January 17

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Writing Poetry with Children by Laura Shovan

Twenty-three years ago, I left my full-time position teaching high school English and applied for my dream job: Visiting poet-in-the-schools for my state arts council. Surprise! Being a visiting poet required different skills than those I’d been growing as a classroom educator.

Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of young poets in all types of schools and written alongside students with a variety of needs, learning styles, and ways of using language. But everywhere I go, young writers respond to the invitation to write what they know. Through their poems they share their interests, family traditions, and questions about themselves and the world we live in.

Here is an analogy I’ve developed in my years of leading poetry workshops:

Whether we are adults or children, we are full of thoughts, feelings and experiences. Often, they are like water—formless and spilling out all over the place. That can be overwhelming! However, when we have a poetic form to pour those thoughts into, the poem acts as a vase, a place to hold our experiences and shape our feelings.

One of the workshops I developed to provide this vase for young poets is the cross-out poem.

Instead of giving each student a blank page and asking them to write a poem from “scratch,” I give out copies of a mentor text, Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Words in My Pillow,” from Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems, edited by Georgia Heard.

It begins:

I hide words inside my pillowcase.

Words that taste good—

MONKEY.

COZY.

POUCH.

No one can see them

but I find them waiting for me.

Like the TUMMY hiding inside my body.

No one can see it

but I know what’s in there—

MUFFIN

WHIPPED CREAM

PEACHES

After we read and discuss the concept of putting the words in your head to bed at night, it’s time for the students to write. Instead of composing on a blank page, I ask students to change the topic to something that interests them. Topics they have created are: “Words in My Brain” to “Words in Space” and “Words in My Gymnastics Bag.” Next, the poets think about the words they need to swap out to match their new topic. They do this right on the model poem. This is a third grader’s cross-out poem, “Words in My Piano.”

This student came up with a fruitful idea (their interest in and love for piano is clear from the inserted vocabulary!) and was able to draft during our 20-30 minutes of writing time. Other times, and with other children, it might take a while for an idea to brew—for the writer to move from connection to immersion to creating a poem.

That’s the theme of Katey Howes new picture book, A Poem Grows Inside You. Rather than a vase, Howes conceives of the poem as a seed, one that needs nurturing and time to reach its full expression.

In this rhyming picture book, written in second person, a boy heads outside on a rainy day. Pleased with the sound of his footsteps in the puddles, he creates a rhythm. That “Oh, DUM da da, DUM da da!” resonates with him.

Then deep in your bones
stirs a long dormant seed,

an idea once planted

by beauty or need.

A word that’s been waiting.

A truth hibernating.

Hydration.

Elation.

Potential now freed.

Like a seed setting out roots and tendrils, the boy’s poem develops inside him. But when it needs light, he’s hesitant. What if someone makes fun of his words?

I love the way that Howes addresses the very real reluctance some poets (young and old) have about sharing their work with others. But once the main character lets the light shine on his poem/plant…

You branch out and bloom –

words unfurling and flowing.

You let the whole world meet

this poem you’ve been growing.

What a beautiful analogy for beginning with an inspiration, developing a poem, and then sharing it—

creating a connection with others.

I’m looking forward to reading A Poem Grows Inside You during my spring poetry residencies. The verse and the spring-themed illustrations by Heather Brockman Lee make it clear: poetry is a natural expression of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

If you’d like more information about poetry for children and teens, be sure to check out Sylvia Vardell’s annual preview of books at Poetry for Children.

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Laura Shovan’s first poetry collection for children, Welcome to Monsterville, illustrated by Michael Rothenberg, will be published in April (Apprentice House Press). Laura Shovan is an author, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her award-winning children’s novels include The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. She teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.