Minds in Bloom is pleased to welcome back Christina Gil today! Christina is sharing her techniques for making poetry for kids a fun and engaging experience that enhances their reading, writing, and analyzing skills.
With so much to do and so little time, poetry might seem like the kind of activity that teachers plan to do but never quite have time to cover. My guess is that for many teachers, it’s not only about the time. Poetry can be intimidating for many reasons, but it doesn’t have to be. Poetry is lots of fun and, most importantly, it teaches kids so much about language and meaning and their own worlds. When lessons are designed to engage students at their level, teaching poetry is not that hard.
Here are my six steps to get kids reading, analyzing, and writing poetry—and having fun at the same time.
Find some accessible but challenging poems.
I love Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein just as much as anyone, but I prefer that kids don’t grow up thinking that all poetry has to rhyme and be silly and entertain them. Some of my favorite poets work great with elementary kids—especially Emily Dickinson, May Swenson, and Mary Oliver. What’s important is that kids understand what they can but that they are also able to let go of the pieces of the poem that are over their heads. Learning how to interpret a text without knowing the meaning of every single word is a great skill that can only be developed when students read above their level every once in a while.
Draw anything and everything.
One of may favorite techniques for getting students to notice the details of a poem, especially the ways that figurative language works to create meaning through visuals, is by tasking students with drawing the images created in a text. Sometimes this means that they choose one phrase to illustrate. Other times, I create a comic strip-style handout with the poem for them to fill out. Either way, it’s not so much about the quality of the drawing as it is about getting kids to think about the imagery.
Does the poem you have chosen describe some sort of physical act? If so, get students to try it out for themselves. In Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” she says, ““I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, / which is what I have been doing all day.” So, when we studied that poem, we did what she did. We talked about all of the tricky words in this passage—“idle,” “blessed,” “stroll”—and then we went outside and dropped on our knees and fell in the grass and practiced strolling, as well as paying attention. The kids really remembered every aspect of that section of the poem, because they had lived it themselves.
Talk together about the main ideas, but don’t ignore the tricky parts.
Another thing that I love about poetry is that since we’re dealing with limited amounts of text, we can really dig in and discuss. I could talk about the subtle meanings and contradictions of my favorite poems all day, but I know that my students aren’t always down for such detail. Still, making sure that they always come back to meaning is key. They need to understand that writers create texts to convey their ideas to the world, and they also need to learn that we read to better understand our world.
Try some low-key exercises to get them writing.
The easiest, least intimidating exercise that I do with students to get them writing poetry is to give them pieces of paper with words from the original poems and have them write their own poems by utilizing those words. It’s kind of like a reverse Mad Libs, where they’re supplying the rest of the poem. They can use as many of the words as they like—including stringing them together to make a nonsense poem. I have found success with this method with kids as young as six who weren’t even reading or writing completely independently yet.
Go outside and observe.
One of the main reasons why some of my favorite poets work so well for kids is that they write a great deal about nature. Their poems often revolve around the intricate details and quiet moments that can be found when we get outside and surround ourselves with the outdoors. But it’s not enough for students to just talk about what they read—I want to get them outside, too, to write their own poetry. Writing poetry about nature works great with kids. Observing with their five senses, taking notes on everything they see, and then crafting a poem from those notes is another great exercise to get them writing.
Don’t forget that poetry is about getting deep with language and with ideas, but it is also about having fun. You really can’t mess up poems, especially with kids. As long as you tap into their spirit of adventure and fun, they will make some beautiful pieces. I’m reminded here of Picasso’s famous quote about artists (which, of course, includes poetry, too!): “Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist once we grow up.”
After sixteen years teaching high school English, I left the classroom to follow a dream and move with my family to a rural ecovillage. Since February of 2015, I have become an entrepreneur, I have been homeschooling my own kids, and I have also started teaching a homeschool co-op class with three other students. You can visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store here.