes great and classic poems and introduces them to children, giving them a hook, idea, or theme to start them writing their own poems. My classes through the years have been introduced to William Blakes, "The Tyger" in which they, too, ask questions of an animal in their own poems. What fun it is to introduce 4th graders to one of the most famous poems in the English language:

Tyger! Tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night.
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

We talk about glowing cats and dogs eyes caught in the headlights of a car when we read"

In what distant deep or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes.

We consider the twisting of the sinews of the tyger's heart as it is being made.

And when thy heart began to beat...

We stick are hands over our ears and listen to the rhythm and pounding within our own bodies."

As we contemplate who could create such a being as a tyger, what boy doesn't love the lines:

"What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

Then I always ask for ideas on these lines which appear to defy an easy explanation. It also lets the kids think up their own interpretations:

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears...

We have a fun time analyzing the poem. We look at a Calvin and Hobbes comic that references the poem with a question about "flaming felines" and also other poems and books that take off on "The Tyger". But the most fun comes when kids learn that they can write their own poems. Kenneth Koch gives many ways to quickly and easily make a poem accessible to children when most adults may have trouble getting meaning from the poem. In the student poems the class is asked to imagine if they could speak the secret language of an animal and ask it a question in a style like William Blake used. Don't have your students worry about length or rhyme but instead work on the inspiration and creativity.

For the past two years I have used William Carlos Williams poems to introduce my class to words, phrases, sentences, paragraph form and poetry form (I describe it as writing without rules: the kids like that they can make up their own rules about how a poem looks and is written- a small act of writing rebellion in their school which is a place where writing is usually full of rules).

The Locust Tree in Flower






At first the class can't believe this is a poem. Then they see that some words might be missing or that the words can be put together in different ways. We then go out to the playground to look at one of the old oaks and they write phrases describing what they see. We come back to the room and list them on the board. Then we pick words from the lists and write a class poem (like jigsaw puzzle pieces all scrambled up with many pieces missing). We make up our rules: use 13 words (set up as 3,3,3, and 1) with one word per line. Instead of "Among" we might use a preposition like under or above and we try not to let the poem make sense by having full phrases in our poem. After just a few minutes the class has written a poem and they are now ready to try writing their own poems that capture a small moment of beauty in just a few words on a page.

We use "Between Walls" to talk about phrases.

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine

pieces of green

They then write poems about something that can be seen as beautiful even if most people would not see it that way.

We then get into writing sentences and comparing that to poetry form. I show the class a mock up of a note left by someone:

"This is just to say I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious, so sweet, and so cold."

They are not impressed. Then I show them the famous poem:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten the
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Same words! Just reorganized into a different layout. I teach them the difference between paragraph form and poetry form (make up your own rules). Then they write an apology: telling someone they are sorry for doing something, even though they may have secretly enjoyed the act! The class like being a big subversive in their apology!

The book is full of great poems from great poets: Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, John Donne, among others as well as poems in other languages and from different parts of the world. They all include ways to get your students thinking about poems and writing their own poetry. It is inspiring just to read through the great poems time after time and learn some more about them and to enjoy the poems that children wrote based on these poems. The title of the book is based on "The Tyger" as one student asks a rose, "Rose, where did you get that Red?" I wish I had more time to try a greater variety of poems with my classes.

The key to using the book is to make connections with the curriculum. Does a poem fit in some way with a story you are reading? Can you teach the writing of questions with "The Tyger" or about paragraph form with "This is Just to Say"? Rather than valentines can your kids write friendship oaths base on this ancient Chinese poem:

Shang Ya

I want to be your friend
For ever and ever without break or decay.
When the hills are all flat
And the rivers are all dry,
When it lightens and thunders in winter,
When it rains and snows in summer,
When heaven and earth mingle-
Not till then will I part from you.

My class writes friendship poems that promise everlasting friendship (or until something happens that really never will happen- "when pigs fly"). Sometimes we pretend we are on the top of some ancient mountain in China and the students recite their poems to their friends.

The book is full of inspiration and you don't have to be a great poet to write poetry. I write spur of the moment poems to model the writing process to my class. I have fun. The kids laugh. They can often write a lovely poem in minutes and some students can write many poems in a short time before they find the one makes them really proud.

Of course if you enjoy teaching using this style of teaching, you will have to check out "Love that Dog" by Sharon Creech. It is one of my favorite children's books and it is basically a journal a boy keeps as he learns to write poems based on great and classic poems and how he learns to tell his teacher something important that happened to his dog.

1 comment:

borderst said...

There are so many great ideas in this posting. Teaching poetry throughout the year makes it a "common" genre to the students. In the old days, poetry was taught once a year in a poetry unit. But frequent exposure builds familiarity and comfort with this art form.