Teaching Poetry with Choice and Voice

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Our poetry unit began during recess on a rainy April day, when a child asked me, "Can I have a piece of paper so I can write a poem about how the Earth counts on me?" I found this curious as we had not been talking about poetry or the Earth, so I gave him a sheet of paper and this is what he wrote (note: rf=Earth).

He shared it with the class and then the next day two more children asked for paper and wrote "poems" about the Earth.  

Now at this point, my plan had been to launch a nonfiction unit of study.  There was great interest in the eagles we had been watching on a webcam and Zoo to You had just visited our classroom.  Yet, I knew poetry had a lot to offer as well (descriptive writing, fluency, reading with expression etc.)  So I thought it over during the April break and decided to test the waters on poetry when we returned.

Here's how the first day went! I asked the children what a poem was and they said things like:

Something that rhymes.
It's a little story.
It's a word. 
It's a song without music. 

I asked if all poems were about the Earth.  They said, "No," and named several things that poems could be about. One child said, "Poems are about Everything." (Remember this as it becomes important later!)

Then, I asked if anyone knew a poem.  Only one hand went up and this is what he offered:

Here comes Santa,
quick, quick, quick.
You better go to bed,
or Santa won't come.

I asked him if he had written the poem himself (he very proudly said yes!) and said he learned how to write poetry from his brother who was in seventh grade.  

And it was from here that the poetry unit really took off! We talked about how this child used repeating words in his poem and then other hands went up and now they too had poems to share.  They were starting to understand a little bit about poetry and even more importantly, they felt empowered to write them. 

So I gave them paper and they were off!

As I watched them work, I found many teachable moments coming through in their writing and jotted these down.  Every lesson from that day on was built on something notable that I saw in a child's writing.

At the end of writing workshop, on that very first day, someone asked if we could, "put our poems in a book?" I told the children that this was called an anthology and wondered if they wanted to make a class anthology or each have their own.  They wanted their own!

The next day they came in asking when we would be writing poems. Their energy and enthusiasm was high!  

I began by reading a few of the poems they had written the day before that had elements I wanted to highlight.  They loved hearing their work read aloud using my "poet's voice" and were truly learning from each other.

This child's poem taught us that poems sometimes ask questions.

We began a list of "What Poets Use" for them to have as a reference.

Because they were asked to give each poem a title, they gained some great practice with main idea in a real vs. an artificial sense.

The days that followed continued in a similar fashion and we added to our list as we went along.  I also began reading published poems to the children and we explored the techniques each poet used.

You may have big books like these hanging around that were part of an old reading series.  You can also find them on Ebay.

I loved the variety of topics the children wrote about and how their unique voices came through.

They began to get inspiration from objects they saw in the classroom and asked to bring these items to their table so they could look at them closely.

They wrote about the solar system, butterflies, animals, spring, the Easter Bunny, slime, mixing colors, camping, construction workers, trees, Batman, and more!

One child wrote a poem about farts with the last line being, toot, toot, toot. I had to really think about this one!  It didn't feel right to tell him that he couldn't write about that. After all, we did say that poems could be about EVERYTHING and I knew many examples of silly poems that were wildly successful.  On the other hand, I was worried that the whole class might start writing about topics that might be less than appropriate and that our poetry unit might head in a new direction.

So I spoke with this child and told him that he might be surprised to find that people respond differently to his poem.  Some people will not want to hear a poem about this topic while others might think it is very funny.  I also told him that it would not be a poem he could read over the loudspeaker at our school, because the principal would probably not allow it.  He seemed to understand and I didn't feel that I diminished his work in any way.  And as it turned out, I didn't get any other poems about topics such as this except from this child who wrote about his brother clogging the toilet and peeing his pants.  He was definitely going for humor and that can be poetry too!

Our poetry unit also spilled over into reading workshop where we began reading poems for fluency practice (and enjoyment)!  These came from a book called Sight Word Poetry Pages by Rozanne Williams.

I continued to point out different poetry elements as they came up in the poems we were reading. We also worked on scooping our voice (phrasing), reading with expression and changing our voices to match the punctuation marks.

To bring closure to our eagle studies, we wrote poems rather than "All About" books.

I chose to type up their poems vs. using their own handwriting, to provide an opportunity to teach them about the visual look of a poem. I also liked that this leveled the playing field so that all children's poems could be read and enjoyed despite their writing ability.

After a few really enjoyable weeks of poetry writing, I created an anthology for each child and they illustrated their poems.  

I then asked for volunteers to share their poems with the rest of the school following the morning announcements. All but four children chose to participate.  

To prepare, they practiced reading their poem several times and also took them home over the weekend for additional practice.  It felt great to be really working on those often forgotten speaking standards! 

Most were very nervous when it came time to actually read over the loudspeaker.  One child, who volunteered to go first, lost his courage and just wasn't able to do it.  

Another child made me cry!  When he came to kindergarten, he was described as being a select mute and cried every day for the first week or so.  And now here he was reading his poem out loud in front of the whole school!  What a moment!

Then, I bundled up their poetry and sent it home for them to share with their families.

I am really glad that poetry "came up" for us this year! It is not one of our units of study, but because it offered so many opportunities to teach several language and speaking standards, I plan to do it again next year.  And I think that if I begin planting those "poetry seeds" in September by making poetry breaks a regular part of our day, they will be well-versed in this genre by the time spring comes.

Have you tried poetry writing in kindergarten?  How did it go for you?

Thanks for stopping by!

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