Friday, May 25, 2007

POETRY FRIDAY: Touching the World

During the month of April, Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect posted some blog articles about children exploring the natural world—and how, all too often, children seem to have much less of a connection to the world of nature around them. Our children today often spend many of their hours outside of school—inside. Yes, they are inside watching television or playing video games instead of playing with friends outdoors and climbing trees, picking wildflowers, watching ants crawling in and out of anthills, investigating the life in a pond, and stopping to listen to the different sounds of summer like cicadas stinging the still air.

From the Miss Rumphius Effect

Break a Leg-Climb More Trees!

Exploring the Natural World-Part 1

Exploring the Natural World-Part 2

Exploring the Natural World-Part 3

As I was exploring the website of Joyce Sidman, one of our best writers of nature poetry for children, I came upon Touching the World: The Importance of Teaching Poetry, a wonderful article she wrote and has reprinted from the Spring 2002 issue of Riverbank Review. She touches on some of the same things Tricia does in her blogs. I have an excerpt of the Joyce Sidman’s article below.


I face a roomful of fifth or sixth graders on the first day of a week-long poetry residency armed with three things: an activated imagination, a handful of poems, and a random object from the classroom, like a stapler or a roll of tape. My goal is to lead these students into the mind-set of Muhammed al-Ghuzzi's poem, "The Pen":

Take a pen in your uncertain fingers.
Trust, and be assured
That the whole world is a sky-blue butterfly
And words are the nets to capture it.

We will get there by using the tools of close observation, sensory detail, and metaphor. Younger children live and breathe metaphor; it comes to them as naturally as speaking. Older children often must be reminded, so I read them Valerie Worth, who looks at earthworms and sees

New rubies
Dug out of
Deepest earth

and describes a beetle that

Its precious
Packed in
A laquered
Coffer of

Why read them poems about worms and beetles? Because the physical world--and the profound lessons that direct contact with that world offers--have, sadly, receded into the background of their lives. Kids today don't get out much, either at school or in their leisure time. They may frequent the playground as young children, but after a certain age--roughly seven--they begin to conceptualize the world in their play, approach it through the virtual avenues of television, video games, and the Internet. If they want to find out about oak trees, they cruise the Web. If they want to play a game, they hit homers with a game pad, or build roller coasters with a mouse. More often than not, the dominant images they view every day are created by other minds, other imaginations--with sometimes dubious motives.

There are times when I want to leave the classroom behind, to haul my students--and myself--outside, just to feel the sunshine and smell the wind. To collect things that we usually take for granted or barely see: blades of grass, each with its own perfect symmetry and delicate tip, feathers from unknown birds, flowers from weeds, even dollops of mud. I want us to lie on our backs and notice how clouds fold together and curl apart, how the branches of trees are echoed in their leaves, how ants meet and kiss, exchanging mysterious information before continuing in opposite directions.

To fully engage myself and my students with the physical world, I turn to poetry: the reading of it, and, more importantly, the writing of it. Poetry, with its focus on the particular, can help restore rusty powers of observation, reawaken dulled senses, rekindle a latent sense of wonder. While it is not always possible to go out and find leaves and feathers, there are always--even in the classroom--opportunities to observe.

Read the rest of Sidman’s article here.

When I was teaching second grade, the first field trip I took my students on every September was a walk in the woods. It’s amazing how excited my kids got when I pointed out the science that was right before their eyes—things they might never bother to look at carefully: insect galls, lichens growing on rocks and trees, different kinds of fungi. We would turn over rotting logs and find slippery little salamanders, sow bugs, and other tiny creatures. There is a world of wonder for kids to discover in nature…if we parents and teachers lead the way.

What Sidman does in her poetry classes is to help children to open their eyes and their minds and to prepare them to really look at things in the world around them.

To Look at Any Thing, a poem written by John Moffitt, is one I used to share with my students. It’s a poem that speaks to the same approach that Sidman writes about in her article.


To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long:
To look at this green and say,
“I have seen spring in these
Woods,” will not do - you must
Be the thing you see…

You can read the full text of the poem at A Wrung Sponge.


The book A CROW DOESN’T NEED A SHADOW: A GUIDE TO WRITING POETRY FROM NATURE is an excellent resource for teachers who like to connect the exploration of nature with the development of their students’ language and writing skills. Chapter titles in the book include: Poetry Field Trips, Building a Nature Wordscape, and Keeping a Nature Journal. The book also includes ideas for writing poetry with students and an anthology of poems written by students from the ages of 7 to 16.


Anonymous said...

Elaine, I love A Crow Doesn't Need A Shadow! I got it out recently because I'm teaching a class for kids (4th-6th grade) this summer and want to remind myself of the great ideas and examples in it. Thanks for the links to Joyce's article and the other ones, too. A quick glimpse got me very interested. I'm going to go print them all out!

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Wonderful post! Thanks for the excerpt from Sidman's article. I love it!

Elaine Magliaro said...


I think A CROW DOESN'T NEED A SHADOW is an excellent teacher resource. I got a great idea for writing recipe poems with my students from the book.


I think Sidman's article is terrific. She is a writer of outstanding nature poetry for children. I love her books!

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