Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Poetry, Magic and First Grade

Today I visited my son's first-grade class, to talk about poetry as a kind of magic. I explained to the six  and seven year-olds that we could use words to turn things into other things. A person who writes a poem can use this magic to make something his or hers for the rest of his or her life. If that person is lucky, he or she can make it part of some other people's lives too.

I had planned to begin by reading T. S. Eliot's "The Naming of Cats," which would lead nicely into a little acrostic exercise. (As I suspected, they had already done an acrostic poem--about SPRING--as part of their National Poetry Month activities.) Of course, when I asked, "Does any of you have a cat?" nearly every hand in the class shot up. And when I asked, "What are your cats' names?" the kids not only wanted to share their cats' names, but also talk about other people's pets and other kinds of pets (dogs, of course) and about how they got their pets and even about why, where and how their pets had died. All this together was a poem we should have written right then. Instead, we used the activity to break the ice and get them to Eliot's cats, whom, I claimed, Eliot had turned into characters who would become stars in a Broadway show. (Many stared blankly upon hearing this news.)

When we finally got through half of Eliot's poem (which claims that all cats need three names), the teacher and I asked the kids to take out pencils and notebooks, which they eagerly did. I then asked them to write their names on a page, one letter under the other; and to write for each letter the first word they could think of that started with that letter. To my amazement, not a single child used "poop," "butt" or "fart," but then each child was turning himself or herself into something new, unexpected and happy. The process was an exercise in imagination and spelling, and allowed me to see just how varied language skills can be at this tender age (as they are among adult learners.) Some kids needed a lot of help finding and spelling words, some needed none, and some wanted to write full sentences for each letter and even add illustrations. I did notice that no matter what they were doing, most of the kids were smiling as they put their poems together. When one boy said he wanted to us "ninja" for the letter "n," I said, "Great. Ninja's an awesome word." He lit up, and a girl near him wrote "awesome" for her letter "a."

Each time the teacher spotted a job well done, she told the child/poet to go to the front and take a ticket from the ticket box. (Children in the class can redeem these tickets for prizes--one reason I think the world of my son's teacher.) When they all finished, they read aloud word collages that did indeed transform at least the way they saw their own names--some through images of llamas, minivans and donuts in juxtaposition, and some through simple music like the two Ryans' compositions:




which I asked the class to chant, as a way to show them how music is a big part of poetry and language.

My son Bradley, seated, and standing at times, next to me at the front of the class, whispered in my ear that he wanted us to do our last names too. I promised I'd give that poem as an optional homework assignment, which the teacher later called a "challenge," as indeed it is.

With just ten minutes left, I wrote on the Smartboard the word "compare" and asked the kids if they knew what it meant and why we compared things. Most said we compared things when we had more than one thing, to tell them apart (just as they said we named pets to avoid confusing them). I explained that we could also compare one thing to another, to help understand the first thing better or in a new way. I then asked the students to imagine that a group of kids from, "Where class?" --From Japan(i) or Paris--was visiting. "Imagine that they didn't know anything about your class. What would you compare it to? So finish this sentence: Ms. ________ 's class is like..."

"It's like a crazy learning place," one girl yelled.
"It's like my bedroom," another added.
"Good," I said, "how is it like your bedroom?"
"Well, I have a play in my bedroom to play, and a place to work."
"Great," I said, "Class, what room in your house is Ms. ________'s classroom like?"

Keeping their boundless imaginations in mind, I left them with this chance to transform reality, poems they could write with their families.

"Imagine things that never happen in your house, and write that they're happening." I gave them this example: "In our house our pet kangaroo sweeps the floors on Sundays." So I fully expect a lot of families in this town to be living in the jungle or in outer space by the end of the week.

Young Americans

This month I'm hosting two benefit readings. Proceeds go to Reunion Sportive d'Haiti, an organization whose mission is to provide "youth recreational sport activities, education and youth leadership development programs in impoverished communities in Haiti. Working with NOAH, we organize youth annual soccer tournaments and essay competitions in Port-Salut, Haiti, for the children affected by the 2010 earthquake. We have collaborated with Foundation Digicel to build an elementary school in the village of Roche-Jabouin, so that children no longer have to walk three hours to receive a basic education. We believe in working side-by-side with local communities to reduce the effects of poverty, to promote rural economic development, to assist communities in education projects, and to stop the spread of the cholera epidemic by providing clean water and sanitation."

Our cause is obviously a good one, which has drawn the participation of a number of poets I had expected to participate, along with a number I had not. Among this second group are children, specifically the two young sons of a married couple of poets who took part in a benefit on Long Island, for which poets were asked to show up with broadsides of their poems, which they would sell at one dollar each. All proceeds would go to RS Haiti, which they did. Toward the end of the reading, the couple asked whether or not their elder son could step up to the Mic at the Sip This Cafe' in Valley Stream. He read a terrific little poem that he had apparently written a couple of years earlier, after which we all gathered around the table to shop for broadsides and to talk.

In the course of our conversation it came out that the two boys were Presidential trivia whizzes, who had appeared on a number of national political television programs. So here were two prodigies in both American politics and poetry, getting to know their country's landscape and learning to write a kind of plain-spoken poetry of which W. C. Williams would approve. Meeting them made me wonder about how we introduce children to poetry, and about the nature of children's poetry programs across the country. Surely, not every child involved with poetry will have two poet parents who take him or her to adult readings and simultaneously encourage the kind of scholarship that can nourish future work.

What are we teaching kids about and through poetry? What opportunities are we creating for them to encounter poetry? What kinds of opportunities do we think we're creating? Are we creating them just to enrich children's lives or to perpetuate the poetic species, as it were? Are we consciously developing the future voices of American verse?

It follows to ask also what sort of opportunities we create for other population groups limited by age or access. And it is certain that these questions will take this project in a few unexpected directions.