Exploring Content-Based Poetry

When I launch a poetry unit, I often begin by reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s stunning poem Valentine for Earnest Mann.  This is one of those poems that floors me with its simple complexity, moving me to tears each time I read it. It manages to be both funny and sad, tongue-in-cheek, but very serious. It expresses something that, upon reading, I know instantly to be true but would never have expressed in such a way.

When I read it at the start of a poetry unit, I read it once through without stopping, and I let the words land on the children, making whatever impression they will make. I let the children talk and wonder. Then, I read the poem again so that we can unpack it a bit together. Many children express surprise that what I have just read to them is, in fact, a poem. They say they thought poems had to rhyme. They say they thought poems had to be about love. Or about something serious. Or about someone’s mom or grandma. They say they didn’t think poems were usually about skunks, or that poems could hide in the eyes of skunks.

The work described here came from the Lower Elementary classroom of Wendy Reveri and Sheekha Dewan. Wendy launched her poetry unit with Valentine for Earnest Mann, but then took the following line from the poem a step further:

poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes, they are sleeping. They are the shadows drifting across our ceilings the moment before we wake up. What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.

To help her students live in a way that would help them find poems, Wendy called on Georgia Heard’s lessons from Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School (Heinemann, 1998). Heard explains that some of the best poems are often about that which, at first glance, seems mundane or commonplace. She encourages students to carry their notebooks around and to search their lives for places where poems are hiding. She further explains that these everyday places often lead to poems that are rife with meaning. To draw poems out from these everyday places, the writer must be as specific as possible. He or she must use as many describing words as needed to recreate a picture of what he or she is writing about in the reader’s mind. It’s not enough then, to write: “my backpack”. A writer searching for poetry might write, “my faded blue backpack, the seams slightly frayed from so often rubbing against my back, years of good service showing at the edges.”

Wendy led her class in a brainstorming session about all of the places that poems could hide. They looked around the classroom, and made many suggestions. But one suggestion in particular really set the class on fire. One student suggested that poetry could hide in a study the class had done on the formation of the Earth. Together, Wendy and her students brainstormed the following list:

content poetry model

Wendy made sure to include examples with lots of rich description and to model the syntax that she felt would be helpful for her students, starting each line with the phrase “in the…”

The poets in the class were eager to try their hand at finding their own poems hiding in their content study, and find them they did. Here are some examples:

JZ content poem p1  JZ content poem p2

In the blood of the giant dragonflies and millipedes. 

In the water that falls from the mountain stream and causes erosion.

In the lava flowing on the mountain and turning into rock.

In the water that flows through plants and trees. 

In the breath of birds soaring through the air. 

In the sound of a dinosaur dropping his feet on the ground.

In the hurrying footsteps of a dinosaur chasing his prey. 

In the gigantic bang that made the formation of the sun and our planet. 

In the splash of a fish jumping out of the water for breath. 

 

GS content poem

Where poetry hides for me in Earth’s history…

in the droplets of water from the great rains. 

in the fiery hot meteors in the Hadean eon.

in the fat, brown peat.

in the warm swampy waters of the Carboniferous period. 

In addition to the rich language and enthusiasm for writing this kind of writing inspired, there were several important takeaways:

  • Kids demonstrated retention of a great deal content knowledge.
  • Many kids wrote with a great amount of volume and stamina, two writing skills that can sometimes be missing from poetry workshops (and from content-based writing workshops, for that matter).
  • This work provided an accessible entry point and strong scaffold for students who often struggle with writing.

What a refreshing way to write about a content-based study!