Monday, April 16, 2012

A Little Poetic Food for Thought


American children grow up in a country that poetry forgot—or that forgot poetry. The reasons are not far to seek. I have visited four hundred American elementary schools here and abroad as a latter day Pied Piper for verse, and I can confirm that too many teachers still swear allegiance to an old chestnut: the two worst words in the language when stuck side by side are “poetry” and “unit.”

The poetry unit is normally
a pinch of Frost and Emily,
a tickle of Jack Prelutsky, Shel
and … “Goodness, there’s the bell.”

Even otherwise gifted teachers are often the victims of university college classes in which poetry instruction was tantamount to performing lobotomies on stanzas that raised their tremulous heads.

This is not to ignore or disparage the impassioned poetry aficionados among keepers of the young. Indeed let’s award a teaching Newbery to every mentor who makes verse a daily experience in subjects that gallop across the curriculum and beyond.

But let’s be honest. No matter how zealous, they are drowned out by the hallelujah chorus for nonfiction, picture books, middle grade fiction and YA novels.

Children rarely gravitate to poetry on their own. It’s an acquired taste. They must be introduced to it early and often by their teachers and parents, the critical influences in their lives. And not in the way Billy Collins has memorably described—and vilified—by tying poems to chairs and beating them senseless until they finally give up their meaning. We do not look to poetry to find answers or absolutes. Nor do we investigate verse with calipers and a light meter, though at least one benighted school of thought has tried.

Installing poetry on standardized tests is both oxymoronic and inimical to wonder. The late British poet Adrian Mitchell admirably prefaced most of his collections with a caveat: “None of [my] work … is to be used in connection with any examination whatsoever. Reduce the size of classes in [public] schools to twelve and I might reconsider.”


Story No. 2: Choosing joy

As a writer-in-residence in a Minneapolis public school, I’m visiting a fourth-grade class today. I have 50 minutes with the kids, and I will probably never see them again. As I wander around the classroom, passing out the seashells that we’ll be writing about, I notice a boy who seems withdrawn, unengaged. I question the teacher. “Oh,” she sighs in vexation, “don’t expect much out of him. He’s—well frankly, he’s a weird kid. He hasn’t given me anything all year.” I just nod, but my skin begins to prickle. The boy studies his shell seriously. He stares unseeingly for a long while. Then he starts to write, “Dear Shell…
You look like many beautiful things.
You look like a Frisbee.
You look like a tornado.
You look like a maze, upside down.
You make my heart smile wide
in the deep-sized earth.
You make lizards dance with birds…”
Wow, right? Poetry loves “weird kids.” And nontraditional learners. And kids that don’t quite fit in. Poetry gathers them up, gives them a fistful of words, and lets them sing. The little Einsteins of the world, whom no one really understands, the ESL learners whose grasp of English is a little shaky, the dreamy kids that can’t seem to produce anything: give ’em poetry. Poetry will welcome that unusual vision, that slightly off-kilter sense of reality. A shell that spins like a tornado? Lizards dancing with birds? No problem. The world is full of wonders, says Poetry, and your only job is to be able to see those wonders, to feel them, and to try to communicate them.
Children are closer to this sense of wonder, but we all have a flash of it now and then. There’s a part of each of us that doesn’t quite fit in, that sees things differently, that chafes at the rigid categories of school or work. And lest you are thinking right now, “Not me. I’m a linear kind of person…. ” Well, pull out a shell, or an acorn, or even a stapler, and look at it. Really look. As if you’re seeing it for the first time. What does it feel like? What does it remind you of? What is its purpose, its goal in life? Where has it come from, and where is it going? What does it do in the dark watches of the night? What might it dream about? See where those thoughts take you. I bet they’ll lead you right back into wonder and imagination and—like the little boy in that classroom—into joy. Poetry lets us experience the world with joy.

A Circus for the Brain

Ten Trends in Poetry for Young People in 2011 by Sylvia Vardell

Celebrate Poetry…All Year Long by Kristine O’Connell George


Linda B said...

You've inspired me for the whole week, Elaine, & probably for the whole year! I have some challenges with some teachers who profess to hate poetry, & I too have those students if I'm lucky for an hour. They often write some amazing things, as Joyce Sidman described.
Thank you for these.

Charles Waters said...

Thank you for posting this. A comprehensive listing of children's poetry books this year is vital. Pat's idea of a Teaching Newberry is a great thought.

Ramona said...

"Installing poetry on standardized tests is both oxymoronic and inimical to wonder." I totally agree with this quote by J. Patrick Lewis.
Yet ... I discovered one of my favorite poems, "My Mother Pieced Quilts" by Teresa Acosta while taking a standardized Texas state teacher's exam! I would love to win the new book by Kristine O'Connell George for my classroom.

Tabatha said...

That's lovely!

I received my prize from you today -- thanks so much! I will be sharing it this afternoon with my kids.