When I joined my mother at an English conference to hear the author Amy Tan speak, I also had the chance to hear the poet Andrew Hudgins speak.
I don’t know what he said or which of his poems he shared, but I understood poetry for the first time that day. The way he captured complex emotions in words and symbols seemed almost magical.
Since then, I’ve come to not only appreciate poetry, but actually love reading it. Now that I am a full-time homeschooling mother, I hope to embed that same appreciation and love into the lives of my children.
Where does a teacher begin in teaching poetry? What if you are one of those people who has never appreciated poetry yourself? Do you have to teach children poetry?
Trust me when I say, I understand. I always disliked poetry too.
In homeschooling, there is sometimes a need to “de-school” a child who associates learning with only negative things. This means to let go of a formal schedule for a few days or weeks so the child can get used to being home before a parent tries to sit down and institute a new schedule of learning.
Similarly, I think some of us need to “de-poetry” in order to get over our aversions! Step back from formal instruction. Simply spend some time learning to enjoy poetry.
I believe that teaching poetry to elementary-aged children is easier than we realize. Before we dive in to analyzing the parts of the poem or writing a diamante, we need to embrace the natural poetry in our own language. I believe finding poetic elements all around us is natural.
Poetry is a natural part of language for young children. I sing my infant daughter to sleep with a gentle (sometimes silly) lullaby. But even before that, we read a favorite bedtime story, like Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, a poem that ties together familiar items in a lilting rhythm. We read it over and over again, so that the familiar refrain of “Goodnight stars. Goodnight air. Goodnight noises everywhere.” becomes a lullaby in its own right.
My son, not I, is the one in our family finding rhymes around him, exaggerating (hyperbole: I’m going to die I’m so hungry!), and finding similarities (metaphor and simile) in his life, whether it is finding Mickey Mouse inside of his pancake or “snow” in the powdered sugar he drizzles on top.
We live in an age where poetic concepts do not need to be expressed in a formulaic way, such as a sonnet or haiku (although there is a place for learning and embracing those as well, after the poetry aversion is gone). When we teach our children poetry at an elementary level, I believe poetic concepts should be the focus. It can be very fun.
Parents and teachers can build on this natural love for poetic concepts. Before children lose their love for natural poetry, let’s embrace it. Here are some ideas on how to start fresh in approaching poetry. These ideas may be helpful for anyone who has a poetry aversion or who is teaching someone who does.
I firmly believe students can and should learn to appreciate poetry long before the time comes when they must analyze poetry. Their first baby step toward analyzing it is to hear it, to find something to appreciate in it, and to share it. What is their favorite picture book? What is their favorite song?
Talk and think poetically
I do not mean to begin speaking in Shakespearian “thee’s” and “thou’s.” What I mean by “talking poetically” is to find the ways you use language poetically. I suspect you do so more than you realize. (This traffic is as slow as molasses! This room is a pig pen!)
Listen to poetry
Put on a poetry audiobook while you drive in the car. Listen to a dramatization of a poem. Or play a favorite song that your kids like.
Have poetry available
This can be as easy as listening to a song. But the more poetry that is available, the better! Have a variety of anthologies with different types of illustrations to browse through.
Although I love poetry, I am not an expert. I like reading it and enjoying it. That’s the joy of poetry: it can speak to each reader individually.
Every poem touches a person in a different way, but maybe one of these will touch you or the children you teach. Two poems I believe help the poetry-averse better understand poetry are by Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “On Turning Ten.”
You can find more of my favorite poems on my long list 150+ Poems to Enjoy. For most of the poems on the list, I have included a link where it can be read online.
When someone tells me they do not want to teach their elementary-aged children poetry at all because they, the teacher, dislike it, I feel a bit sad. I believe that for the most part, you don’t have to teach poetry to children that age! Just read it and experience it together. Observe things in a poetic way and with poetic terms if you want, but don’t force the issue. The time will come to analyze and identify. If we focus on the poetic concepts and the enjoyment factor of those concepts in our lives and in the language we use, then we will not have to deal with poetry aversion so much later on, when we have to introduce more formal study. Rhythm, rhyme, and metaphor will be second nature.