A Breakthrough In Poetry: How To Bring Playfulness to Every Genre
As kindergartners trickled back into the classroom after lunch, they noticed watercolor paint and their published-poems-in-progress lining the tables.
Normally, the sight of a project like this gives way to oohing and ahhing, but today a different feeling spread across the room.
“Does this mean we’re finished with poetry?” Ryer asked, his voice a mix of concern and sadness.
Kids let out a collective, “Awwwww.”
“It seems like this is something important our community should meet about,” I replied, inviting kids to the rug. “Even though we are publishing our poems, we don’t ever have to be done with poetry. I’m wondering, what is it about poetry that you love so much?”
Kids hurried to put their thumbs on their knees, a signal that they’d like to begin the grand conversation.
Tip: I often use an app to record conversations. I use the transcription to communicate with families and as a tool to notice patterns and engagement. For this conversation, I tried a free app, Temi, which sends a transcription of the audio in minutes.
Their words played over and over in my head.
“There are no rules in poetry.”
Reflection: Since there is no common structure that all poems follow, my teaching points sound like, “Poets have lots of tricks to help bring their poems to life. One trick poets CAN try is…” We study poems by many authors. Our discoveries adorn charts, as options for kids to try as they craft their poems.
Change: Published books within the same genre certainly do not follow an exact structure. Kids need choices for what they write and how to write within a genre. Anchor charts (and checklists) can be changed from “All-About Books Have…” to “All-About Books Can Have…” An additional chart might display “Kinds of All-About Writing.” Recently, Mason intentionally wrote a book that was both informational AND narrative.
“There are tons of things to write about.”
Reflection: “Poetry is all around us,” is my go-to mantra. With poet’s eyes, anything can be the subject of a poem. Poets don’t just write about people, places, and things that are important.
Change: “Writing is all around us,” can be the new mantra. Think-aloud throughout the day, through writer’s eyes, making the ordinary seem extraordinary. “Did you see how the wind carried the block all the way across the playground? That would make an exciting story! What could it sound like as a poem?”
“You can add how many pages you want.”
Reflection: Booklets can be overwhelming to some kids. Paolo used to be a reluctant writer. It wasn’t until Paolo began writing poems that I saw excitement and volume from him. Having just one page in front of him was what finally made writing seem doable. Now, he writes books with joy and ease. Other kids love making poetry anthologies and staple many pages together.
Change: Prepared booklets are efficient and provide structure to kids as they plan. But there are texts that are one page (e.g. recipes, magazine articles) and writing mediums that don’t show pages (e.g. blog posts). Providing open-ended options at a writing center provides kids with flexibility and agency for designing books that work for them.
“You can do anything you want in poetry.”
Reflection: “This is your poem. You’re in charge!” My conferring role is never to steer a kid’s poem in a direction that I envision. Rather, my conferences focus on helping poets effectively portray what they envision.
Change: We tend to have an idea in our mind of what exemplary student writing looks like within each genre. When preparing demo and exemplar texts, think about how kids might write within the genre. What structures and text features might they be most excited about or invent themselves? Writing about a topic multiple ways will help us see the many paths kids can take.
“You can write the words like you want to.”
Reflection: It’s no surprise that “Poets play with words,” is an enticing strategy for young writers, playful by nature. Kids experiment with changing the size, shape, and color of letters to make them match the meaning of a word. Kids cut apart words and put them back together until they look just right.
Change: We encourage writers to use pop-out words, but a quick browse through a library will show authors of all genres who make words stand out in a variety of ways. We can teach kids to tinker and play with words whenever they write.
Defining the “Have to’s” and “Want to’s”
When we begin to think flexibly about genres, we will notice variation in structure and include more variety in our own writing.
During genre immersions, kids can make a T-chart of “Every (Non-fiction) Book” and “Some (Non-fiction) Books” to generate must-haves and can-haves. This chart can turn into a tool for writers to use as they draft and revise their books.
Kids are inundated by rules. If the gift of writing is freedom of expression, are we imposing too many “rules” on writers? What if the rules of every genre, like poetry, were limited to just two or three?