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
I hear the bird sing
I wish I could sing
My eyes, they open
And all around my house
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
—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.1 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 imitative of adult poetry or else childishly cute. It seemed restricted somehow, and it obviously lacked the happy, creative energy of children’s art. I wanted to find, if I could, a way for children to get as much from poetry as they did from painting.
Ideas for Poems
My adult writing courses had relied on what I somewhat humorously (for its grade-school sound) called “assignments.” Every week I asked the writers in the workshop to imitate a particular poet, to write on a certain theme, to use certain forms and techniques: imitations of Pound’s Cantos, poems based on dreams, prose poems, sestinas, translations. The object was to give them experiences which would teach them something new and indicate new possibilities for their writing. Usually I found these adult writers had too narrow a conception of poetry; these “assignments” could broaden it. This system also made for good class discussions of student work: everyone had faced the same problem (translating, for example) and was interested in the solutions.
I thought this would also work with children, though because of their age, lack of writing experience, and different motivation, I would have to find other assignments. I would also have to go easy on the word “assignment,” which wasn’t funny in grade school. In this essay I refer to assignments, poetry ideas, and themes; in class what I said was “What shall we write about today?” or “Let’s do a Noise Poem.” My first poetry idea, a Class Collaboration, was successful, but after that it was a few weeks before I began to find other good ones. Another new problem was how to get the grade-school students excited about poetry. My adult students already were; but these children didn’t think of themselves as writers, and poetry to most of them seemed something difficult and remote. Finding the right ideas for poems would help, as would working out the best way to proceed in class. I also needed poems to read to them that would give them ideas, inspire them, make them want to write.
I know all this now, but I sensed it only vaguely the first time I found myself facing a class. It was a mixed group of fifth and sixth graders. I was afraid that nothing would happen. I felt the main thing I had to do was to get them started writing, writing anything, in a way that would be pleasant and exciting for them. Once that happened, I thought, other good things might follow.
I asked the class to write a poem together, everybody contributing one line. The way I conceived of the poem, it was easy to write, had rules like a game, and included the pleasures without the anxieties of competitiveness. No one had to worry about failing to write a good poem because everyone was only writing one line; and I specifically asked the children not to put their names on their lines. Everyone was to write the line on a sheet of paper and turn it in; then I would read them all as a poem. I suggested we make some rules about what should be in every line; this would help to give the final poem unity, and it would help the children to find something to say. I gave an example, putting a color in every line, then asked them for others. We ended up with the regulations that every line should contain a color, a comic-strip character, and a city or country; also the line should begin with the words, “I wish.”
I collected the lines, shuffled them, and read them aloud as one poem. Some lines obeyed the rules and some didn’t; but enough were funny and imaginative to make the whole experience a good one—
I wish I was Dick Tracy in a black
suit in England
I wish that I were a Supergirl with
a red cape; the city of Mex-
ico will be where I live.
I wish that I were Veronica in
South America. I wish that
I could see the blue
The children were enormously excited by writing the lines and even more by hearing them read as a poem. They were talking, waving, blushing, laughing, and bouncing up and down. “Feelings at P.S. 61,” the title they chose, was not a great poem, but it made them feel like poets and it made them want to write more.
I had trouble finding my next good assignment. I had found out how to get the children started but didn’t yet know how to provide them with anything substantial in the way of themes or techniques. I didn’t know what they needed. I tried a few ideas that worked well with adults, such as writing in the style of other poets, but they were too difficult and in other ways inappropriate. Fortunately for me, Mrs. Wiener, the fourth-grade teacher, asked me to suggest some poetry ideas for her to give her class. (I wasn’t seeing them regularly at that time—only the sixth graders.) Remembering the success of the collaborations, I suggested she try a poem in which every line began with “I wish.” It had worked well for class poems and maybe it would work too for individual poems, without the other requirements. I asked her to tell the children that their wishes could be real or crazy, and not to use rhyme.
A few days later she brought me their poems, and I was very happy. The poems were beautiful, imaginative, lyrical, funny, touching. They brought in feelings I hadn’t seen in the children’s poetry before. They reminded me of my own childhood and of how much I had forgotten about it. They were all innocence, elation, and intelligence. They were unified poems: it made sense where they started and where they stopped. And they had a lovely music—
I wish I had a pony with a tail like
I wish I had a boyfriend with blue
eyes and black hair I would
be so glad….
—Milagros Diaz, IV
Sometimes I wish I had my own
Sometimes I wish I owned a
Sometimes I wish we had a color
Sometimes I wish for a room of
And I wish all my sisters would
And I wish we didn’t have to go
And I wish my little sister would
find her nightgown.
And I wish even if she didn’t she
wouldn’t wear mine.
—Erin Harold, IV
It seemed I had stumbled onto a marvelous idea for children’s poems. I realized its qualities as I read over their work. I don’t mean to say the idea wrote the poems: the children did. The idea helped them to find that they could do it, by giving them a form that would give their poem unity and that was easy and natural for them to use: beginning every line with “I wish.” With such a form, they could relax after every line and always be starting up afresh. They could also play variations on it, as Erin Harold does in her change from “Sometimes” to “And.” Just as important, it gave them something to write about that really interested them: the private world of their wishes. One of the main problems children have as writers is not knowing what to write about. Once they have a subject they like, but may have temporarily forgotten about, like wishing, they find a great deal to say. The subject was good too because it encouraged them to be imaginative and free. There are no limits to what one can wish: to fly, to be smothered in diamonds, to burn down the school. Wishes, moreover, are a part of what poetry is all about.
I had told Mrs. Wiener to ask the children not to use rhyme. I said that to all my classes as soon as I had them start writing. Rhyme is wonderful, but children generally aren’t able to use it skillfully enough to make good poetry. It gets in their way. The effort of finding rhymes stops the free flow of their feelings and associations, and poetry gives way to sing-song. There are formal devices which are more natural to children, more inspiring, easier to use. The one I suggested most frequently was some kind of repetition: the same word or words (“I wish”) or the same kind of thing (a comparison) in every line.
Once I understood why the Wish Poem worked so well, I had a much clearer idea of what to look for. A poetry idea should be easy to understand, it should be immediately interesting, and it should bring something new into the children’s poems. This could be new subject matter, new sense awareness, new experience of language or poetic form. I looked for other techniques or themes that were, like wishes, a natural and customary part of poetry. I thought of comparisons and then of sounds, and I had the children write a poem about each. As in the Wish Poems, I suggested a repetitive form to help give their poems unity: putting a comparison or a sound in every line. Devoting whole poems to comparisons and sounds gave the children a chance to try out all kinds, and to be as free and as extravagant as they liked. There was no theme or argument with which the sounds or comparisons had to be in accord: they could be experimented with for the pleasures they gave in themselves. In teaching painting an equivalent might be having children paint pictures which were only contrasting stripes or gobs of color.
In presenting these poetry ideas to the children I encouraged them to take chances. I said people were aware of many resemblances which were beautiful and interesting but which they didn’t talk about because they seemed too far-fetched and too silly. But I asked them specifically to look for strange comparisons—if the grass seemed to them like an Easter egg they should say so. I suggested they compare something big to something small, something in school to something out of school, something unreal to something real, something human to something not human. I wanted to rouse them out of the timidity I felt they had about being “crazy” or “silly” in front of an adult in school. There is no danger of children writing merely non-sensical poems if one does this; the truth they find in freely associating is a greater pleasure to them—
A breeze is like the sky is coming
—Iris Torres, IV
The sea is like a blue velvet
—Argentina Wilkinson, IV
The flag is as red, white, and blue
as the sun’s reflection….
—Marion Mackles, III
Children often need help in starting to feel free and imaginative about a particular theme. Examples can give them courage. I asked my fourth graders to look at the sky (it was overcast) and to tell me what thing in the schoolroom it most resembled. Someone’s dress, the geography book—but best of all was the blackboard which, covered with erased chalksmear, did look very much like it. Such question games make for an excited atmosphere and start the children thinking like poets. For the Noise Poem I used another kind of classroom example. I made some noises and asked the children what they sounded like. I crumpled up a piece of paper. “It sounds like paper.” “Rain on the roof.” “Somebody typing.” I hit the chair with a ruler and asked what word that was like. Someone said “hit.” What else? “Tap.” I said close your eyes and listen again and tell me which of those two words it sounds more like, hit or tap. “It sounds more like tap.” I asked them to close their eyes again and listen for words it sounded like which had nothing to do with tap. “Hat, snap, trap, glad, badger.” With the primary2 graders I asked, How does a bee go? “Buzz.” What sounds like a bee but doesn’t mean anything like buzz? “Fuzz, does, buzzard, cousin.” The children were quick to get these answers and quick to be swept up into associating words and sounds—
A clink is like a drink of pink
—Alan Constant, V
A yoyo sounds like a bearing
rubbing in a machine….
—Roberto Marcilla, VI
Before they had experimented with the medium of poetry in this way, what the children wrote tended to be a little narrow and limited in its means—but not afterward. Their writing quickly became richer and more colorful.
After the Comparison Poem and the Noise Poem, I asked my students to write a Dream Poem. I wanted them to get the feeling of including the unconscious parts of their experience in their poetry. I emphasized that dreams didn’t usually make sense, so their poems needn’t either. Wishes and dreams are easy to doctor up so they conform to rational adult expectations, but then all their poetry is gone.
Their Dream Poems contained a surprising number of noises, and also comparisons and wishes—
I had a dream of a speeding car
going beep-beep while a
train went choo-choo….
—Ruben Luyando, IV
I dream I’m standing on the floor
and diamonds snow on me.
I dream I know all the Bob Dylan
songs my brother
—Annie Clayton, IV
My students, it was clear, weren’t forgetting things from one poem to the next; they had been able to write more vivid poems about their dreams because of the other poems they had recently written. To encourage them in combining what they knew, I next asked them to write a poem deliberately using wishes, noises, comparisons, and dreams all together.
The Metaphor Poem, which I had the fourth graders write next, was a variation of the Comparison Poem, and more difficult than it, probably because it isn’t as natural to children to make metaphors as to make comparisons; metaphors require an extra act of thought. Some children wrote Metaphor Poems and many wrote new Comparison Poems. Something of this kind which the children found easier was the Swan of Bees Poem, which required in every line not a like or an as, as in the Comparison Poem, but an of. The idea was to put in every line a strangely composed object, like a swan of bees. “Swan of bees” was a spelling mistake a third grader made in his Comparison Poem: he meant to write “swarm” but wrote “swan” instead. Believing that his error had created something interesting and beautiful, I wanted to share it with the class; I was pleased to have a live example of the artistic benefits that can come from error and chance. The children seemed to find the swan of bees as beautiful as I did, and when I proposed they write a poem full of such things they responded enthusiastically. Being able to create things out of no matter what suggested marvelous possibilities—
I have a sailboat of sinking water
I was given a piece of paper made
—Eliza Bailey, III
I had a dream of my banana
And of my pyjamas of oran-
—Madelyn Mattei, III
This was only one of many poetry ideas I had which were directly inspired by the children’s work. After my students had written a few basic poems like Comparisons, Wishes, and Noises, I began to be guided more by my sense of where they were in their development as poets and what they might be ready for next.
A poetry theme that all my classes were ready for at this point was the contrast between the present and the past. To give their poems form and to help them get ideas, I suggested that they begin every odd line with I Used To and every even line with But Now. Like Wishes and Dreams, this poem gave the children a new part of experience to write about. It gave them a chance too to bring in comparisons, dreams, and other things they had learned—
I saw a red doll and feel I am red
But that was a dream….
—Thomas Kennedy, III
I used to be a baby saying coo
But now I say “Hello”….
—Lisa Smalley, III
I used to have a teacher of
But now I have a teacher of
—Maria Ippolito, III
Some of the content brought into their poetry by this theme surprised me. Among the primary and third graders metempsychosis was almost as frequent a theme as the conventionally observed past:
I used to be a fish
But now I am a nurse….
—Andrea Dockery, I
I used to be a rose but now I’m a
I used to be a boy but now I’m a
I used to have a baby but now
he’s a dog….
—Mercedes Mesen, III
I used to be a design but now I’m
—Ilona Baburka, III
I had forgotten that strange childhood experience of changing physically so much all the time. It came very naturally into the children’s poems once I found a way of making it easy for them to write about change—that is, by suggesting the pattern, I Used To / But Now.
I gave other assignments in my first two months at P.S. 61, but these were the ones that worked out best. Each gave the children something which they enjoyed writing about and which enabled them to be free and easy and creative. Each also presented them with something new, and thus helped them to have, while they were writing, that feeling of discovery which makes creating works of art so exhilarating. The success of these particular assignments, as well as of some I gave later, was due partly to their substance and partly, I think, to the accident of my finding an effective way to present them. A child’s imagination can be reached in many ways. Some ideas that didn’t turn out so well, such as a poem about mathematics, would doubtless have worked better if I had been able to find a way to make them suggestive and exciting. In these first poems, in any case, I thought the children had come to like poetry, and had become familiar with some of the basic themes and techniques that make it so enjoyable to write.
The repetition form, which I often suggested they use, turned out to have many advantages. Repetition is natural to children’s speech, and it gave them an easy-to-understand way of dividing their poems into lines. By using it they were able to give strong and interesting forms to their poems without ever sounding strained or sing-song, as they probably would have using rhyme. And it left their poetry free for the kind of easy and spontaneous music so much appreciated by contemporary poets, which rhyme and meter would have made impossible—
I wish planes had motors that
went rum bang zingo and
would be streaming green as
—Argentina Wilkinson, IV
One of the saddest things are
colors because colors are
sad and roses are sad two-
lips are sad and having
dates is sad too but the
saddest color I know is
orange because it is so
bright that it makes you
—Marya Morales, III
Children can be fine musicians when the barriers of meter and rhyme aren’t put in their way.
Another strategy I’d used more or less instinctively, encouraging the children to be free and even “crazy” in what they wrote, also had especially good results. They wrote freely and crazily and they liked what they were doing because they were writing beautiful and vivid things. The trouble with a child’s not being “crazy” is that he will instead be conventional; and it is a truth of poetry that a conventional image, for example, is not, as far as its effect is concerned, an image at all. When I read “red as a rose,” I don’t see either red or a rose; actually such a comparison should make me see both vividly and make me see something else as well, some magical conjunction of red and rose.
It’s another story when I read “orange as a rose” or even “yellow as a rose”—I see the flower and the color and something beyond. It is the same when one writes as when one reads: creating in himself the yellow and the rose and the yellow rose naturally gives a child more pleasure and experience than repeating a few words he has already heard used together. As I hope I’ve made clear, the best way to help children write freely is by encouragement, by examples, and by various other inspiring means. It can’t be done by fiat, that is, by merely telling them to be “imaginative and free.”
The best poetry assignments I found in my second stint at P.S. 61 (December 1968 to February 1969), like these first ones, added something new to what the children could write about and did it in a way that interested and excited them. My first December visit to the school was during a snowstorm, and I thought there would be considerable sentiment for a snow poem. To help the children avoid wintry Christmas card clichés I proposed that instead of writing about the snow they write as if they were the snow, or rather the snowflakes, falling through the air. I said they could fall any place they liked and could hurt and freeze people as well as make them happy. This made them quite excited. Children are so active and so volatile that pretending to be something can be easier for them than describing it—
If I were the snow I would fall on
the ground so the children
could pick me up and
throw me into the air….
—Ana Gomes, VI
We would cover the sun with
clouds so it could not melt
—Carmine Vinciforo, VI
Later they wrote poems about animals and objects, and for these poems too I suggested that they be the animal or object rather than describe it—
I’m the floor of a house.
Everything someone steps
on me I laugh….
—Billy Constant, IV
A Lie Poem worked out very well. I asked the children to say something in every line that wasn’t true, or to simply make the whole poem something not true. I know “lie” is a strong word; I used it partly for its shock value and partly because it’s a word children use themselves. “Fantasy” is an adult word and “make-believe” has fairytale and gingerbread associations that I wanted to avoid. The Lie Poem, like the Wish and Dream Poems, is about how things might be but really aren’t—though, as in Jeff Morley’s “The Dawn of Me,” it can lead to surprising truths.
Color Poems—using a different color in every line, or the same color in every line—were a great hit. The children had been using colors in their poems all along and they liked devoting whole poems to them—
Yellow, yellow, yellow. The sky is
yellow. The streets are yel-
low. It must be a yellow
—Elizabeth Caban, V
I also had the children write poems while listening to music. The school had a phonograph on which I played for my different classes records by De Falla, Ravel, Mozart, and Stravinsky while they wrote images and lines which the music suggested to them. The immediacy of music, like that of the snowstorm earlier, was inspiring—
This whole world appears before
I wish to soar like a bird in the
—Ruben Marcilla, VI
I was looking at the sun and I saw
a lady dancing and I saw
myself and I kept looking
at the sun then it was
getting to be night time
then the moon was coming
up and I kept looking at it
it was so beautiful….
—Ileana Mesen, IV
My fifth-grade class wrote two Sestinas. The Sestina is a seemingly difficult form, but actually the only hard thing about it is remembering the order in which the six end-words are repeated. I did the Sestina as a Class Collaboration: I wrote the end-words, in proper order, on the blackboard, and asked the students for lines to fit them. This way the children got the pleasure of solving the puzzle aspect of the poem—making their lines and ideas fit the form—without the troublesome remembering part. The Sestina taught the children something new about the poetic possibilities of repeating individual words. Erin Harold’s “Gardentail,” which was written a week later, I think shows its influence:
Gardenia’s walking over Nellie
And Gardenia is a mouse
Her tail’s still over Nellie
Who would rather step on tail
Gardenia’s walking through the grass
But her tail is still on Nellie
Gardenia’s going uphill
Gardenia’s going downhill
She’s wading through a stream….
—Erin Harold, V
There are other strict forms—the pantoum, for example—which could be made easy for children to write and would teach them something they would enjoy using in other poems.
A poetry idea which, like I Used To / But Now, brought a new part of their experience into the children’s poetry, was one about the difference between how they seemed to other people and how they felt they really were. I suggested a two-line repeating form, as in the Used To Poem: I Seem To Be / But Really I Am. The sixth graders were particularly affected by this theme, being at an age when private consciousness and social image are sometimes seriously different. For one thing there are hidden sexual and romantic feelings which one doesn’t confess—
I seem to be shy when she passes
by but inside of me I have
a wonderful feeling….
As we went for a walk in the park
I felt a wet kiss hit my dry
—Robert Siegel, VI
Other contrasting themes I thought of but haven’t yet tried are I Used to Think / But Now I See (or Know); I Wish / But Really; I Would Like / But I Would Not Like.
I asked my students to write poems using Spanish words, which delighted the Spanish-speaking children and gave the others an experience of the color and texture of words in another language. I chose Spanish because so many children at P.S. 61 speak it, and I wanted them to be able to enjoy their knowledge of it. There is such emphasis in the schools on teaching Spanish-speaking children correct English that the beauties and pleasures of the Spanish language are usually completely forgotten. I chose twenty Spanish words in advance, wrote them on the board, and asked the children to include most of them in their poems. This worked out best in the fifth-grade class, where I asked the students to invent a new holiday (it was near Christmas) and to use the Spanish words in describing its main features—
On my planeta named Carambona
We have a fiesta called Luna
We do a baile named Mar of
—Marion Mackles, V
…the estrellas are many colors
And the grass is verde.
—Esther Garcia, V
The children were not limited to the words I wrote on the board; I told them they could write their whole poem in Spanish, and some did.
The best assignments to begin with, I think, are Class Collaborations, Wishes, Comparisons, Noises, Lies, and Colors. Children are excited by all of them, and each can show them some of the special pleasures of poetry. Many other assignments are possible, of course, aside from the ones I’ve described. Among those Ron Padgett used at the school were collaborative poems by two students and poems about what you could see with a third eye. At Muse, David Shapiro had the children write poems while he played the violin; another time he borrowed a white mouse from the Muse live animal collection and had each child hold it in his hand and then write a poem about what it would be like to be a mouse. The success of any assignment depends upon how one goes about presenting it and more generally how one approaches the whole subject of teaching children to write.
Teaching Children to Write Poetry
Some things about teaching children to write poetry I knew in advance, instinctively or from having taught adults, and others I found out in the classroom. Most important, I believe, is taking children seriously as poets. Children have a natural talent for writing poetry and anyone who teaches them should know that. Teaching really is not the right word for what takes place: it is more like permitting the children to discover something they already have. I helped them to do this by removing obstacles, such as the need to rhyme, and by encouraging them in various ways to get tuned in to their own strong feelings, to their spontaneity, their sensitivity, and their carefree inventiveness.
At first I was amazed at how well the children wrote, because there was obviously not enough in what I had told them even to begin to account for it. I remember that after I had seen the fourth-grade Wish Poems, I invited the teacher, Mrs. Wiener, to lunch in order to discover her “secret.” I thought she must have told her students certain special things to make them write such good poems. But she had done no more than what I had suggested she do: tell the children to begin every line with “I wish,” to not use rhyme, and to make the wishes real or crazy. There was one other thing: she had been happy and excited about their doing it and she had expected them to enjoy it too.
I was, as I said, amazed, because I hadn’t expected any grade-school children, much less fourth graders, to write so well so soon. I thought I might have some success with sixth graders, but even there I felt it would be best to begin with a small group who volunteered for a poetry workshop. After the fourth-grade Wish Poems, however, and after the Wish and Comparison Poems from the other grades, I realized my mistake. The children in all the grades, primary through sixth, wrote poems which they enjoyed and I enjoyed. Treating them like poets was not a case of humorous but effective diplomacy, as I had first thought; it was the right way to treat them because it corresponded to the truth. A little humor, of course, I left in. Poetry was serious, but we joked and laughed a good deal; it was serious because it was such a pleasure to write. Treating them as poets enabled me to encourage them and egg them on in a non-teacherish way—as an admirer and fellow worker rather than as a boss. It shouldn’t be difficult for a teacher to share this attitude once it is plain how happily and naturally the students take to writing.
There are other barriers besides rhyme and meter that can keep children from writing freely and enjoying it. One is the feeling they have to spell everything correctly. Stopping to worry about spelling a word can cut off a fine flow of ideas. So can having to avoid words one can’t spell. Punctuation can also be an interference, as can neatness. Good poetic ideas often come as fast as one can write; in the rush to get them down there may be no time for commas or for respecting a margin. All these matters can be attended to after the poem is written.
Another barrier is a child’s believing that poetry is difficult and remote. Poetry should be talked about in as simple a way as possible and certainly without such bewildering rhetorical terms as alliteration, simile, and onomatopoeia. There are easy, colloquial ways to say all these: words beginning with the same sound, comparisons using like or as, words that sound like what they mean. Poetry is a mystery, but it is a mystery children can participate in and master, and they shouldn’t be kept away from it by hard words.
Again on the subject of language, the various poetry ideas should be presented in words children actually use. I don’t think the Wish Poems would have been so successful if I had asked my students to start every line with “I desire.” Nor would “My seeming self” and “My true self” have worked well in place of “I Seem To Be / But Really I Am.” One should be on the lookout, too, for words and phrases that tell the child what to say and take him away from important parts of his experience: I think “make-believe” and “imaginary” are such words. When I told a teacher at another school about the “I wish” assignment, she said that she had done almost the same thing but it hadn’t turned out as well. She had had her students write poems in which every line began with “Love is.” I never heard a child say “love is” in my life, and so I wasn’t surprised that they hadn’t responded wholeheartedly.
One bar to free feeling and writing is the fear of writing a bad poem and of being criticized or ridiculed for it. There is also the oppression of being known as not one of the “best.” I didn’t single out any poems as being best or worst. When I read poems aloud I didn’t say whose they were, and I made sure that everyone’s work was read every so often. If I praised a line or an image I put the stress on the kind of line or image it was and how exciting it might be for others to try something like that too. That way, I felt, the talent in the room was being used for the benefit of everyone.
The teacher shouldn’t correct a child’s poems either. If a word or line is unclear, it is fine to ask the child what he meant, but not to change it in order to make it meet one’s own standards. The child’s poem should be all his own. And of course one shouldn’t use a child’s poetry to analyze his personal problems. Aside from the scientific folly of so doing, it is sure to make children inhibited about what they write.
A surprising discovery I made at P.S. 61 was that children enjoyed writing poems at school more than at home. I had assumed that like grown-up writers they would prefer to be comfortable, quiet, and alone when they wrote, but I was wrong. Once it had to be done away from school, poetry was part of the detestable category “homework,” which cuts one off from the true pleasures of life; whereas in school it was a welcome relief from math, spelling, and other required subjects. Closing their heavy books to hear about a new idea for a poem made the children happy and buoyant. There was also the fact of their all being there in the room, writing together. No time for self-consciousness or self-doubts; there was too much activity; everyone was writing and talking and jumping around. It was competitive in a mild and exhilarating way: it was what everyone was doing, and everyone could do it.
The children wrote a few lines, showed them to each other, copied, teased, called to me for help or admiration, and then went back to their writing. Out of this lovely chaos, after fifteen minutes or so, finished poems would begin to appear, handed to me written in pencil on sheets of notebook paper, that would make me gasp. That is how almost all these poems were composed. The classroom was so drab-looking and noisy, with the students talking, the PA system going BOOP BOOP, and the trash can going BOOM (during many a writing session it was rolled in and out of the room), that I couldn’t imagine sitting there and writing a poem. The children, however, seemed not to be distracted at all.
I let the children make a good deal of noise. Children do when they are excited, and writing poetry is exciting. I let them change papers and read each other’s poems too. Sometimes in that maelstrom of creation one student’s idea would seem so irresistible that another would use it. But not many lines were stolen, and the poetry thief always went on to something of his own.
One important advantage to writing in class was that I was there: before the children wrote, to explain and inspire; and while they were writing, to act as reader, admirer, and furnisher of additional ideas. It is true that I could have explained an assignment and let the children carry it out at home. What I couldn’t have done was keep the new idea and their excitement fresh in their minds from noon till seven-thirty, or whenever they would sit down to write. For each poem I did certain things and gave certain examples to help make the idea clear and to put the children in the mood for writing. In giving the Color Poem, for instance, I asked them to close their eyes; then I clapped my hands and asked them what color that was. Almost everyone raised his hand: “Red!” “Green!” “White!” I asked them what color Paris was; London; Rome; Los Angeles. I told them to close their eyes again and I said certain words and certain numbers, asking them what color those were. The point was to get them to associating colors freely with all kinds of things before writing the poem. Almost always a part of my preparation was reading other children’s poems aloud, and the effect of these was most vivid when the class wrote immediately after hearing them.
I could also be helpful to the children while they were actually writing. Often students got the feeling when they were about to start writing that they didn’t really understand the assignment, so they would call me over to make it clearer. Sometimes a student would be stuck, unable to start his poem. I would give him a few ideas, while trying not to give him actual lines or words—“Well, how do musical instruments sound? Why don’t you write about those?” or “What do you hear when you’re on a boat?” Sometimes students would get stuck in the middle of a poem, and I would do the same sort of thing. Sometimes I would be called over to approve what had been written so far, to see if it was OK. I often made such comments as “That’s good, but write some more” or “Yes, the first three lines in particular are terrific—what about some more like that?” or “That’s not exactly what I meant. Turn it over; let’s start again” or “I think maybe it’s finished. What about another poem on the other side?”
So I was useful in the classroom for getting the children in a good mood to write and then for keeping them going. And they were useful to each other in creating a humming and buzzing creative ambiance. They helped and inspired each other as well by the poetry they wrote, which afterwards everyone could read or hear. I have already mentioned my practice of reading aloud to one class the poems of another. Once I had discovered the various good effects of doing this, it became an important part of my teaching.
By listening to or reading poems, children can become excited about writing and can learn new ideas and techniques. Aware of the value of poetry for inspiring and teaching poets, I looked around for the right poems to use at P.S. 61. It wasn’t easy. The children responded to adult poetry with interest and intelligence; my grade-school students obviously enjoyed the work of even the obviously difficult modern poets I read to them—Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, John Ashbery. But adult poetry—even that of Whitman and other apparently easier writers—was too distant from the way they thought, felt, and spoke to touch them in so immediate a way that they wanted to write similar poems of their own. A hasty look at and a long memory of poetry for children by adults showed me that it was not what I wanted either. It was too often condescending and cute and almost always lacked that clear note of contemporaneity and relevance, both in subject and in tone, which makes the work of a writer’s contemporaries so inspiring to him. The best poems I found to read, finally, were those that the children at P.S. 61 were writing. I didn’t have any that would serve until the fourth graders wrote their Wish Poems. When I saw these I decided to try them out on the primary class. It was my first visit to this class, in
which the students were from six to eight years old.
I had really been delighted by these poems, but the response of the primary graders was even wilder and happier than my own. There were about forty of them, seated at their desks arranged in a large U-formation, all looking up at me and wondering what was going on. They hadn’t seen a “poetry teacher” before. When I started to read the fourth-grade Wish Poems, it was as though they couldn’t believe what was happening. Their secret thoughts and dreams, cast into verse, and being read to them in school by a smiling man! How could anybody have found out such things?
I wish I could leap high into the
air and land softly on my
I wish I could dance in every
country in the world….
—Melanie Popkin, IV
I wish I had a kitten to do my
And a chimpanzee to do my
—Ruby Johnson, IV
Within a few moments, first a few students and then the whole class was shouting “Yeah!” at the top of their lungs after every wish, that is, after every line of every poem. The commotion was tremendous. The fourth graders’ poems really moved them, and they were bursting with ideas for poems of their own. I hadn’t been sure that children so young would be able to write anything, but paper was passed out and they immediately wrote one-line Wish Poems (to warm up) and a little later they wrote longer ones. Their handwriting was clumsy and their spelling was uncertain, but what they had to say and how they said it were something else—
I wish me and my brother and my
friend Paul were birds….
—David Jeanpierre, I
I wish I was soso, and I wish I was
bobo too. I wish I was a
book so the children could
—Zaida Rivera, I
I read some fourth-grade poems to my other classes too, with equally good, if less extravagant, effects.
Once this got started I was reading poems from all grades to all other grades. The primary graders wrote the first Used To / But Now Poems, and children in the other classes were excited by lines like Andrea Dockery’s
I used to be a fish
But now I am a nurse….
Some children took over her idea and made something of it for themselves—
I used to be a goldfish
But now I am a girl….
—Lisa Smalley, III
or, in a crazier vein—
I used to be a nurse
But now I am a-dead person
I always was Mr. Coke
But now I am Mrs. Seven Up….
—Thomas Rogaski, III
The younger children’s feeling for physical transformation was doubtless the emotional source of these lines, but I think Andrea’s couplet was the literary influence that made possible its expression. Often other children’s poetry would not only excite my students and make them want to write but would also, as in this case, suggest particular techniques or variations on a theme. Of course these two effects aren’t really separate, since an artist tends to appropriate to some extent that part of someone else’s work which inspires him. I wasn’t concerned that the children would slavishly imitate each other and so be constricted rather than instructed. I felt that my attitude toward their writing would help prevent that, as well as their own strong inclination to make things of their own.
It was soon clear that it wasn’t copying that was going on but something more like the usual artistic process of learning through influence and imitation. The poetry written at P.S. 61 was their poetry, as twentieth-century American poetry is mine. When they were older, that larger literature would be theirs too, but now, though it interested them, it was too difficult and full of adult attitudes for them to feel close to it. The works of their exact contemporaries who were writing on the same subjects were another matter. Images, lines, and ideas in one poem, if they were good ones, carried by my voice across the room, would instantly begin to blossom in new places, changed by the personality of the writer, and usually just as fresh and new as they had been before.
For example, many students learned from Erin Harold’s poem about her sisters how to express aggressive feelings toward siblings, parents, and friends without feeling bad about it. It wasn’t the substance they learned, but how to deal with it in a light-hearted yet convincing way. Another influential poem was Mary Minns’s Comparison Poem, which gave others an example of talking about one sense in the language of another—
Snow is as white as the sun shines.
The sky is as blue as a waterfall.
A rose is as red as a beating of
The clouds are as white as the
busting of a firecracker.
A tree is as green as a roaring lion.
—Mary Minns, IV
In Gloria Peters’s “What’s Like What,” there are images very close to Mary Minns’s—
Black is as black as a drum
But red is as red as a firecracker
and others in which the same technique is used to do something quite original—
But white is as white as screaming
The rain is as pink as pink tears
But orange is as orange as a blunk
That’s What’s Like What!
—Gloria Peters, V
I was learning from their poems also. Having the children associate colors and sounds as preparation for the Color Poems and the Poems Written To Music was an idea I got from Mary Minns’s poem and others like it. We were, the students and I, creating something like a literary tradition, and everyone could learn and profit from it. It was not only poems written for the same assignment that I read to my classes. Colors had turned up before the Color Poem, and I read some poems in which they had occurred when I presented that assignment. Sometimes it was just an interesting turn of phrase or kind of verbal music that I wanted my students to hear.
So hearing and reading other students’ poems inspired the children, made them want to write, gave them new ideas. Having seen how the children were affected by these P.S. 61 poems, I thought harder about how to bring in some of the great poetry of the past and present so that they could learn from it and be inspired by it in similar fashion. They were getting some knowledge of that poetry indirectly through me, since it was, after all, the substance of what I knew about poetry; but I wanted them to feel the force of a poet like Whitman or Wallace Stevens directly. My early classes at the school had shown me it wasn’t enough merely to read them this poetry. But now I knew a few things from reading them their own poems: that they were particularly attentive to poetry just before they were going to write, and that if the poem I read had something to do with what they were going to write about, their interest in and absorption of it was increased—I thought this would be true even if the poem was a little hard for them.
So what I had to do was find poems or parts of poems that fitted in with my assignments, or else begin with a poet’s work and find a way to make an assignment out of one of its characteristics. By reading or hearing the poet’s work before they wrote their own poems on a similar theme, they could enjoy it and learn from it; some of its remoteness would be removed by its being a part of something they themselves were going to do. Wallace Stevens’s “Bantams Among Pine Woods” would be a part of one of their activities rather than something outside them which they were to analyze, appreciate, or describe. Just as it is easier and more natural for children to write as if they were the snow than it is for them to describe it, so it is easier for them to participate in a difficult poem (that is, enjoy it, get lost in it, be moved and influenced by it) than to describe or criticize it.
It is a little hard to believe at first that a ten-year-old child who might not be able to say one thing about Stevens’s poetry could catch and reproduce its music in an original way. Some of my fourth graders did that, though, in their Noise Poems, for which part of the preparation had been my reading aloud “Bantams” and other poems from Harmonium—
Owl go like who and who. Who
and who and who….
—Maria A. Rivera, IV
The rock and roll. Roll rock came
ricking and rocking to
—Eduardo Diaz, IV
The sun had the glare of glass in
—Annie Clayton, IV
This was a case of finding some part of a poet’s work which fitted an assignment I already had in mind. It was the same when, for the Color Poem, I read aloud De la Mare’s “Silver,” Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” and, in my terrible Spanish, Lorca’s “Romance Sonambulo” (“Verde que te quiero verde….”), with a rough English translation.
D.H. Lawrence’s poetry seemed to me likely to be interesting and appealing to my students—the free verse poems of Birds, Beasts and Flowers and Pansies, both for their subjects and for their simple conversational tone. I read his poetry hard, looking for an idea for a children’s poem. I finally thought of a poem about the difference between the silent, secret self and the self that is seen by the outside world. Or to put it more in children’s language, the difference between the way you seem to be to others and the way you really are. When I gave this idea to my classes, I read aloud three short poems by Lawrence which stressed the silent, secret self: “Trees in the Garden,” “Nothing to Save,” and “The White Horse.” “The White Horse,” particularly, had a strong effect on some of the poems, such as this one by a girl in the sixth grade:
My Own Little World
We go to the beach
I took at the sea
My mother thinks I stare
My father thinks I want to go in
But I have my own little world.
I see myself
I walk along the beach
Not another soul
I walk to a white horse
Snowy is her name
I get on
I hold tight to her manes
I nudge her slightly
The sun is setting
The sea is quiet
The sand is moist
The air is tender
The sky is all the colors of the
I kick her harder
My hair blows in the wind
On to the destiny, of nothing
It seems endless
I think perhaps it is
My own little world.
—Amy Levy, VI
This poem is especially like Lawrence’s work in its emphasis on a separate world of the self. Other poems less like his in details owe partly to his influence, I think, their depth of feeling and their seriousness. A few weeks earlier I had read some of his poems (“Fish” and “The Snake”) in conjunction with the Being An Animal Poem and they had had little effect. I realized then that Lawrence’s way of talking to and about animals, though I remembered it as simple and conversational, actually incorporated adult attitudes which would make it somewhat remote from children—
Fish, oh Fish,
So little matters!
Whether the waters rise and cover
—D.H. Lawrence, “Fish”
In talking about mysterious silence, however, Lawrence had a tone my students could use—
They are so silent they are in
—D.H. Lawrence, “The White Horse”
All this suggests the possibility of teaching literature in the schools in conjunction with writing. It might help children get more out of both. It was, in any case, in this way that D.H. Lawrence, by being incorporated into poems by Amy Levy and others, became part of the literary tradition of P.S. 61.
Different Classes and Grades
There were differences in attitudes toward poetry and in the kind of poetry written by the different grades at the school. These differences were mainly due to age, though the personalities of teachers and of the most influential students were also a factor. As poets, the primary graders tended to be buoyant and bouncy, the third graders wildly and crazily imaginative, the fourth graders warmly sensuous and lyrical, the fifth graders quietly sensuous and intellectual, and the sixth graders ironic (sometimes even slightly bitter), secretive, and emotional.
These are generalizations, and I saw important variations from one year to another. Information more useful to a teacher may be that for an almost guaranteed warm and excited response to poetry the first time (as well as thereafter) I would recommend third and fourth graders. The great and terrible onset of self-consciousness seems to begin around the fifth grade, and if children haven’t written before that they may at first be a bit diffident about it. By the sixth grade they are more so, and by then some students have already decided that poetry is not for them, and they are tough to convince that they’re wrong, though it can be done. Primary graders are a pleasure, and they like writing too, but to get a solid body of work going it might be best to start with slightly older children. Only for the first few weeks, though—after that one should move in on everybody, since they will all, if one goes at it the right way, enjoy it a lot.
The way classes respond and how readily and how well they write has much to do also with how much poetry they have already written. This year’s fifth graders, who have been writing poems on and off since third grade, turn out poems as naturally as an apple tree turns out blossoms. I don’t mean that they’re facile, but that they know what writing a poem is all about. If you asked them to skip, they would know how to do that too. Even with this class, however, I never find it sufficient merely to ask them to write a poem. If I want them to enjoy it, I look for an idea that will challenge them and teach them something new, and I do what I can to help them feel its pleasures and possibilities.
For the most recent poem I gave them, the one using Spanish words, I found it good to have them do the kind of associations we had done for Color Poems and Noise Poems. I asked them to close their eyes and listen while I said “night” and then “la noche.” I asked them what color each word was, and which was darker. (La noche turned out to be darker, and more purple.) I did the same for sky and cielo, and for star and estrella. This helped them, I think, to get a sensuous sense of the Spanish words as well as of the English ones and made them eager to use them in what they wrote.
In invierno the sky is azul.
And in verano the cielo is light
—Esther Garcia, V
Children of different ages responded to assignments differently. Primary graders wrote Wish Poems with the exuberance of those who think their wishes might come true; for the fourth graders there was a line, though it was blurry, between what was possible and what wasn’t; many sixth graders could only regard wishing ironically—
I wish J.V. would turn into a
Ruffles Potato Chip….
—Andrew Barish, VI
On the other hand, sixth graders took the I Seem To Be / But Really I Am Poem very seriously: it was a subject a little more appropriate to their stage of life than wishing. The fourth graders found it mainly a subject for joking—
I seem to be purple
But really I am pink
—Thomas Rogaski, IV
Different suggestions about the poems are helpful to children of different ages. How does a dog go? What do you hear in bed at night? are good questions to help primary graders with their Noise Poems, but too young for ten to twelve-year-olds.
The way of teaching I have described worked as well with so-called deprived or disadvantaged children as it had with others. The children I worked with who had problems in reading and writing were those in “N.E.”3 classes at P.S. 61 and some of the students in the writing workshops at Muse. The reason I say “so-called” is that the words deprived and disadvantaged may mistakenly be thought to apply to the children’s imaginations and their power to create things. The tragedy—and for a teacher, the hope and the opportunity—is not that these children lack imagination, but that it has been repressed and depressed, among other places at school, where their difficulties with writing and reading are sometimes a complete bar to their doing anything creative or interesting.
They needn’t be. Degree of literacy certainly makes a difference in a child’s ability to write easily and confidently, but it does not form his imagination. The power to see the world in a strong, fresh, and beautiful way is a possession of all children. And the desire to express that vision is a strong creative and educational force. If there is a barrier in its way—in this case it was writing—the teacher has to find a way to break that barrier down, or to circumvent it.
Since writing was the problem, I had them say their poems out loud. So that they would excite and inspire each other as much as possible, I had them compose their poems together. When we did these spoken collaboration poems, I would sit with from six to fifteen students around a table or in a circle of chairs. I would propose a theme, such as Wishes or Lies, and they would make up lines, which I would write down. When we thought we had enough, we stopped, and I read the poem back to them.
Often in the course of composition I read it back too, to re-inspire the students and to show them where we were. I usually called on them in order, though occasionally I yielded to the irrepressible inspiration of someone who couldn’t wait to tell me his line. I found writing—or even typing—better than using a tape recorder. The time it takes to write or type a line gives the children a chance to work a little more on their ideas. And when the work is read back, it sounds more like a poem because all the incidental noise (laughter, shouted comments) is left out.
These collaborations almost always made the children want to make up, and usually to write, poems of their own. Composing a poem together is inspiring: the timid are given courage by braver colleagues; and ideas too good to belong to any one child are transformed, elaborated on, and topped. Lies are particularly exciting in this regard, but Wishes, Comparisons, Noises, I Used To / But Now, and some other themes can also become exhilaratingly competitive—
I wish I was an apple
I wish I was a steel apple
I wish I was a steel apple so when
people bit me their teeth
would fall out….
So a subject is built up, starting with something rather plain and becoming deeper and more interesting in its elaboration. The teacher can help this process along by interposing questions: Any special kind of apple? Why? Are there any other fruits anyone would like to be? Hands. Shouts. “I want to be an orange!” (spoken with an air of great discovery and a feeling of creative power). How big an orange? “I want to be an orange as big as the school!” More hands. “I wish school was a big orange and New York City was a fruit store and my block was a pineapple.” Excited by this atmosphere, and often having stored up ideas of their own which they are eager to express, children are willing to face even the uncertainties of writing.
It’s understandable that children with reading and writing difficulties might be shy of being natural and spontaneous in school. Often what they say is “corrected” for what’s wrong in it before what’s good in it is acknowledged. That makes it not much fun to talk. To help them be poets, I did just the opposite. I immediately praised whatever it was that was imaginative or funny or anything in what they said, and let the mistakes fall where they would. If I didn’t understand something I would ask, but I made it clear I wanted to know the exact word or meaning so I could get more out of the line. Once children sense a playful, encouraging, and aesthetic (rather than corrective) attitude in the teacher, they become less shy and more willing to take risks.
The speed with which “non-writing” children can become excited about writing poetry was made very clear to me in working with Mrs. Magnani’s fourth-grade “N.E.” class. Ron Padgett came with me the first time I visited the class, and he, Mrs. Magnani, and I each worked with about twelve students. We had decided to do a Lie Poem Collaboration. Lying, for all its bad points in daily living, is a very quick way to the world of the imagination. It is also a competitive pastime. Like the Mississippi riverboat men in Huckleberry Finn, the children at P.S. 61 were eager to do each other one better, to tell an even bigger, more astonishing untruth: I live on the moon; I live half the year on the moon and half on the sun; I live on all the planets: January on Jupiter, March on Mars, December on the Planet of the Apes. Different kinds of lies could also please and astonish: I am ten years older than my teacher; I like school. These fourth graders, with just the slightest encouragement from us, began to create strange realities with great gusto. When we read the group poems back to them, they were very excited. At all three tables they demanded to write Lie Poems of their own.
Once the students began to write down their individual poems, there was terrible chaos, since they were bursting with untruthful inspiration, eager to write, and unable to spell half the words they wanted to use. All the time they were writing, there would be a few students, frantically excited, shouting at me at the head of the table. I couldn’t tell them, as I had told children in other classes (and even there not always with success), just to write the word any way they could, that spelling didn’t matter, I would understand it anyway. They knew perfectly well they couldn’t write it at all, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell January from an elephant if I didn’t show them how the words were spelled. Showing turned out to be better than telling. I had paper in front of me, and when they asked me a word, I wrote it down—rather, I printed it—as fast as I could. Telling them how to spell all the words would have taken forever, since no one could hear anything I said. It is tiring to work at the center of an inspired mob, and also rather heady. The noise and the activity had other values for the children: they were part of an excitement which enabled them to forget their “illiteracy” long enough to write poetry.
Another cause of the high spirits of this class was my asking them to put some of their lies in Spanish. I thought their knowledge of a second language was clearly an advantage, and I wanted them to know it. They liked using Spanish, and they also enjoyed translating for me when I didn’t know what they had written. The mere fact that a word or phrase was in Spanish made it interesting and amusing to them. They all spoke English, but English was the language of the school, whereas Spanish was a kind of secret. Very few could write Spanish, in fact, so those who could helped the others to spell Spanish words as I was helping everyone to spell English ones.
After this beginning in which the children had spoken and written Lie Poems they were excited about poetry, and though spelling problems remained they went on liking to write it. They wrote a good deal. Like everyone else’s poetry, theirs became richer and freer as a result of the poems they listened to and those they wrote themselves—
In spring I play
I eat in spring
I do my work in spring
I’m good in spring
I’am doing my things in spring
Spring, Spring, you’re mine
Spring is the color of a rose
If I was Spring
Spring, Spring I’m calling you
Spring, Spring play with me
Spring, Spring I love you.
—Maria Mesen, IV
The third eye can see inside me
The third eye can see the hosts
The third eye can see Puerto Rico
The third eye can see my voice
The third eye can see my bones
The third eye can see the wind….
—Robert Melendez, IV
As in groups of good readers and writers, some children with writing problems are more inclined toward poetry than others; and some who can hardly write are more imaginative poets than many who write without mistakes. What seemed most important was that, of the children I taught, every one had the capacity to write poetry well enough to enjoy it himself and usually well enough to give pleasure to others, whether it was entire poems or surprising and beautiful images, lines, or combinations of words.
The educational advantages of a creative intellectual and emotional activity which children enjoy are clear. Writing poetry makes children feel happy, capable, and creative. It makes them feel more open to understanding and appreciating what others have written (literature). It even makes them want to know how to spell and say things correctly (grammar). Once Mrs. Magnani’s students were excited about words, they were dying to know how to spell them. Learning becomes part of an activity they enjoy—when my fifth graders were writing their Poems Using Spanish Words they were eager to know more words than I had written on the board; one girl left the room to borrow a dictionary. Of all these advantages, the main one is how writing poetry makes the children feel: creative; original; responsive, yet in command.
Poetry in the Schools
Since children like writing poetry, and since it’s such a good thing for them in so many ways, what can be done in the schools to help them write it? One thing is for a poet from outside to come and teach in the schools as I did. Another is for teachers already there to try teaching poetry. At P.S. 61 there was a great change. A lot of children there are writing poetry now who would not have been otherwise, and their feelings about it are different too. They may have had a distant respect for poetry before, but now it belongs to them. They really like it. Some have written twenty or thirty poems and are still raring to go. It is not our mysterious charm for which Ron Padgett and I are wildly applauded when we go into the fifth-grade classroom and for which shrieks of joy have greeted us in other classrooms too. It is the subject we bring, and along with that, our enthusiasm for what the students do with it. It occurred to me some time ago that I was as popular and beloved a figure at P.S. 61 as certain art and music teachers had been at my grade school in Cincinnati. And that I was doing more or less what they had done, though in a form of art that, for all its prestige, has been relatively ignored in the schools.
The change in the children is the most evident, but the teachers have changed too. Once they saw what the children were doing, they became interested themselves. They have given their own poetry writing assignments, they put children’s poems on bulletin boards along with their artwork, and they have the children read their poems in class and in school assembly. Before, I think, poetry was kind of a dead subject at the school (dormant, anyway). For all their good will, the teachers didn’t see a way to connect it with the noisy, small, and apparently prosy creatures they faced in the classroom. But now they have seen the connection, which is that children have a great talent for writing poetry and love to do it.
April 9, 1970
Poetry teaching at P.S. 61 has been continued by Ron Padgett. I have also gone back a few times this year. In the summer of 1968, along with David Shapiro, I taught writing to children at Muse, the neighborhood museum in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and some of what I say here is based on that experience, particularly in the last part of Section II. ↩
At P.S. 61 the first and second graders are combined in one primary grade. ↩
N.E. stands for “non-English speaking,” a rather misleading administrative term. Children I taught in such classes could all speak English, and all except one or two “language learners” could write it, though often with some difficulty in grammar and spelling. ↩