Poetry with Kids: A Break from My Regularly Scheduled Program

I love teaching poetry workshops for adults. You'd hope so, considering that's what I do for a living. I teach at Binghamton University, but I also work for the Binghamton Poetry Project as an instructor for the veterans workshop at the Binghamton Veterans Center, and I've taught at the Broome County Public Library as well. These workshops - there's something magic - I leave each one of them feeling just a little more clear-headed than usual. I feel lighter, luckier, hopeful. The community writers who gather at these workshops love poetry because it loves them back. Beautiful and simple. We read poems aloud, talk about them, respond to creative prompts, bitch about self-promotion and refine our techniques for revision. From the beginning (and my beginning was on Capitol Hill in Seattle, circa 2002, when I took my first undergraduate poetry course), I have wanted to work with adults returning to college, non-traditional students, and all writers interested in exploring their poetic voice.

But I've never gone more than a year without working with kids in some way or another. Usually it's by teaching poetry, but I've also taught violin lessons in Oregon, Alaska and Colorado. I was a substitute teacher in Alaska - one of my favorite jobs as I've traveled the country - and worked with students aged five to eighteen. One day, as I herded 25 kindergarteners into a single file line at Baxter Elementary, each of them demonstrating hallway etiquette by putting their hands on their heads - they looked like prisoners - a boy at the front of the line said, "Why do you have an earring in your lip?" I was glad he'd asked. "Fishing accident," I said. "Oh," he responded, unflinching. "It looks good."

Last year, a few instructors from the Binghamton Poetry Project offered to teach four hour-long poetry workshops at Charles F. Johnson Elementary in Endicott, New York. The teachers were thrilled. Heather, Nicole, Clara and I showed groups of 20 first-graders what it meant to brainstorm, write a list poem, dabble in concrete poetry, and write poems addressed to themselves. The first time I walked into the classroom, a student hopped out of his chair, rushed over to me and said, "My cousin lives in South Carolina!" I congratulated him. What news! No, for serious. How cool.

This past Friday, we went into two elementary schools, Charles F. Johnson and Johnson City Primary, for the same round of workshops. (Nicole was gone, having left to teach poetry at Shippensburg University, but we were joined by masters student LaJoie to take her place.) I managed to secure a tiny honorarium for all of us through the Binghamton Center for Writers, although I know we would have done this work for free. It's that magic we feel when we finish a lesson. The poets look down at their desks and recognize themselves on paper.

Poetry, for one hour, returns to its most fundamental simplicity, shedding the complications and complexities that so often riddle more mature workshops. The pursuit of publication, questions about formal verse and the clarification of rules and references, claims of one poet being stronger than another - all this is absent, long gone, off the table. Everybody in the room likes Shel Silverstein and Kenn Nesbitt because they are what's on the menu. And everybody knows how to write about a game they've played. Everybody's willing. And nobody's anxious.

Each year, before workshops, we worry (a little) at our planning session: what if the kids feel like their poems have to rhyme? What if they don't want to break their lines? What if alliteration eludes them? What if they feel pressured to write a certain way? And the classrooms aren't without problems. Because of testing requirements, kids are coming and going from the classroom constantly, some of them learning the lesson but missing the activity while others miss the lesson and return bewildered for the activity. Sometimes there is pressure to write a certain way, to follow the prompts exactly, and we have to encourage everyone to use their imaginations, to stop worrying and write freely, to break the rules if they want (I know, this sounds awfully familiar to adult workshops). Sometimes it feels like I am breaking into a student's mind, waking her imagination up by dousing it in cold water. Sometimes it is hard to get kids to play.

But poetry - perhaps more universally than soccer, Minecraft, wrestling, or tag - never fails to stimulate that urge to take risks. Kids are natural storytellers. So are we, but some of us have learned to doubt our talent. That's why I'm so glad I get to take these short breaks between teaching adult workshops, which I love so much. If I didn't teach kids, how else would I remember why I've got a lip ring? How would I remember it's exciting to have a cousin in South Carolina? I might forget that playing Duck, Duck, Goose is frustrating for people with bad knees and slow feet. I might not ever think about what Barbie would say if she talked. (One teacher said, "She'd probably tell you to stop putting her in heels.")

And what happens when we forget? I'm not just being sentimental here. If we forget how to play, our poetry becomes more like a recording than a call to action. If we do not play, we lose our ability to cope with fear, sorrow, and anger. Our poetry becomes desperate. The best poets I know are the ones who aren't afraid to play, even in the face of danger and tragedy. Amy Lowell. Ellen Bass. André Breton. Jericho Brown. Carolyn Kizer. Ruth Stone. James Tate. Kwame Dawes. Peter Sears. The list is ridiculously long.

The ability to play lends us power that is useful and manageable. It keeps the mind primed for compassion, love, creativity and fearlessness.

I wanted to share a couple shots of some poems written yesterday by first graders who did not once ask why lines are broken where, or whether their poems had to rhyme. Who dove into the prompts like bowls of frosting. (You may have to do some guesswork on some spelling attempts. That didn't stop them.)

The frustrations of Duck, Duck, Goose. He told me 
the title was "Why I Don't Like Duck, Duck, Goose."

"A Fun Day."

"My Barbie Dreamhouse."

"My iPad Turned into Minecraft."


Unknown said…
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