Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Poetry on the Fly

One of the reasons it was so easy for me to become a school dropout (i.e. homeschooler) is that I realized, during three years of preschool and one and a half years of elementary school, that I have rather strong opinions about what Bean (and Boo) could be learning and Dr. Yap and I wanted all of us (that means the kiddos too) to have more of a say in what our kids were learning and how it was learned.  It drove me nuts to have to go along with whatever the teacher thought was important when half the time I didn't know what that was and the other half of the time I didn't think the teacher knew what she was doing.  ( Oh yes, I am one of those parents.) I remember one of many frustrating conversations in particular.  I think the teacher (who will remain anonymous because I live in a small town with lots of internet access) and I were talking about spelling/reading confusing words.  She said "Well, I just tell the kids that English is a weird language and doesn't always make sense."  I tried not to blanch visibly and said, "I've always taught her that many of the words in our language originally come from other languages, which is why they seem to have unusual or phonetically awkward pronunciation and spelling.  I also remind her that language is constructed and much of American English was codified by Daniel Webster when he compiled his dictionary and decided what the standard spelling should be for our words."  I think the word gobsmacked was invented to describe her reaction.  I also think I can read minds because I distinctly heard her say, "Smartass" and "No wonder the kid is having a hard time" without seeing her lips move.

Well.  Now that the choice is ours, Bean and I choose poetry.  This is a very clear case of parenting by projection: I'm unabashedly making up for a lack in my own education by immersing Bean and Boo in verse.  Christmas gift volumes of Shel Silverstein poetry aside, I don't remember reading anything more poetic than a Shakespeare sonnet until boarding school (not that kind of boarding school, this kind of boarding school.) I spent much of my sophomore year of high school moping around the cavernous building, avoiding physics by reading  "Howl" by Allen Ginsburg and discovering Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in the Norton Anthology. It was revelatory.  I added the absence of "real" poetry in my life up to that point to my long list of adolescent grievances.  That same angst fueled my own stereotypically overwrought poetry.  In college, I took a class titled "American Women Poets," which finally taught me how to read and write poetry.  (And, incredibly, it is still being taught by the same amazing professor nearly twenty years later.) The lessons I learned about writing in general and reading poetry in particular, and about listening to women's voices have stayed with me throughout my life.  Not a draft gets written that I don't remember the professor's admonishment to cut out that first paragraph full of beautiful, prosaic, egotistical garbage. (Yeah, I often ignore it though.) The book covers for Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Sharon Olds, and Rita Dove are still lodged in my mind and many of their words still burn bright.  Some of these poems became the ceremony when Dr. Yap and were married the first, poetic, illegitimate time. (The second, legitimate time had a poetry all its own that could only be captured in an official marriage license.)

So I think poetry is important.  It is probably more important for an 8-year-old to be immersed in poetry as the art of language, verse, and writing than it is for a self-absorbed 20-year-old.  I've always read poetry to Bean and Boo, whether it was a picture book made up entirely of one poem or a volume of children's poetry.  It didn't seem at all odd to Bean that it was part of our curriculum when we started doing "fourth grade."

Rebecca Rupp suggests two books for the study of poetry in the Fourth Grade Section of Home Learning Year by Year.  I rarely buy homeschool books new, sight unseen, but I feel pretty comfortable with most of Rupp's suggestions so I ordered Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? from Amazon after reading the favorable reviews to go along with Rupp's description: "A superb program for teaching great poetry to children. The works of many famous poets serve as jumping-off points for student projects." (Rupp, p. 187)  Reading the word "program," I expected step by step instructions, or at least a bullet-point layout.  Instead, Kenneth Koch's instructions for "Teaching Great Poetry to Children" (subtitle) are embedded in his narrative description of introducing ten classic (read "usually inaccessible to anyone but grad students") poems to various grade levels, along with numerous examples of the children's work.  The second half of the book is an anthology of sorts, providing more good poems to use in a grade school elementary class.  Most poems have suggested exercises to go along with them.  The book is fantastic but after stumbling through three of the classic poems without reading Koch's narrative first, I decided it requires a level of preparation that I just can't commit to right now.  I don't mind buying it, because I know that Rupp suggests the book again in a later grade.  Hopefully, I'll be able to manage a little more prep time at that point.

The other book Rupp suggested, Poetry From A to Z: A Guide for Young Writers, by Paul B. Janeczko, is available at our local library.  Bean and I immediately took to this book.  The order imposed by the alphabetical premise and the whimsy with which the mission is carried out appeals to both of us.  Sometimes the connections between the letter and the poetry are obvious: "A" is accompanied by the poem "Autumn Beat" by Monica Kulling and a suggestion to try writing an "acrostic poem." Some of the connections require careful reading and bit of deduction: "E" is accompanied by the poem "The Animals Are Leaving," by Charles Webb, which turns out to list endangered and extinct species; and a comment from the same poet about using ones own experiences in writing.  Bean doesn't always want to write the suggested poetic forms when we are reading, but I know she likes the book, partly because she never complains when I bring it out.  I also know she likes it because when the book was checked out of the library for two months (Blankety-blank book hogs! Probably another homeschooler) she took the unprecedented step of not only telling Dr. Yap about a school topic - a word-related one no less (not the engineer mom's area of expertise) - but she asked her to track it down for her.  And track it down she did: less than a week after Bean made this request, a discarded library copy out the out-of-print book, still wrapped in plastic, arrived from North Carolina.  Bean is a bit chagrined that anyone would do something as base as discard a library book, defacing it with DISCARD stamped inside the front cover. She keeps reminding me that it is not actually a library book in active circulation and warning me not to accidentally return it.

The other, even better reason I know the book is having an impact, even though she doesn't always do the writing for each section is that she writes poetry completely unbidden.  I find scraps of it around the house.  This poem, written in red marker, was composed on the top of the monkey bars at our park:

Marigolds are pretty in Spring.
Cherrys Blossoms flicker in summer's light.
Ice ickles gleam in winter's wing.
But you crumple crisp like fall's leaves.

There is nothing overwrought or self-absorbed about that.  With her permission, I entered it in our county fair. 


  1. Love your approach, love her poem.

  2. Your first paragraph jump started my day with a laugh! Parmalee