Teaching children to write poetry can be a very daunting task. We frighten ourselves out of letting kids be the poets they naturally are and turn to form poetry like Acrostic, Haiku or having them answer questions that turn into a poem somehow at the end. I think part of it could be that many of us don't look at ourselves as natural poets, many of us do not write poetry often enough to feel comfortable writing it. The other part is that if WE don't feel good about writing poetry we trick ourselves into thinking that there is no WAY young children can do it well. I felt like without a form to follow, my kids would not be successful. That was until I met Georgia Heard, poet extraordinaire. Here are four things she shared with me that have now made me a successful teacher of poetry.
Young children are natural poets. They observe the world in a childlike way that we as adults just can't do anymore because we have seen things so often they aren't new to us anymore. I was outside blowing bubbles with my four year old son and he said, "Mom look, the bubbles are dancing!" The other day one of my students described the sunset as, "Cotton candy colors." What could be more poetic than that? First thing I learned was that I had to trust that even if I didn't think in a poetic way, the kids sure did.
Paper. Not just any old paper will do. You have to give them "poetry paper" also known as paper cut long like a tall building. It should be soft pastel colored like springtime, waiting to be filled up with beautiful words. Right away you will see a change in your poets when you give them this kind of paper because they see that poems are different than stories. They see that you have to pick just the right words because there isn't room to write a complete sentence across the page. They have to choose their words carefully and only use the most important ones.
Immerse them in Poetry. Writers need other writers to lift them up and show them what good writers do. Read aloud poetry, get poetry books in their book baskets, create a poetry shelf, put baskets of poetry books on tables around the room, hang poems (both published and student created) from the ceiling, create a poetry wall, have kids choose a favorite poem to read aloud to the class and pull up quotes from poets about how they get ideas to hang around the room. Immerse them in the kind of poetic language you want them to use. Point it out when you see it working. Once a child writes a poetic line like, "Cotton candy colors", have them share and celebrate their good work so that others will catch the enthusiasm and try to approximate it.
Use concrete objects. If you have a poet that wants to write about bubbles, get some bubbles and blow them. Have the poet watch the bubbles and talk out loud about what they see. Encourage them to describe what they see, "In a way no one else ever has!" Bring in natural objects like seashells, leaves, pinecones, a blade of grass or a ladybug. Have the kids hold them, touch them and talk about them. Encourage them to use phrases such as, "like a" or "reminds me of" to get them to use surprise description. Poets who can use all of their senses to explore an object will write their poems with more specific detail.
Try just these few things and then let it simmer. Give the children the time and encouragement to play around with their words and celebrate all of their approximations. There is nothing wrong with teaching children Haiku and Acrostic forms of poetry but don't let that be all you do because you are to uncertain to let the kids free. Trust your young poets; you will be amazed at what they create!