POETRY & THE OLDER CHILD
The first ambassador for poetry to most children is Mother Goose—an old lady with a funny bonnet and geese friends. Through her, children will learn all kinds of silly fun rhymes which feature characters like three mice who are blind for no reason and Miss Muffet who has a tuffet (whatever that is). As the child grows up, poetry grows up, too. This isn’t to say that there is not plenty of fun poetry for older children. Their options range from the nonsensical, with authors like Edward Lear, to the comedic, such as classics by Shel Silverstein. There is a whole world of poetry however, that is not intended for “fun” and because of this might be unappealing.
While it might not be as appealing, understanding this realm of poetry is an important skill. As children age, the material that will be required for them in school and which may actually benefit them in their later lives will not always be fun and most likely, will not rhyme. The question is then not how do we get kids to read poetry, but how do you get them to read poetry that on the surface is no fun.
YOU & POETRY THAT IS NO FUN
Before you try to force children to read poetry, think about your relationship to it. Do you like poetry? If so, why? If not, what it is that puts you off from it? How would you explain what poetry is?
So, do you like poetry? If so, what is it that appeals to you? Most people aren’t going to just change their opinion about poetry just because you think it’s important. You can influence their opinion however, by your excitement. Once you find this excitement in yourself, you can share that with others.
Do you not like poetry? What are the parts you don’t like it? Understanding what problems you may have with poetry will help you to empathize with a child who has decided that they do not like poetry. My biggest issue, for example, is that sometimes I just don’t get it. Why not just write whatever you want to say out in a full story form? Why use chopped up sentences?
Finally, how do you even define poetry? There is the more traditional kinds of poetry, such as William Wordsworth, which can be difficult because it usually comes across as flowery and inaccessible. Modern poetry, on the other hand, is artful and may have strange choices made by the author regarding organization, rhythm and words. A lot of modern poetry can be confusing, oftentimes it may be confusing on purpose, because it’s modern.
Knowing your own feelings about poetry before you try to interact with children about it, will make you more successful. It also can help you choose what type of poetry you want to share with children. You should always choose poems and poets that appeal to you because kids always know.
MOTIVATING OLDER KIDS TO READ
The idea is usually to analyze and inspire reflection after sharing poetry with children. Doing so usually involves lots of questions or related activities. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to do with poetry, especially the more serious variety. A poem’s strength and value is the richness of the language, the sounds and the wordplay. To overanalyze it kills the intrinsic value of reading it to begin with. As Lee Bennett Hopkins says in his book, Pass the Poetry Please, “after such nonsensical interrogation…it would take a miracle or child masochist to ever ask for these, or any other poems, again (Hopkins 1998 p19)”.
So what do you do?
- Read-Aloud. A lot of poetry, such as Shakespeare, has an oral element. It is made to sound good and it stays only half alive while just on the page.. You can read a poem you like aloud to them yourself, or get them to read it in some kind of Dead Poets Society. Any way that you share the oral side of poetry is great, as long as you get them to have fun with words.
- Slam Poetry. The Slam Poetry movement is alive and strong. It lies somewhere between the written word, hip hop and performance art. It encourages everyone to contribute, not just those who might have a predilection to writing. While some poetry may seem stuck to its page, slam poetry can be incredibly powerful. In particular, it has done a lot of good for those inner city kids who don’t feel like they have a voice. It is like what Taylor Rocheford, a seventh-grade English teacher at the Bronx Lab school said when interviewed about the school’s involvement with a slam poetry institution, “It’s such a neat experience to see them smile about something they did all on their own. And that’s what I say to them: ‘You did that. Yeah, I may have guided you, but you stood up there and memorized that poem and performed it. You did that. That was you (Rubenstein 2009)'”.
- Challenge Them. Don’t be afraid to introduce them to Emily Dickenson with her awkward capitalizations or T.S. Elliot with his dark, strange wastelands or any other difficult poet not traditionally thought to be tailored for children. As long as you do not demand answers from them, they can be free to enjoy the quality of the words and emotion of the poem. You can imagine it as hearing a song for the first time—they will not catch all the words but they can enjoy the music of it.
In his essay, A Defense of Poetry, Percy Shelley said Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it (Shelley p19). We forget that poetry has that vibrant power to transform, and so consequently we just give it to children like here, have this, it’s sort of important. Instead of swords of lightening, its like they have to eat their vegetables.
Hopkins, Lee Bennett. (1998) Pass the Poetry Please. HarperCollins Publishers.
Rubenstein, Grace. (May 5, 2009) Kids Feel the Power of Poetry in Performance. Edutopia.com.
Shelley, P., & Cook, A. (1891). A defense of poetry. Boston: Ginn & Co.