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As we reach the end of National Poetry Month, we look to poetry’s ability to help children enjoy writing anytime of year.
Poetry can provide an outlet for expressing feelings that students may not have been able to express otherwise. Moreover, poetry also offers an entryway into enjoying writing that more standard and formal academic writing does not. In my dozen years of teaching, I have found many times that poetry is an incredible catalyst to get people interested in writing; people who may not have enjoyed writing overall until they first wrote poetry.
In this time of uncertainty, children need fun activities along with exercises that build their confidence, empower them and entertain them simultaneously. Poetry can achieve all of these goals, while offering hope and possibility. Below, five seasoned Los Angeles poet teachers present their favorite poetry exercises for children.
A Portrait of Hope Poetry with Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and author of "Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge," is inspired by her family's immigration stories, as well as her time volunteering with the border aid organization No More Deaths. Bermejo is the director of Women Who Submit, an action-based organization fighting for gender parity in publishing by empowering women and non-binary writers to submit work for publication. Presently she teaches art and writing to kids and adults with artworxLA, UCLA Extension and Antioch University Los Angeles.
Bermejo presents a timely writing prompt to inspire children and offer hope in this uncertain moment.
“Staying home during this time is important to keep all our family and friends safe,” Bermejo said. "But it also means missing being together. I miss hugging my nieces and nephews, goofing around with my brothers, and going to dinner with friends."
Who do you miss?
What is the first thing you'll do together once quarantine is over?
Students can use the accompanying worksheet to write a hopeful poem for someone they love about happy days they will share together in the future. Students can rewrite their favorite sentences on a new piece of paper and draw a picture of themselves and their loved one together.
What Do Hands Do by Dorothy Randall Gray
“Children amaze me. So full of wonder, they marvel at the simplest things: a hummingbird suspended in air; a colorful surprise pulled out of a box, a sudden strumming of guitar strings,” she said. “As a teacher and poet my job is to join them in that wonder. To be as excited as they are about the thrill of discovery. To invite surprise and engage them in galaxies of learning, exploration and creativity."
Randall Gray connects her lessons to current events and enjoys using visuals and videos to encourage creativity.
“When fires ravaged Malibu, I showed news footage of houses enveloped in flames and I had my 4th grade class write letters of support to the firemen," she said. "After a rocket launched from California I brought in photos prompting students to write where they'd like it to take them. Then, what they thought they'd find once the rocket landed."
In her exercise “What Do Hands Do,” Randall Gray encourages students to read their work aloud while she writes down some of the words used. This visual vocabulary list affirms students that they know so many more words than their grade levels require. She also integrates music in her lessons by signaling the end of a writing period with her kalimba and inviting students to sing a tune created just for them.
Because of the Covid-19 virus we all have to wash our hands very often but what else can you or other people do with their hands? How many things can you name? Trace around your hand or make a handprint with paint. Write about something you like doing with your hands.
Sometimes I might upset you
Because I am so small
And always leave my fingerprints
On furniture and walls.
But every day I grow a bit
And soon I'll be so tall
That all those little fingerprints
Will be so hard to recall
So here's a special handprint
Just so that you can say
This is how my fingers looked
When I placed them here today
Reading is Poetry with A.K. Toney
A.K. Toney is an early childhood edcuator and K-5 artist teacher for L.A. Unified School District, charter schools, and nonprofit organizations. He also has a literacy program called Reading Is Poetry. Toney is one of the distinguished voices from Leimert Park's poetry community and has been teaching poetry workshops for more than 20 years. Early on he was mentored by legends like Wanda Coleman, Billy Higgins, Horace Tapscott, Michael Datcher and Peter J. Harris.
Just before the Safer at Home order was enforced due to COVID-19, Toney was preparing to start a position in substitute teaching at various preschools. As many plans in the present were delayed due to the pandemic, such were his hopes as a preschool teacher.
“Reading Is Poetry was made with this kind of situation in mind. There is a lack of hope and young people are bored. What makes it more dire is the fact there is no physical contact," Toney said. "Young people were already acclimated and conditioned to a digital world, but now there are more than introverts that will have a problem, not to mention a barrier that may become an obstacle for a pro-social life.”
Toney runs Reading is Poetry under the following philosophy: “Read to write, then write your story… Self-Esteem, Self-Expression, Self-Efficacy, Glory.” To honor this mission, Toney encourages young people to use poetry as the medium for telling the truth. He also teaches form and tools as a way for poetry to live by, meaning there is more to poetry than what students think. The same tools we use in poetry are used to write essays, articles, research papers, novels, and believe it or not, book reports.
Toney uses the $100 Poem form to convey this idea to his students.
There is no usage of the pronoun “I” in the poem.
There is no usage of the word “tree” in the poem.
Create a tree word bank (list any objects made from trees i.e., toothpick, paper, cherry, guitar, chair, etc.).
Choose 10 words from your tree word bank.
Each word will be used in personification with 10 syllables in each line. (One Tree bank word per line can be used.)
Personification, 10 syllables each line, 10 lines = $100 Poem
There is also an art component involved with writing the poem. Students make a scrapbook from a paper lunch bag and hand-cut colored paper with pockets to present the $100 Poem. These materials are sometimes recycled paper bags from Trader Joes or even Starbucks. For more, information on how to receive one of these poetry scrapbook kits go to readingispoetry.com.
Alliteration and the Absurd with Jessica Wilson Cardenas
Jessica Wilson Cardenas is the founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Poets Society as well as the area coordinator in Los Angeles County for California Poets in the Schools. Her teaching philosophy is to show each of her students that they have a voice and the right to express it.
"This is the gift of vocal empowerment that, I believe, will last their lifetime. It doesn't matter if they become a poet or writer, a scientist, or whatever they choose to do. They will always be able to speak for themselves and think for themselves, and I am happy to be the one to unlock that door,” Wilson Cardenas said.
Poetry can help children address trauma as well, she said.
“Poetry and creative writing is also such a freeing and safe way for youth to express what they are thinking, feeling, or going through,” Wilson Cardenas said.
In her exercise, she uses the work of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to encourage students to view the world around them with a poet’s eye. Observing the world around them first, the exercise then calls on students to pick their favorite letter and write a line of poetry using words that start with the same letter.
Look around you and tell me what you see. List 5 things on your paper.
Now look at your list, and using your Poet’s eye, tell me what you now see in these things. They will transform right in front of you!
Read and compare the differences between a poem by Dr. Seuss and another by Shel Silverstein.
Then, write a poem with alliteration. Pick your favorite letter and write a line of poetry where you repeat that letter.
Students can download the Alliteration and the Absurd with Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein worksheet and use it as a guide to complete the exercise.
Families and educators can find a whole menu of poetry lesson plans at California Poets in the Schools’ Poetry Workshop for Youth.
Five Senses Exercise: The Wonder of Language with Nancy Lynée Woo
Woo is an artist-teacher with Angels Gate Cultural Center, a non-profit arts and culture agency in San Pedro. Their Artists in Classrooms program places artist-teachers in public school classrooms. She teaches her artistic discipline to young peoplein their regular learning environment once a week over a 12-week semester.
“As a poet, my job is to impress the wonder of language upon 5th graders, make our hour together fun, and help them step into the creative process with confidence. I love it so much," Woo said. "One of my favorite things in the world is delighting in a poem being born — and poems can be born from anyone at any age.”
In the classroom, Woo guides and encourages children to find their relationship to poetry.
“I believe poetry is natural to us all, and we all have the ability to string words together in interesting ways, creating art from experience. In my own artistic practice, I write to see what I can’t see yet, to stretch my understandings of the world. I consider myself a facilitator for each student’s unique and personal poetic growth," she said. "There is a lot to be said for encouraging a child’s natural creative impulses.”
When Woo enters a classroom for the first time, her new friends tend to be excited and unsure of what to expect from their first encounter with a real poet. She strives to make the experience enjoyable, affirming and confidence-building.
“It takes great courage to be creative. I write along with them, and it’s great when their classroom teachers participate, too. It shows them poetry is available to everyone, it’s not scary and it’s not just 'an assignment.' (I’ve seen teachers and students encounter some very real, honest moments together through the practice of poetry.)," Woo said. "My primary objective is to build trust and guide them to the place where they can be vulnerable enough to take risks, which is where all great art comes from.”
She suggests starting the Five Senses exercise by reading Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” as an introduction to “what poetry is.”
Then, bring attention to the five senses. Take suggestions as you fill in the five senses with a birthday example: “I see a bounce house. I hear kids laughing. I touch plastic balloons. I taste chocolate cake. I smell pizza.” This is a great way to easily get them thinking about concrete details.
After a few minutes of independent writing, ask students to take it a step further. Explain that poetry is built on imagination and detail and remind them there is no wrong answer. Ask students to give more details about the scent they imagine by writing a few more lines to see what they come up with. Tell them it doesn't have to make perfect sense.
If kids are laughing, what are they laughing about?
How many balloons are there?
What kind of pizza is it?
“Some friends love this opening: write as much as you want. What they come up with is often brilliantly specific, sometimes even moving," Woo said.
Invite students to remove the "I see" openers to leave behind a string of related sensory images. This introduces the idea of revision early in their process.
"I show them it’s normal for a poem to continue developing. Some friends have a harder time than others with this re-writing process. It’s easy to want to be done. And that’s fine, too," Woo said. "If one friend finishes a simple five-line poem and feels good about it, that’s great.”
The Acrostic Poem with Mike Sonksen
The final exercise is one I always use when I am with younger students. It is the acrostic poem. An acrostic poem is a poem where the poet writes a word down the side of a page and makes a line that begins with whatever letter starts that line. The term acrostic is, of course, connected to the word acronym. This exercise works well with younger students as young as first graders but I have also used it with high school students, undergrads, graduate students and even senior citizens.
The acrostic works well for a birthday poem or any other specific occasion you may want to honor someone. Some students write an acrostic on their name, others might do their favorite sports team, video game, musician or movie. The specific topic is wide open for the poet to choose.
Below you will find a sample acrostic from my former student at 826LA, Jacob Budisantoso. Budisantoso wrote this acrostic 10 years ago while he was in high school. He graduated from University of California, Riverside a few years ago and now works in the culinary arts. I still use his acrostic in my classes because it is a great example of a student who executed the form so well. Notice how the poem spells Jacob down the side of the page.
Bit of My Life & Me
By Jacob Budisantoso
Joined by ring to finger,
A connection of marriage by bridge, now crumbled
Clash of Asian and Hispanic culture.
Obviously you mistaken who I am.
Budisantoso, my name, my heritage & my history
Try any of the exercises above and watch what happens. Poetry is magical and a fun activity to build family spirit while promoting literacy at the same time. The prompts above work for adults too. Poetry is a great equalizer that somehow puts all the participants on the same page.
“Honestly, the way I run my poetry workshops for 5th graders is not much different from the way I run my workshops for adults,” Nancy Lynée Woo said. “In both spaces, we start with mindfulness and breathing, warm up with some example poems, move into free-writing, and then write to a prompt, allowing some space to play on the page before sharing with each other what we’ve written... We leave feeling good, feeling seen, perhaps a little more open to the wonder around us.”
Write a few poems of your own at home and let us know how it goes!