Colors of the animals The color of the lion is yellow as the sun The color of the bear, is as black as night The colors of the pig, is as pink as the cheeks The white eyes of a moose are as white as the stars . . . . . . and will shine all night. The Mystyrios Mouse I do not Live in a hole I live in Flowers To wake up, The flowers tickle me and I wake up Oh! How I love my small house in the tall grass. the cat and the dog one day the cat went out in the night. and the dog did go out too. and the dog did chase the cat. and the cat did chase the mouse. and the mouse got caught. and the mouse was in the cat stomach. The Rain The rain has many sisters and brothers. The sun is a nice sister. The sky is a good brother. Fire is not a good brother. The moon is nice, a sister too. The clouds is a very good brother. Smoke is a bad brother. Thunder is a very good brother. Lightning is a lovely sister. The rain has a beautiful family.
I asked the six children staring up at me to write a poem. A poem about anything. I told them not to worry about spelling or neatness or making it rhyme. It was a tall order, but most were able to get something written down.
After a few minutes I collected the papers. The poems I got were about pretty flowers, pretty birds, and pretty grass. They were pretty awful.
What the children had written were responses to an authority figure, four times their age and twice their size, who asked for poems. But then, wasn't that what they were supposed to do?
They had written what they thought I wanted to hear; or rather what experience had taught them I would settle for. None of which had anything to do with their real selves.
From this I figured that there are two things I had better start changing; their ideas about poetry and their ideas about me. Only then would there be any chance of getting something that came from the kids themselves.
Slowly I made discoveries. Slowly I made progress, I discovered that children think all poetry rhymes all the time. This is an idea which must be torn out by the roots, especially when working with younger poets. (Mine were 1st through 3rd graders; the grades given here are those of last year, when the poems were written.)
When children try to make their poems rhyme what you get is rhyme and nothing else. Sound without sense. What you ultimately would like to have them understand is, if a rhyme comes your way, use it; if not, don't worry about it. But don't try to get this across till later. It is much more expedient to leave rhyme alone in the early stages.
Likewise, the non-negotiable demands of spelling grammar and punctuation must be thrown out the window, for the creation of poetry is seldom an orderly processes.
"I'm not knocking that stuff," I told them. "You need to learn it. But in here we are going to learn instead about imagination. About dreams and being animals and how things would happen if they could happen any way you wanted them to. So don't worry about spelling. As long as you know what you mean, it's okay. We can correct it later."
But teacher . . ." one started to say.
"And don't call me teacher!" I barked dictatorially. "I'm not your teacher. I'm your . . .Bill."
I was trying, however inexpertly, to change my status as an authority figure. Though I knew I could not divest myself of authority (and did not want to), I wanted to shift from being a rational, right or wrong one to being a sort of imaginative, poetic authority.
Knowing what you want to communicate is one thing; communicating it is another. To a child the words "Imagination," "creativity," and so on are dead words. The first time a kid asked me "does it have to be real?" I was quick to respond, "Oh, no, it can be make-believe."
This produced satisfactory results. The next time, by an inadvertent word choice, a little girl helped me make another discovery. "Does what I write have to be a true story?"
"No, it can even be a lie." Her eyes lit up. "In fact, it can be a big lie." They got bigger. "In fact, Juliette, I want you to go sit down and write me the biggest lie you can think of." She was already skipping back to her seat.
Lies, simply another way of saying imagination, proved one of the best stimulants for poems. I was not struggling to get children to write poetry, I told myself, I was giving them the chance to tell some first-class lies.
I was not above bribery. Cranapple juice and Fig Newtons might mystericusly appear toward the end of class. Plus there was the book ("Dill Pickles and Sweet Plum") that I wanted to make of their poems. I also gave each child the chance to "do out" a favorite poem in colored markers to be hung on the Poetry Wall.
While nearly all craved this sort of recognition, most refused to have their works read aloud, either by themselves or by me. I did not insist. I did make sure that they knew I considered them to be poets, and that what they wrote was important.
This was my initial motive in putting together a collection of their work. It is important for all writers, but particularly young ones, to see their work in print.
Linguists and communication experts maintain that what one says comprises only half of the message communicated. How one speaks; tone, facial expression, etc., is the other half. In dealing with children I would say the ratio is closer to 30 percent words and 70 percent how the words are expressed.
Be enthusiastic: Kids will not be interested in what you are doing unless you are and show that you are. When in doubt, be enthusiastic.
One little girl asked me if she could write about "being corn" for a class in which we were doing "Being the Thing" poems. The object is to personify something usually thought of as inanimate.
Inside I was skeptical, perhaps because of my own associations with the word "corn." Instead of steering her toward another object, however, I feigned great excitement. "That's neat, Monifa! Why don't you take your paper and do it over at that table in the corner so no one bothers you."
I forgot about her and went on with the others. The poem she brought me was one of my first breakthroughs. It was a discovery that with children, as with icebergs, what is visible is only a fraction of what is really there. What If I Was Corn Standing hot and yellow in the fields Growing in the spring and summer And then a boy comes and eats me Up as fast as he could. -- Monifa Barrow, 1st grade
I gave her a hug and told her it was beautiful. "Wait," she said, afraid of being teased, "Maybe I should change the boy to a girl."
I shook my head. "No way, honey."
Other kinds of poems were "I wish . . ." and "What if . . ." poems. These ask the imagination to open up while still providing enough structure to keep a child from feeling totally at loose ends. Having each line contain a color, number, or sound achieves the same end. As they become familiar with these forms the kids will start to make their own combinations. If Spring Happened the Way I Wish I wish that falling flowers Were coming from spring and I wish that butterflies would rose up from the ground. And colors were coming out of my ears. Every color was coming in every part of my body. When I first saw blue I thought it was the sky. When I first saw green it made me feel like I was grass and other things that is green. I a green but it only snaps at me. I always thought it was an armadillo. But it was a alligator. -- Tracey McKinney, 2nd grade
A form which is initially harder to grasp but very stimulating to some children is the "Things made of things" poem: A mailman made of pins A dancer made of candy A doctor made of monkeys A nurse made of books A child made of hair A bear made of dictionarys A book made of radios A boy made of dogs A cat made of houses A mother made of workbooks. -- Maria Lenora Reyes, 1st grade . . . sugar is made of salt. salt of sea sea of water water of soap soap of ashes ashes of fire fire of light light of the moon moon of cheese cheese of milk milk of grass grass of seeds seeds of other things. -- Sara Abraham, 2nd grade
At the beginning of a class I might list three kinds of poems on the board and let the children choose. If a child had an idea for a different poem, so much the better. It is important to remember that forms are a means of enabling students to get something on paper, not an end in themselves. When a kid becomes bogged down after a good beginning, asking questions may help him find a new direction. "How did the horse like being magic? Did it know that a witch was a witch? What do horses like to do on Sunday?"
Progress came in spurts, followed by slumps. On good days I sometimes had the sensation of watching a high-speed film of a flower opening. . . . what if I was a Lion in a cage. I'd roar! and snarl! and try to open the door. I'd be afraid what will they do to me? People staring at me. But one day I was tired Scratched and roared and the door slowly opened It wasn't locked. They forgot to lock the door I ran to the jungle and thought Some day the lions will have LIBERTY!! -- Silvia Hidalgo, 3rd grade
Sometimes the victories seemed tiny to a casual eye. But getting this fragment from a shy, quiet boy I had all but given up on gave me more pleasure than many other complete poems. I wish I was King Of the Univert. I'll teach the Univert good. Just like R . . .
Never mind that I didn't know who R is. The boy was expressing himself, his own thoughts, not what he had been told to think.
Of course there were days when nothing went right. Sometimes there seemed to be a reason, such as bad weather having precluded any outside recess. Or a substitute teacher might have had a hard time with a class, and vice versa. Some days were awful just because the kids had decided it was a good day to be awful. In this case it is best to just read them a story. If you can get them to keep still.
Ultimately, writing cannot be taught. No creative endeavor can. It can, however, be learned. The trick is to stimulate someone to want to learn, to want the satisfaction which comes from self-expression. Over and over I emphasized that what was best in the children's poems were the thoughts, feelings, and images that comes out of their own heads.
On the last day of class I got this from the class troublemaker, who shall remain nameless: I used to be a Frog but now I'm a elephant.
For a moment I thought he was an angel. Then the bell rang.