Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Children Take Poems to Heart

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Children Take Poems to Heart

Article excerpt

I ACCEPTED an invitation to be a writer-in-residence with trembling palms and a sweaty heart. I would be working with "learning disabled" students in an inner-city elementary school - sharing poetry with them and getting them to write their own poems. I had no idea how to prepare, how to light a spark in students whose reading and writing skills were minimal.

I spent hours in libraries and harvested a stack of books on teaching poetry. All the books fell into two camps: those that served children a poem, rather like a turkey, and then had them pick it clean with discussion questions - and those that threw children into the water without showing them how to swim, e.g., "Look at the snow outside and write how you feel about it."

But then I found Kenneth Koch's "Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?" His book was my mainstay for the eight-week residency. I had felt all along, like Koch, that children can relate to "adult" poetry. Their poetry need not be restricted to rhymes about rainy days or playing in the sand. Koch's book holds an eclectic gathering of poets - from William Blake to Federico Garc'ia Lorca to William Carlos Williams to Marianne Moore. Koch organizes lessons in which, after the poem is read, children are instructed to use certain elements from the poem in making one of their own. The exercises assist children to be creative by giving them guidelines.

I tried some of William Carlos Williams's poems. His ordinary subjects written about in elegant simplicity and slim format appealed to the children. I told them that Williams had been a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, and often wrote his poems between house calls.

One gray afternoon I was in a class of 10- and 11-year-olds. I began by reading Williams's "This Is Just to Say." The poem is a note, I said, similar to notes they may have left on the kitchen table. The poem is also an apology. …

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