Areas of Study

How Can You Become a Poet?

When someone says the word poetry, do you experience unpleasant flashbacks to seemingly interminable English classes, during which you had to analyze poems from another century whose meaning only the teacher seemed to know?
 
Or maybe, you were a different kind of student. You kept a private journal where you collected your favorite words—pillow, exuberance, skullduggery—as well as your least favorite words—moist, curdle, dainty—and you secretly enjoyed hearing the teacher read poems aloud in class. You even liked analyzing lines of poetry word by word to discover their meaning, but you didn’t go around advertising that fact.
 
If you are a 3rd grade student at Lowell, your experience of poetry is very different. You and your classmates are part of a community of writers. In fact, you see yourselves as poets: you enjoy “cracking open words,” collecting your favorite poems, and knowing ways to start poems and how to end them with a surprise. Your teachers are interested in hearing your interpretation of poems, and they want to know what the poems made you think about. You discuss these things among yourselves, too. About twenty of you volunteer to read poems to Primary School students at Gathering in celebration of National Poetry Month. When the poetry unit ends, you notice that some prose sounds like poetry—you find beautiful language in unexpected places, like informational books. And, a few of you visit your 3rd grade teachers after you’ve moved on to 4th grade—just to let them know you’re still writing poetry.
 
How does this happen? How do Kathie Clements, Laurie Carter, and Ashlie Webb inspire in so many of their students an interest in poetry and language year after year? And, how does this interest transform into flexibility and skill in writing?

Ideas for Poets

from 3rd Grade Teachers Kathie Clements, Laurie Carter, and Ashlie Webb

Be a sponge. Look carefully at everything around you. Look at things in a different way. Make things look different. Use exciting words. Write about your inner thoughts, longings, or feelings.

What is in your heart? What amazes you? What’s beautiful in the world? What worries do you have for the world? Poets write about their concerns. Ask questions about the world, your lives. What do you wonder about? What memories do you have? Poetry is everywhere. Where do the poems hide for you?

ENCOURAGING EXPLORATION

One of the most important things Kathie, Laurie, and Ashlie do is to make it easy for students to approach poetry. Classrooms are set up to encourage exploration—a basket labeled “fabulously interesting in-class reading books” containing the work of poets such as Georgia Heard, Eloise Greenfield, William Carlos Williams, Valerie Worth, and, of course, Shel Silversein sits invitingly on the floor; a note posted near a window encourages children to observe closely; a jar of words sits on a shelf in one classroom and lists of words—“Words for Feeling Strong,” “Words to Help a Friend Feel Better,” “Words for Peace,” and “Words for Recess”— are posted on the wall in another.
Children read countless poems by a wide range of poets, and teachers give children time to figure out what they are interested in. They read list poems, concrete poems, autobiographical poems, tongue tied poems, and serious poems. They read them silently, out loud, and they read them in pairs and in groups.
 
On one overcast day, students in Ashlie’s class paired up to read and talk about poems that mention rain—Langston Hughes’s poem “April Rain Song,” Eve Merriam’s poem “Summer Rain,” and Adrien Stoutenburg’s “Rain.” Students shared these comments:
 
“We noticed the repetition of ‘rain’ in every line.”
“You can see the poem in your head.”
“We heard alliteration of Ss and Ts.”
“My favorite line was ‘and my shadow floats on the sidewalk.’”
“This poem really makes more sense in the second stanza than in the first.”
“I noticed the clouds got their water from the sea.”
 
And then, Ashlie took her class outside, gave them magnifying glasses, and had them look through the misty air and observe the world covered in raindrops before returning to the classroom to write.

PLAYING WITH WORDS

In addition to exposing students to a wide range of poems to peak their interest, teachers give students many opportunities to write their own poetry. Perhaps one of the most important things that the teachers do is help the children figure out what they want to write about. Instead of writing prompts—students create “heart maps” that identify what they care about. These maps encourage students to write about what matters to them. After all, poems start with a feeling, teachers remind them. And, students learn that poems should make readers feel something, too.
 
Teachers also offer many poetry exercises and mini lessons that encourage students play with words. Writers are prompted to leave behind overused, “low-energy” words like go and green in favor of “high energy” words like gallop and chartreuse. Visualization techniques, acting poems out, and observation activities help them improve their descriptive skills. In other exercises, students delve into the structure of poems, exploring the effect of different line lengths and line breaks and turning paragraphs into poems.
 
As in any kind of play, students experiment, try things, have fun, and no one says what is wrong or right. According to the teachers, one of the outcomes of this playful approach is that the students really own the unit. They internalize the lessons and are excited to share not only their own poems but what they have learned about writing poetry. When teachers observe 3rd graders choosing to write poems in their spare time, they know they’ve got them hooked.
 
Even revision—which can often seem like a chore—becomes an appealing challenge to 3rd graders during the poetry unit. Now attuned to subtle shades of meaning, students are eager to find just the right words to express their thoughts and feelings. They pull out the dictionary or thesaurus regularly and enthusiastically. Having seen Georgia Heard’s four versions of “Dragonfly,” they come to understand that revision is a process of figuring out what one really wants to say, rather than merely fixing mistakes.

LOOKING AT THINGS DIFFERENTLY

Throughout this unit, children learn that “writing is a way to express themselves and share with others,” Ashlie reflects. And, because there aren’t a lot of restrictions or conventions to follow (teachers don’t focus on strict poetic forms like sonnets or haiku), students are “more willing to put themselves out there,” says Kathie Clements. Laurie Carter observes that the freedom of choosing what they would write about is motivating. Their writing grows, and they start developing their own unique voices. Not only that, but their voices “start to emerge in their prose writing, as well.”
 
In 3rd grade classrooms, poetry is something that “helps you look at things differently”—even the act of writing itself.
 
“Reply to the Question: ‘How can You Become a Poet?’ is a poem
by Eve Merriam.
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