April Showers bring May flowers and
National Poetry Month brings out the importance of poems!
Poetry, Plain and Simple
Back in the day I was just another quasi-artsy kid at Sarah Lawrence College (“Where even the squirrels wear black!” was everyone’s favorite quip about the plethora of actual black squirrels on campus). I majored in poetry. Well, I didn’t really major, I concentrated. It was hip, alternative and, hopefully you’ll bear with me here, not nearly as ridiculous as it sounds. Ted Sheu, famed poet from Middlebury, VT, spent a day with us in the library last week and I’m pretty sure it changed some lives. It got me thinking about my outre collegiate days in a whole new way. Not only does poetry matter, it matters a lot.
How often do kids these days just sit down, let their minds wander and have the gift of time to write stuff down--any old thing that comes to mind--silly, serious, sad, outrageous, whatever? The word “rarely” comes to mind. School is so super-structured, I have teachers tell me that the read aloud students enjoy in the library with me once a week is the only one “they have time for.” (This is fodder for a whole other blog.) Teachers follow a strict writing curriculum which basically forces children to “write what they are told,” as in a “How-To Book,” a persuasive letter, etc. Of course there is merit in these exercises because kids need to learn to harness the power of writing in various forms and practice GUM rules along the way, but there seems to be this idea out there that day-dreamy, from-the-gut mucking around on paper writing has no value. The Sarah Lawrence gal in me feels completely the opposite. Enter our workshops with Mr. Sheu!
Ted gave every member of every elementary class the opportunity to goof around with ideas on paper. He had some structured activities that gave these budding writers a place to get kooky, to say something unexpected and original, that they didn’t even know they could say. It was so profound, watching literally every single student come to life with this master poet, who makes his living seriously goofing off with school kids, helping them recognize this voice inside they had not met before. What if we decided that not only is it okay to allow time for children to engage in these kind of writing exercises at school, but necessary?
In this budding era of personalized learning, we are giving students enormous power to figure things out on their own terms. Mastery of concepts and skills can be shown via evidence accumulated over time--ideally, school is losing its “cells and bells” paradigm in favor of a “workshop” model. It sounds like a good idea, right? Well, time spent in a workshop means people are actually digging in, making a mess and ideally entering a state of flow that leads to all kinds of intrinsic learning. Gorgeous chaos? Meaningful messes? Yup. As educators in the 21st century, we have signed ourselves up to facilitate this stuff; it seems to me we have given ourselves the opportunity to let kids write poetry! Awesome.
Okay, so now I sound like I am promoting some kind of writing free-for-all in school (admit it, it sounds fun, doesn’t it?) where kids can do whatever they wish, spelling and GUM rules be darned. I am not. A writer cannot possibly harness the power of all he or she wishes to say without a good understanding of basic writing skills. We all know that, basically, writing is rewriting. And students need to be taught all of this, often explicitly. But, that does not mean there can’t be a time for the poet in each of us to come on out and let our voices sing or laugh or cry or proclaim. It’s been going on since ancient times. It is a very human thing, poetry. It’s an art form that gets at all the things in our hearts that somehow or other never come out just right, until the poet does it for us, and we breathe a sigh of relief. It’s a celebration of expression where rules get broken because we humans often become most aware of our power when we break barriers that have been set. The world needs artists, no doubt. It needs poets to keep our voices heard in the noise of the 21st century, in the vacuum of cyberspace.
What I am proposing is this: let’s have a time where we “Drop Everything and Write.” (Credit goes to poet Geoff Hewitt for this--he refers to it as DEW). Everyday. Let’s give these kids notebooks just for this sacred time and let them have at it. Let’s give them time to develop their voices so they know who they are as they are given the ever popular “voice and choice” that is becoming the mantra of personalization in public education. And I am going to one-up myself here: let’s then build in some of that “must-do” writing time for students to rewrite poems until they are saying that thing that is in their hearts. Let’s develop that in our students. Imagine the intrinsic motivation that might start to run rampant in each of them? It could happen. It should happen.
I think we can all agree we are living in some pretty precarious times. We keep talking anxiously about preparing students for life in the 21st century. They are going to need to know what they are about, what they think, how they feel. They are going to need their voices. Enter a serious commitment to poetry: reading it, discussing it, writing it. I honestly believe poetry changes lives. It certainly did mine all those years ago. It gave me the courage to stand up and be a teacher librarian, actively promoting every child’s right to read, investigate and think freely. Talk about a powerful agenda. It is most likely worthy of a poem. It seems life in the library has brought me full circle to my undergraduate days, some of which may have seemed questionable in terms professional pay-off. Well, they weren’t. Libraries change lives, as do the poems housed on their shelves. Let’s work hard to promote the poets in our midst, our students. I am pretty sure they have things to say we have never heard before.
*Many thanks to Ted Sheu for an incredibly inspiring day at Danville School during National Poetry Month 2017.
-Kristen Eckhardt, LMS