Poetry Begins with Play

Many writing workshop teachers reserve time in April or towards the end of the school year for a poetry unit. Up to that point, the structures, craft moves, and conventions for information, persuasive, and narrative writing are the focus of most minilessons in writing classrooms. Poetry is different and it can be challenging for young writers to make the transition to thinking and drafting like poets.

Ralph Fletcher reminds us in his latest book Joy Write, that one of the most important things teachers of young writers can do is preserve opportunities for writerly play. He reminds us that not only does it make the writing process enjoyable for all writers, but it also makes the product appealing for readers.

Play in writing is not just a nice idea- it’s essential. Often it’s the ingredient that closes the deal with the reader.
     ~Ralph Fletcher, Joy Write
Fletcher points out that play is vital to maintaining young writers’ enthusiasm for writing. While his book focuses largely on “greenbelt” and low stakes writing opportunities and the benefits of choice, it got me thinking about how we teachers might “play up” opportunities for play when we introduce writers to to the units and genres that are part of our curriculum.
Poetry study and writing provides a wonderful opportunity for play. We all know and share playful poems with the writers we teach. But how do we encourage them to go out on a limb, let go of rules and  conventions and play with words?
I’m sharing two ideas here today, one from a first grade class, and the other from fourth grade. In both workshops, teachers introduced their students to activities that allowed them to play with words. Writers tinkered with words, taking some away and adding others, experimenting with order and groupings and the overall look and meaning of the poems they were creating. And in both classrooms, students experienced joy, surprise and pride as they played with words and created poems.
First graders began by working as a group to generate words they might use to create a class poem about slippers. Once their teacher recorded their list of phrases and words on chart paper, writers went to work choosing their favorites and recording them on a blank template, putting one word in each box of the template.
From there, they cut their words apart and began to play.

This first grader chose only two of the phrases generated by her class. She then played with the words until she was satisfied with her poem.

After creating poems about slippers, the first grade poets started thinking about their own ideas for poems. Each poet recorded words on a template again, and cut them out again.
Here is what one very proud writer created after writing her words out on a template, cutting them apart, adding  and eliminating words and playing with groupings.
This exercise provided the young writers with a chance to play and create. It was also a concrete way for them to experiment with line breaks.
In fourth grade, the teacher gathered writers and told them that they were going to work in groups to use random words in a  baggie to create poems. Their eyes lit up. This was not the usual get out your folder or notebook and continue working on your draft kind of day and they knew it. Their teacher had created baggies full of words she had cut from newspapers and magazines. I walked from group to group, listening to their talk about words and powerful words and word order and meaning and line breaks. I watched as they arranged and rearranged. I peeked over huddled poets to see what they were creating. They were playing. I was blown away.
We may not be able to offer as much choice and low stakes writing time in our workshops as we would like, but we can all think about how to weave those things and play into our and our students’ writing lives.
I’ll leave you with a few examples of fourth grade creations.