Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry

The Dawn of Me


I was born nowhere
And I live in a tree
I never leave my tree
It is very crowded
I am stacked up right against a bird
But I won’t leave my tree
Everything is dark
No light!
I hear the bird sing
I wish I could sing
My eyes, they open
And all around my house
The Sea
Slowly I get down in the water
The cool blue water
Oh and the space
I laugh swim and cry for joy
This is my home
   For Ever
—Jeff Morley, fifth grade, P.S. 61

Last winter and the spring before that I taught poetry writing to children at P.S. 61, on East 12th Street between Avenue B and Avenue C in Manhattan. I was sponsored first by the Academy of American Poets, then by the Teachers’ and Writers’ Collaborative. One specific purpose of the Collaborative is to encourage the teaching of writing in the schools by writers. I was a special teacher who, like an art teacher, took classes at certain times. I could vary these arrangements thanks to the sympathetic cooperation of Jacob Silverman, the principal, who helped me to see any classes I liked, even on short notice. Unlike other special teachers, I asked the regular teacher to stay in the room while I was there; I needed her help and I wanted to teach her as well as the children. I usually went to the school two or three afternoons a week and taught three forty-minute classes. Toward the end I taught more often, because I had become so interested and because I was going to write about it and wanted as much experience as possible. My interest in the whole subject originally was largely due to Emily Dennis and to her inspiring ways of teaching art to children at the Metropolitan Museum.

I was curious to see what could be done for children’s poetry. I knew some things about teaching adults to write, for I had taught writing classes for a number of years at Columbia and the New School. But I didn’t know about children. Adult writers had read a lot, wanted to be writers, and were driven by all the usual forces writers are driven by. I knew how to talk to them, how to inspire them, how to criticize their work. What to say to an eight-year-old with no commitment to literature?

One thing that encouraged me was how playful and inventive children’s talk sometimes was. They said true things in fresh and surprising ways. Another was how much they enjoyed making works of art—drawings, paintings, and collages. I was aware of the breakthrough in teaching children art some forty years ago. I had seen how my daughter and other children profited from the new ways of helping them discover and use their natural talents. That hadn’t happened yet in poetry. Some children’s poetry was marvelous, but most seemed uncomfortably …

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