Read an Excerpt
Teaching Children to Write Poetry
The Dawn of Me
I was born nowhere
And I live in a tree
I never leave my tree
It is very crowded
I am stacked up right against a bird
But I won't leave my tree
Everything is dark
I hear the bird sing
I wish I could sing
My eyes, they open
And all around my house
Slowly I get down in the water
The cool blue water
Oh and the space
I laugh swim and cry for joy
This is my home
Jeff Morley, Fifth Grade, P.S. 61
Last winter and the spring before that I taught poetry writing to children at P.S. 61 on East 12th Street between Avenue B and Avenue C in Manhattan. I was sponsored first by the Academy of American Poets, then by the Teachers' & Writers' Collaborative.1 I was a special teacher, who, like an art teacher, took classes at certain times. I could vary these arrangements thanks to the sympathetic cooperation of Jacob Silverman, the principal, who helped me to see any class I liked, even on short notice. Unlike other special teachers, I asked the regular teacher to stay in the room while I was there; I needed her help and I wanted to teach her as well as the children. I usually went to the school two or three afternoons a week and taught three forty-minute classes. Toward the end I taught more often, because I had become so interested and because I knew I was going to write about it and wanted as much experience as possible. My interest in the whole subject originally was largely due to Emily Dennis and to her inspiring ways of teaching art to children at the Metropolitan Museum.
I was curious to see what could be done for children's poetry. Iknew some things about teaching adults to write, for I had taught writing classes for a number of years at Columbia and the New School. But I didn't know about children. Adult writers had read a lot, wanted to be writers, and were driven by all the usual forces writers are driven by. I knew how to talk to them, how to inspire them, how to criticize their work. What to say to an eight-year-old with no commitment to literature?
One thing that encouraged me was how playful and inventive children's talk sometimes was. They said true things in fresh and surprising ways. Another was how much they enjoyed making works of art--drawings, paintings, and collages. I was aware of the breakthrough in teaching children art some forty years ago. I had seen how my daughter and other children profited from the new ways of helping them discover and use their natural talents. That hadn't happened yet in poetry. Some children's poetry was marvelous, but most seemed uncomfortably imitative of adult poetry or else childishly cute. It seemed restricted somehow, and it obviously lacked the happy, creative energy of children's art. I wanted to find, if I could, a way for children to get as much from poetry as they did from painting.
I Ideas for Poems
My adult writing courses had relied on what I somewhat humorously (for its grade-school sound) called "assignments." Every week I asked the writers in the workshop to imitate a particular poet, write on a certain theme, use certain forms and techniques: imitations of Pound's Cantos, poems based on dreams, prose poems, sestinas, translations. The object was to give them experiences which would teach them something new and indicate new possibilities for their writing. Usually I found these adult writers had too narrow a conception of poetry; these "assignments" could broaden it. This system also made for good class discussions of student work: everyone had faced the same problem (translating, for example) and was interested in the solutions.
I thought this would also work with children, though because of their age, lack of writing experience, and different motivation, I would have to find other assignments. I would also have to go easy on the word "assignment," which wasn't funny in grade school. In this book I refer to assignments,
poetry ideas, and themes; in class what I said was "What shall we write about today?" Or "Let's do a Noise Poem." My first poetry idea, a Class Collaboration, was successful, but after that it was a few weeks before I began to find other good ones. Another new problem was how to get the grade-school students excited about poetry. My adult students already were; but these children didn't think of themselves as writers, and poetry to most of them seemed something difficult and remote. Finding the right ideas for poems would help, as would working out the best way to proceed in class. I also needed poems to read to them that would give them ideas, inspire them, make them want to write.
I know all this now, but I sensed it only vaguely the first time I found myself facing a class. It was a mixed group of fifth and sixth graders. I was afraid that nothing would happen. I felt the main thing I had to do was to get them started writing, writing anything, in a way that would be pleasant and exciting for them. Once that happened, I thought, other good things might follow.
I asked the class to write a poem together, everybody contributing one line. The way I conceived of the poem, it was easy to write, had rules like a game, and included the pleasures without the anxieties of competitiveness. No one had to worry about failing to write a good poem because everyone was only writing one line; and I specifically asked the children not to put their names on their line. Everyone was to write the line on a sheet of paper and turn it in; then I would read them all as a poem. Wishes, Lies, and Dreams. Copyright © by Kenneth Koch. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.