Poetry: by bird, by wind,
by animal, by fire
Teaching children poetry. I suppose it really comes down to a passport I found outside the dentist’s office that felt like a miracle to find. This passport made by a child at the arboretum explained the four ways a seed is carried—by bird, by wind, by animal, by fire. Poems are seeds. I have been mysteriously given the zeal to carry poetry to children.
I started teaching poetry to children when my daughter was in kindergarten. I felt there wasn’t enough poetry being taught in the schools. I began volunteering in her classroom. Other classrooms asked me to teach poetry, and one thing led to another so that I began officially teaching for California Poets in the Schools. I’ve been teaching now with CPITS for seven years. I work regularly at the same four schools and teach kindergarten through fifth grade. Every grade is different and offers its individual challenges. In kindergarten we play with poetry verbally, but the challenge is the kid’s actual writing—one or two words, sometimes three or four words. These words become POWERFUL to the children. If you were given one word to write down—what would it be? And if it took your whole body and mind and heart and nervous system to write it—imagine the power. Some kids can’t write without tipping out of their chairs. Some kids can’t write without running around the room five times. Some kids can’t write without hitting another child. This can be very chaotic and trying at times—but when the word comes out usually everyone settles down. We have a reading circle at the end of our writing session so that everyone passes the talking stick (microphone) and reads their poem or says their poems if they can’t read it.
The class is usually divided up into three parts: the poem and the lesson, writing of poems, reading of poems. I use the basic format first used by Kenneth Koch where you start the class with a poem that the children read with me. This grounds me as a teacher. When I read the poem with the kids I know exactly where I am. As Goethe said—he that wants to understand the poem, must go to the land of poetry. The poem puts us in the same land. I often envy the children. I was hungry for poetry as a child. I memorized Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. I made my mother read it over and over to me. I also memorized many Psalms. I remember feeling like I couldn’t get enough poetry. I think children who are taught poetry now are lucky because they read amazing poets like Rilke in kindergarten and take them to heart. The poem of Rilke I use with little kids that works so well is called “Sadness.” “I think that the star glittering above me has been dead for a million years.” A dead star—the children feel this. And towards the end of the poem: “I would like to step out of my heart and go walking beneath the enormous sky.” I ask, “Why does he want to step out of his heart?” The kids know. They shout out—“because he’s sad.” We talk about intense feelings and how they make us want to get away from ourselves.
One of my favorite activities to do with the children is to make word collages because it makes them more aware of individual words and juxtaposition. They cut words from magazines and newspapers. Words become valued and treasured. The kids barter with other kids for the words they want. They are delighted by what poems they assemble. I like the chaos of this activity. Words get stuck on clothes, in hair, on the bottom of their shoes. They put words into their pockets and they get carried out to recess. When children get done with their own poems they become “word searchers” for other children. I usually give the younger kids a starting phrase for them to finish. Here are some lines from first grade collages: “A poem is a broken path in the water.” “A poem is a dream beneath our head.” “A poem is a shadow behind your hands.” From a class of second graders: “My heart closes the flower next to the cold snow.” “My heart grows bigger and bigger—then it opens up and shines.” From a class of third graders: “A poem is a target zooming into readers’ minds. “A poem is one hundred apples running on a tree.”
“ Life is
is is is is is is is is is is is is
is is is is is is is is is is is is
an endless road.”
I think the biggest challenge in my teaching is trying to keep the writing exciting and fresh. I find the older kids get, the more they hold on to a standardized test voice that gets drilled into them at school. They become more peer conscious which has a way of stifling their voices also. But my hope is that as they grow older they will remember poetry as a force in their lives they can always return to. “Spring boils happiness into everything. “The soup’s leg destroyed a small café and then rampaged the neighborhood.” “Love’s jaw is spelled with 4 letters.”
One of the places I teach poetry is in North Beach, a community that has the tradition of celebrating poetry. At the end of the school year the different grade levels have poetry readings in the park, the Café at the SF Art Institute and the poetry room at City Lights Book Store. The children feel connected to each other and the community through their poetry. In a fourth grader’s thank you letter to City Lights she wrote, “That poetry room was magnificent. I loved everything about it. If there was dust, I’d expect I’d love the dust.” In the end, my hope is that the seeds of poetry are planted in the children and grow as the children grow into teenagers and adults.
Sally Doyle lives in North Beach and is a poet-teacher in the Poets in the Schools Program in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in How(ever), Temblor, Avec, Chain, Five Fingers Review, Central Park, O Anthology, Ariel, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Under the Neath is from Leave Books. She is currently at work on a book called The Red Sea Notebooks.