We began by crafting a single sentence that described the very essence of a poem. Next, we broke the sentence into poetic phrases, little articles and conjunctions excluded. All the poems were, at last, perfumed with rich images and a splash of device—metaphor smilie, personification.
Poetry is not extracurricular. So as you wade into the slower paces of summer why not begin to develop a habit of being, the habit of poetry?
Enacting poetry is a great way to get excited about words.
Rainy days were bittersweet when I was in elementary school. While the playground was sorely missed, watching the rain run like a waterfall down the side of our classroom that was mostly made of glass was poetic. And of course, there were the rainy day games to brighten the atmosphere. I remember one teacher in particular who introduced us to the best rainy day game of all: Dictionary. She would choose a word that none of us had ever heard and then have us write our made-up definition for the word on a slip of paper. We dropped the definitions into a basket, then she randomly read them out loud and we voted for our favorite. When she read the real definition from the dictionary, she planted, seed by seed, an appreciation for words that has not left me these many years later.
Once, while teaching poetry on a rainy day, I remembered that teacher and the classroom with the glass wall, and with a dictionary in hand, began my own lesson. We were reading a poem by William Wordsworth, I began by having my students think of the poet’s last name as a really great compound word. I went on to share my rainy day memory and began exploring vocabulary from “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” Wordsworth’s famous sonnet.
We were about to embark on a game of Dictionary with a twist. I would attempt to take my students on a field trip across that bridge, enable them to compose their very own poem. When I gave them the first word to tackle, their definitions were non-specific, close to the real thing, but not precise. I opened the dictionary, flipped then ran my finger down a page, “Infuse, to fill; pervade.” I read the second definition, “To release flavor or healing properties while being soaked,” and then I infused tea in a glass mug of steaming water. The students liked this so much that we experimented. We infused darkness with light by closing blinds to slits and watching light stream in, by lighting candles in dark corners.
After our little game of Dictionary we took a few steps across the bridge, time for the real lesson to begin. I had them close their eyes and listen to the word infuse, encouraged them to let sounds seep into their ears, “The sounds of words matter, so does the shape.”
Now the students in my workshop were curious, “Shape?”
“Yes, shape.” Writers of all ages often forget the vital connection between words and image.
I led them into another room, to a table laden with jars of glitter, paint and brushes, drawing pencils, chalk pastels, scissors, glue sticks, stacks of newspaper and magazines, and a basket of Dymo label makers. It was time for my students to “find” poetry and in the process discover the power of words.
I showed the students how to begin with a random block, “Rip out a chunk of words from a page of newspaper or magazine.” I instructed them to read the block of words out of the context of the article, “Now the poet must think about the specific meaning of the words being read to discover a new, personalized, context to place the words into.” I showed them how to paint out certain words to make their new context emerge and to move from there to an original poem. Then I set them free to explore the supplies on the table. They didn’t need much instruction beyond, “Create a poetic collage.”
I am devoted to connecting writers to words by teaching them to crave what all good writers crave: Specificity.
Taking time to consider words is an undervalued skill, is often considered a tedious task. Taking the “boring” out of something ultimately involves changing the attitude about the task. Exploring words is an adventure. Learning to use a dictionary, the kind that you hold in your hands, is the skill that over time will allow young writers to infuse the worth of words into the world.
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