Surprising Questions: Teaching Poetry To 4th Graders
These kids, they surprise me.
I know that kids are surprising. Unexpected things come out of kids’ mouths, I know. I live with my four-year-old niece. Yesterday, she sang me a song about going potty less than one breath after telling me she liked that we didn’t waste food, which was during a discussion in which she was saying that we needed to build this tower only three blocks high.
But these kids, my 4th graders, are unexpected in different ways.
I teach 4th graders poetry. I do this through the Literary through Prose and Poetry Program, or LPP. The program aims to foster better literacy and reading skills in children through creative writing. Drew, trusty student leader of LPP, suggested it casually to me. “How’d you like to teach kids?” he said. Sounds good in theory, I thought.
In my undergrad, I began as an Elementary Education major, but got the hell out of there once I learned what lesson plans for a single day of 2nd grade looked like. I did manage to take one relevant class, teaching literature to children. It prepared me very little, which is a nice way of saying that the course gave me a chance to read Jane Eyre and All Quiet On the Western Front and Separate Peace without truly conceptualizing what teaching young children might be like.
Granted, I don’t teach my 4th graders about Erich Maria Remarque, though they do love warfare, mainly in video game form.
My first day, I was terrified. The weight of children’s literacy (or illiteracy!) weighed heavily on my shoulders. I had already met with Drew to talk about lesson ideas. I had even met with the teacher of my class, where she suggested I stick to poetry instead of adding in fiction. I had still spent nearly three hours frantically searching on Google “How do I teach kids poetry?” the night before my first lesson.
What I found out from my first day is that teaching kids poetry is easy. Kids are smart. They accept William Carlos Williams as well as they accept Shakespeare as well as they accept contemporary song lyrics. Poetry is ready to crack wide open for their imaginative minds.
What I should have worried about was answering their questions. Their many, many questions. Kids are clever. Kids are never given enough credit for how clever they are.
“I want you to write a poem about what you would do if you had a million dollars,” I suggested on my first day, testing out their free writing skills.
A girl raised her hand and asked me very quietly, “But can I write about pianos?”
“Well, you can write about all the pianos you’d buy if you had a million dollars,” I countered. You see, I was idealistic about sticking to the plan, even if they weren’t.
She didn’t end up writing about pianos. She wrote about traveling to France.
The next week, I taught them about odes. “We’re going to write odes to our favorite objects,” I said to the class after reading them Neruda’s “Ode To A Large Tuna In Market.” I thought Piano Girl would be psyched out of her mind.
Instantly, nine thousand hands shot up in the air. I was stunned. They could sense my hesitation. I called on a girl in the front row. “Does our object have to be real?” she asked.
“Yes.” I was staying firm.
“What about if our object is our pet?” Solid question, young man.
“Okay, pets are good. You can write an ode to your pet.”
“I want to write about my dog but he died, so he’s not real anymore.”
“Um,” I couldn’t in good conscience be the teacher telling them they couldn’t commemorate Spot, may he rest in peace. “Sure, you can write about your dead dog, that’s fine.”
“What about unicorns?”
I knew this question was a test. They could tell my strength was wavering. Their eyes turned hungry with just how far they could push the limits. But I was eager to move on with the writing period of the class.
“I’ll allow unicorns. I like unicorns.”
This marks the moment I lost control of the ode situation.
“What about my teddy bear but I pretend he’s alive?” “What about food?” “What about my sister?” “What about Minecraft?”
Everything escalated quickly. I got six odes to Minecraft, a block-building video game, that day. None about pianos.
None of their questions could prepare me for how genuinely insightful their poetry has become. When I taught lunes, an Americanized version of haiku, I described them as a way to talk about what we can’t quite know, and to focus on the sounds of the poem. To be fair, I had no idea what to expect from that kind of instruction, but they ran with it. They wrote lunes about pigs and unicorns and Minecraft, sure, but they also wrote lunes about lunes, lunes about fire and ice meeting together in hypothetical battles, lunes about soccer from the perspective of a ball so well done I had no idea what to comment. “Wow! Very clever!” doesn’t even do it justice but “I hope you never stop writing poetry ever” seems a little too intense.
What I’ve learned from my 4th graders is to loosen up. Push the limits. Write odes to green deceased unicorns, write lunes about video games, write poems about how you want to buy your mother a new television to make her happy after your dad moved out. The most important aspect is to write, to experiment with words. I am continually inspired to work on my own writing after a session with these kids, ambitiously experimenting more if only out of sheer terror that 4th graders are more imaginative than I am (pro tip: they always are).
Am I working with the next generation of great poets? Maybe. Hopefully. It’s pretty likely. I wouldn’t be surprised.