The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 6, No 1 (2002)

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Illuminating Texts

Sue Corbett, column editor


The Power of Poetry

Margriet Ruurs


As a writer of children's books, I am often asked to do poetry writing workshops with kids of all ages. The lyrical language and rhythmic patterns of poetry provide so many learning experiences -- opportunities for reading out loud, for memorization and choral speaking, as well as for independent reading and writing.

Whether you are a parent, a classroom teacher or a librarian, poetry can enrich your book experiences with kids. My book, The Power of Poems (Maupin House, 2001), guides educators and parents to activities for writing poetry with kids that have proven to be successful and satisfying.

What is Poetry?

A poem is a story delivered in a rhythmic format. It is music for the mind that tells a story in a unique way. Poetry is one of the earliest forms of literature children are exposed to -- through nursery rhymes, lap games and songs. These are the building blocks of language.

Many children, however, aren't exposed to a wide variety of poetry. By the time they hit middle school, they may fondly recall nursery rhymes or Dr. Seuss, but they equate poetry with seriousness. Poetry can be whimsical, too.

Others feel that it isn't poetry if it doesn't rhyme. Non-rhyming poems can be just as satisfying.

Poems bring strong visual images to mind while speaking to emotions. They help us look at the world differently, to see it through different eyes. Recently, I read an anecdote in Reader's Digest. A mother who never used make-up, had a makeover done. Her five-year-old looked at her face and exclaimed, "Mom! You look like a sunset!" That is poetry!

How do we Encourage the Use of Poetry?

It isn't possible to separate writing poetry from reading poetry. Each builds on the other. You need to know what you want to write about and learn technique. But what if you knew all the techniques and had no idea what to write about?

We need to let children experience the joy of reading and writing poetry, because a child has to be motivated to write to do so successfully. To motivate a writer, I believe we need to do more than teach specific skills. When I was a child, I hated analyzing poetry. I didn't want to explain why I liked a particular sentence or guess at what the author meant. I just wanted to enjoy the poem, savour the sounds, the rhythm, and, maybe, write my own.

There's much more to poetry than having children "dissect" poems. When students visit a museum they're not allowed to scratch at the varnish of a painting or turn the canvas over to see what's underneath. They observe and absorb the complete piece as a work of art. Let's do the same with poetry.

I don't believe poets want readers to guess about meaning. A writer creates with imagination so that a reader can make the poem hers and savour what it means to her. We must be careful not to impose our views of what a poem means on children. Let them interpret it for themselves.

And let's not forget to simply have fun with poetry! I have a rule while writing poetry: Don't think too hard. Just have fun with words and enjoy what you are creating! This rule is very liberating. Try it some time! Children need to enjoy the process if we hope to turn them into writers. If it isn't fun, how can you get excited about it? Most writers write because it is what they love to do most. Heaven knows, they don't do it for the pay!

Writing for fun is not frivolous: It plays a role in perfecting the craft of writing itself. When it's fun, you keep practising it.

A Poetry Environment

A physical environment conducive to writing poetry is a classroom saturated with words. Books, a reading corner, poems on the wall, scrap paper to use when an idea "hits," should all be readily available.

The more you read, the better writer you'll be. Therefore, students should have access to a wide variety of styles and subject matter. Display as many poems as you can find. Supply your students with Shakespeare as well as Dr. Seuss, Bill Peet, Roald Dahl, Sheree Fitch and Dennis Lee.

Allow sufficient time in the daily schedule to write. Increase that time as your students become more skilled. They will start to ask for more time as their enjoyment of the writing increases.

Freedom of Choice

Choice is important in motivating kids to read as well as to write. Exposing students to different topics, genres and authors gives them an opportunity to develop their own preferences. Even if the choice is limited by the number of books in your classroom, the student making his or her own choice will be more committed to reading the book than if it were assigned.

The same holds true for writing. When kids are free to choose their own topics, they will be more committed to the writing process. If you told me to write about dinosaurs, I would have a hard time because I'm not particularly interested in dinosaurs. But if you gave me a choice, I might research and write about ladybugs! I could find out why they are called ladybugs, what purpose they serve in nature or even write a ladybug poem!

Wordstorming

To begin, my students do an activity I call "wordstorming." The aim of this activity is to generate ideas and increase vocabulary. Choose any topic -- I've used broad topics like cars, holidays, music, people, food, or more specific ideas like sunshine, speed, pianos or best friends. Write your topic on the board, an overhead transparency or on a flip chart.

Let's say the topic is chocolate (my favourite!). Ask your students which words come to mind. Write down all responses: brown, yummy, hard, sweet, melting, sharing, mouth-watering. When they run out of descriptive words, ask questions that will generate more. Write them all down!

What does it taste like? (good, velvety, smooth)
What does it look like when it melts? (brown mud, flowing liquid, like skin, decadent)
What does it taste like when you take a bite? (forbidden fruit, heavenly, sweet, bitter, scrumptious, luscious)

Keep prodding until the well runs dry! Once the board is covered, invite students to write a poem using some of the words. If your students have never written a poem before, you may want to offer the choice of writing a poem or a short story. But you'll be amazed to see how they use this plethora of words.

Wordstorm often. This will increase your students' vocabulary and open their eyes to the possibilities of a poem.

When students have written a poem or a short story, ask them to share out loud so others can hear what different people did with the same words. The variety will be amazing. Once they get used to the concept of wordstorming, they can start to suggest their own topics.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Ideas come from so many different, often unexpected, places -- from something you hear or see, from something someone tells you or something you read about. Who knows where the next idea will come from? The main thing is to catch it while you can! I have my students use a notebook to scribble down ideas -- any idea.

Making A Picture File

Start looking for funny or interesting pictures in magazines, cut them out and keep them in a box or file folder. Look specifically for pictures that seem to have a story behind them. What is happening in the picture? What just happened? What will happen next? Who is the main character? Who else is or might be there? What's the story?

Pictures that I have collected include:

  • a cat in an oriental vase
  • a cat licking its lips in a pantry full of food
  • a dog with a bandanna, looking very pooped
  • a gigantic upside-down ice cream cone on a floor
  • little bugs that look like tiny aliens
  • a family and an elephant at the breakfast table
  • a boy tracking mud all over the house.

Making A Newspaper File

It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction. Newspaper articles provide one of the best sources for ideas. Articles can be a starting point for creating amazing poems. Students can use fictional names and settings, and add details.

Start looking for sample stories. These can simply be stories that you like and that you feel you could write more about. You can supply your students with a big pile of newspapers and let them find their own ideas. You may also want to mention to students that they may have to search for quite a while before finding a useable story. This activity can encourage them to start reading newspapers and magazines at home to find suitable stories.

Another source for news story ideas is the web site of USA Today, especially the section marked "Weird News."

This is a recent article from that site:

Deer found taking bubble bath

HOWARD, Pa. - When Connie Beck and her husband awoke to strange noises, they thought high winds were rattling their home. What they found was even more unexpected: A deer was taking a bubble bath in their tub. The deer burst through the front door, ran past the couple's bedroom and into the bathroom, somehow managing to turn on the water in the tub and knocking over a bottle of bubble bath. He then submerged himself in the frothy water.

I could definitely write a poem about a deer taking a bubble bath!

Keep all suitable newspaper articles in a magnetic photo album for students to use. This protects the paper from yellowing and tearing.

Write On!

Once the kids have heard poems, wordstormed, and recorded ideas, start writing. Write about nature or your favorite thing or place. Try making silly tongue twisters using the first letter of your name! Here's one by Beverly, Grade 4:

Blue Drew
Drew blew a blue picture
and blew blue bubble gum
He wore a bright blue sweater
that reached down to his bum!

Write "What If . . ." poems by imagining what would happen if you met a dragon, if you were a princess, if you found a million dollars!

One of my favorite beginning poetry writing sessions is writing "Inside Me" poems. I ask the kids to introduce themselves by telling me what's inside of them. Here is Jeremy's (grade 6):

Inside Me
Inside me there is fun
I like to play sports and I like to run.
There is snow inside of me,
I don't think about the past.
I like to live every day
as if it were my last.

Tools of the Trade

At first, all children need to write poetry is language -- words to describe their thoughts and feelings, words that enable them to see something in a new light. The use of poetic language comes naturally to children.

We can supply them with skills to craft a wider variety of poems as their command of language increases. Knowing what meter or metaphor is will help kids to grow as poets, but I don't think we should throw these terms at them until they have tasted the joy of writing poems from the heart. Once kids have been introduced to poetry writing and are ready to learn more, then present them with some techniques:

Rhythm

is the beat or meter of a word or sentence. Rhythm is determined by the number of syllables and spaces in a line and can be used to obtain a certain effect in your poem. You can best hear the rhythm of a poem by reading it out loud. Poets can use short words to make short sounding sentences or choose long words that fall into a certain rhythm.

Metaphor

is a figure of speech that compares two dissimilar things, i.e., snowflakes to cottonballs, or the ocean to a dragon. Metaphor is a tool kids often use without formal instruction.

Simile

is also a comparison but using the word "like" or "as." "The sky looks like ink." "Your face looks like the sunset."

Alliteration

is the repetition of the same sound. It can include both consonants and vowels. Caution emerging writers not to over-use it!

Personification

attributes human characteristics to non-human things like animals or objects. (The flowers danced in the field; a grouchy ladybug). Personification allows us to let a bear talk or a cloud think!

Rhyme

is created by using the same sound in the last syllables of a sentence. I hope you noticed that I didn't mention rhyme until now. All kids can rhyme but writing a rhyming poem can be very restricting. Often kids think that, in order for it to be a real poem, it has to rhyme. Au contraire - if the rhyme makes the storyline stilted, don't rhyme!
We can use a variety of rhyme schemes: aa bb, ab ab, ab ba.

The Need for an Audience

An audience is an essential element of writing. Writers write so readers can read. The class is fine as audience for a while, but writers get excited about the prospect of new audiences. So when you have been writing poems with your students, you will want to share their accomplishments with others. Whether it is publishing in the classroom or publishing on-line, by reading at an assembly, or sharing with parents, be sure to celebrate the accomplishment. Offer them a real audience by publishing books, by bringing in listeners and other innovative ways!

You can produce beautiful looking books of poetry in your classroom or library by having the young authors print their poems on the computer, then designing sturdy covers. We add a dedication page, a page about the author, even an ISBN number and name of publishing company to our books! You can make an extra copy to display in the library!

Celebrate the completion of your books with a Book Launch! Invite parents, friends, even the local newspaper! You can also publish poems in your school newsletter.

(When sharing poems please don't force each student to get up and read aloud. This can cause some kids to hate poetry! Let those students read aloud who want to -- including the work of other poets who may not be ready to read aloud themselves.)

To display poetry written by students create a Poet Tree for your library! Draw a huge tree with branches on a large sheet of brown or green paper. Cut out and tape to a wall in the school hallway or classroom. The students can write poems on leaf-shaped paper. I use maple leaf shaped note pads from educational supply stores. Children can also spread one hand on a sheet of colored paper, trace it and cut it out. Tape leaves with poems all over the tree. Poets could sign the branches of their . . . Poet Tree!

Publishing on the Internet

Many websites accept writing by kids. If your school or library has its own website you can post stories and poems where everyone can read them. (Remember not to post students' full names to protect their privacy. I post first name, age or grade and city only.)

If you don't have your own website and would like to encourage young authors to submit their writing, try my electronic magazine Kidswwwrite!. Hosted by Okanagan University College's Kalamalka Institute for Working Writers, I act as editor for the magazine. It is open to children 14 years of age and younger. Stories and poems are posted by age category. A new issue comes out during the first few days of each month. I'd love to help offer a world wide audience to your writers!

It's gratifying to help your students find ways to share their poetry, because without a real audience to address, what's the use of writing? If I didn't hope that you would be reading this someday, why would I bother writing it down? I write in hopes of sharing ideas and suggestions with you, in hopes of working together so that we may stimulate children to discover the joy that writing can bring. Joy doesn't come from filling in the blanks. Joy comes from someone's response to your writing, from seeing someone else laugh or cry when they read your words! Wow! That's powerful stuff.

Books to Support a Literature-rich Environment

Booth, David and Bill Moore. Poems Please! Sharing Poems with Children. Markham,Ont.:Pembroke, 1988.

Buzzeo, Toni and Jane Kurtz. Terrific Connections with Authors, Illustrators and Storytellers: Real Space and Virtual Links. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1999.

Esbensen, Barbara Juster A Celebration of Bees: Helping Children Write Poetry. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1995. Can only be ordered from: tory@ttinet.com

Ruurs, Margriet. The Power of Poems: Teaching the Joy of Writing Poetry. Gainesville: Maupin House Publishing, 2001.

Some of My Favorite Books of Poetry

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The Jolly Postman. London: Heinemann, 1986.

Bagert, Brod. Rainbows, Head Lice and Pea-Green Tile: Poems in the Voice of the Classroom teacher. Gainesville: Maupin House, 1999.

Carroll, Lewis. Jabberwocky. Illus. by Graeme Base. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989, c1987.

Fitch, Sheree. If You Could Wear My Sneakers! poems. Illus. by Darcia Labrosse. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1997.

Korman, Gordon and Bernice Korman. The Last-Place Sports Poems of Jeremy Bloom. New York: Scholastic, 1996.

Lee, Dennis. Alligator Pie. Illus. by Frank Newfeld. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974.

Lesynski, Loris. Catmagic. Toronto: Annick Press, 1998.

Martin, Bill Jr. and John Archambault.. Barn Dance! New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1986.

Prelutsky, Jack. Something Big Has Been Here. New York: Scholastic, 1990.

Service, Robert. The Cremation of Sam McGee. Illus. by Ted Harrison. Toronto: Kids Can Press, [1986].

Seuss, Dr. Oh The Places You'll Go! New York: Random House, 1990.

Yolen, Jane. Best Witches. Illus. by Elise Primavera. New York: Putnam, 1989.

Books that aren't poetry but are very useful when doing poetry

Jarrell, Randall. The Bat-Poet. Illus. by Maurice Sendak. New York: HarperCollins, 1996, c1992.

Vaughn, Marcia K. Wombat Stew. Illus. by Pamela Lofts. Morristown, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1986, c1984.

Weidt, Maryann N. Oh, the Places He Went: a Story about Dr. Seuss. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1994.

Young, Sue. The Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary. New York: Scholastic, 1994.

On-Line Writing Sites for Kids

American Library Association Sites for Children: Literature and Language

Candlelight Stories

Chebucto Community Net poetry page

Connections: an interactive literature and writing project for junior high students and preservice English teachers

Cyberkids

Electronic Elementary

KidLit

KidPub

Kids Wwwrite: The Web-zine for young authors and readers

RhymeZone: A rhyming dictionary

Stone Soup: A magazine for young authors and artists

On-Line Writing Resources for Educators

American Library Association Sites for Children: Literature and Language

Sites for Parents, Caregivers, Teachers and Others Who Care About Kids

Book Adventure -- reading motivation program for children in grades K-8<

Canadian Children's Book Centre

Children's Literature Web Guide -- Children's Writings

The Horn Book magazine

International Board on Books for Young People

Internet School Library Media Center Directory of Writing and Research Links for K-12 Educators

Kids Wwwrite: The Web-zine for young authors and readers

Newspaper Association of America Foundation -- student literacy through newspapers and new media



For more about British Columbia writer Margriet Ruurs and her books, visit her website.


Volume 6, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2002

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2002.
"The Power of Poetry" ©Margriet Ruurs, 2002.
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor



The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680