PAMELA HOBART CARTER
For the last two years I have been a schoolwide poetry specialist and a classroom teacher for the 4- and 5-year-olds group. When I listen to a child create a poem, I learn which ideas are important to her. I get to hear the surprises she thinks of, many of which would be hidden without my invitation to write a poem. Through this activity, each child learns that inside us all is a poem waiting to be expressed.
Writing poetry individualizes the curriculum
Creating poetry with preschoolers allows them to focus on a specific task. Each child receives my full attention as he expresses his ideas and feelings. We talk back and forth as we discuss, write, and edit the poem. As I write his poem, the child observes how rhythmic oral language can be represented as words on a page—a new purpose for writing. The one-on-one attention allows me to help each child express her ideas and feelings in a way tailored to that child.
During this process, preschoolers develop a sense of what it means to put words and lines together to make a poem. The individual poems are included in a class book or display. Assisting individual children in writing poetry strengthens their vocabulary, trains their senses, exercises their memory, and tunes their ear. Writing poetry gives me information about a child’s vocabulary, ease of speech, sense of rhythm, and understanding of the concept and the assignment.
Individual writing benefits the group. Poetry unites communities and helps us know each other better. Friends and families can read the poems and see expressions of each child’s character. It lets everyone take pride in their creativity.
Using a template
My first attempt at helping children write poetry relied on a template borrowed from poet Rachel Zucker. She visited her child’s class and described creating poetry with the children in a beautiful article, “Third Eye Ode to Chicken Nugget and Other Delights” in Poetry. Zucker’s article gave me a clear method and the help I needed to get started. Now I concoct my own templates, and my confidence grows with each poetry experience.
Our school decided to create a book connected to a theme, based on Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, by Dr. Seuss. The art teacher and I joined forces. With her, the children would draw pictures; with me, they would write poems. Each child thus would create a page, and together the whole school would create the book.
I developed a loose template for creating poems and tested it with a few children in the class. The inaugural product was Rosemary’s poem, which opens this article. Then I analyzed the steps I took with Rosemary and documented the process. For example, while working with Rosemary, I remembered saying, “Poets often realize that where their thoughts start is not necessarily where the poem starts.” This led me to add a step to the poetry process template: “Ask the child which is the start line.” Rosemary and I had hopped around in her list of lines so much that I numbered the lines. This led to another step in the process: “Arrange the lines with the child.”
My poetry process template
Read Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (or a book you like) to the children. Discuss its metaphoric (fill-in-the blank) nature.
Introduce the project and give children time to think about it.
Ask each child later or on another day to draw something that relates to the book. Our art teacher asked children to draw a picture of a place where they wanted to go.
Talk individually with each child about the illustration. Try open-ended questions or comments such as “Tell me about this.” For children who are less forthcoming, try an either–or question, such as “Was it warm or cold?”
Record the child’s comments on paper.
Read the lines back to the child.
Ask the child which is the start line. Number and arrange the lines with the child. If the poem is very short, repeat steps four through six.
Open at random the book used as inspiration and have the child choose a line from it. Check that he likes that line and feels it suits his poem. Decide together where to insert it in the poem. Underline that line (as in the poems in this article).
Edit. Suggest cutting words, dropping lines, or repeating certain lines or words. Read the draft aloud. Ask, “Is there anything you want to add or take away?” Edit again.
Type the poem or print it neatly. Display or publish it by itself or as part of a collection.
Why I write poetry with preschoolers
I am a poet. Writing poems with children lets me celebrate and share my passion at school. Until I start, I never know how much of a thrill each child-made poem will bring. A thrill because a taciturn child produces some words. A thrill because of children’s candor and unique phrasing. The process always surprises me, and the children inspire my own poetry. I wish the same for you. TYC
Zucker, R. 2011. “Third Eye Ode to a Chicken Nugget and Other Delights.” Poetry. www.poetryfoundation.org/article/241876.
Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org.