When I was twelve, I knew probably half a dozen poems by heart, including Robert Frost’s "The Road Not Taken." Emily Dickinson’s "I’m Nobody, Who Are You?." large swaths of Alfred Noyes’ "The Highwayman", and Psalm 23. By the time I graduated from high school, I hated poetry. Poetry was boring and hard. Reading poetry consisted of 1) finding examples of things with weird names like alliteration, allusion, and simile, and then 2) guessing what the teacher thought they added up to.
Lots of adults have had the same experience. As Jim Trelease points out in The Read-Aloud Handbook, Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic held a record until recently for the longest time on the New York Times best-seller listyet adult poetry books never make best-seller lists. (Read the entire excerpt "What’s Right or Wrong with Poetry" which also includes lists of proven favorite children’s poetry anthologies and poets.)
Kids love poetrysome more than others, of course, but no one is born hating rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay. For many children, love of poetry starts with nursery rhymes and silly songs. Others start with street-game rhymes or with radio and TV. Find a child in your program who doesn’t know the words to any popular songs or raps!
Something happens between early elementary and high school to make people think they don’t like poetry. Much of the reason is that whole dreary process of memorizing the definitions of poetic terms and then mining poems for examples of those techniques. Many students can’t see the connection between the techniques and what the poem is really up towhich is why the process of trying to understand a poem becomes a process of figuring out what the teacher thinks it means.
Great poetry rewards the hard work of analyzing the techniques the poet uses and then applying the analysis to find out what the poem means. But you have to love poetry first in order to see why you should go to all that trouble. I loved most of those poems I memorized not so much for the subject matter (though "I’m Nobody" struck a chord for an awkward 11-year-old), but for their sound. I knew nothing of English inns and "French-cocked" hats, but I loved to hear myself say, "The highwayman came riding, / Riding, riding / The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door."
Afterschool programs, since they don’t have to teach simile and metaphor, can instead let children enjoy the fun in poetry and so build on their inherent love of language. Check out "Serious Play: Reading Poetry with Children" from the American Academy of Poets.
Poetry is an oral medium. The poemsnursery rhymes, song lyrics, and so onthat our children know are not, to them, written texts at all. Like our preliterate ancestors, from any culture on any continent, they know their poetry by heart, from ear.
Thus, oral reading should always precede silent reading. Any staff member, volunteer, or student can read. Take a lesson from the Library of Congress’ Poetry 180 project and have a poem read to the entire afterschool community every day, or at least include regular oral reading, perhaps alternating poetry and prose, as part of the literacy component of your program.
Don’t ask anyone to read aloud a poem that they’ve never seen before. Good reading requires practice, so the reader is the one exception to the rule that no one sees the text before they hear it. A few tips:
You can also use audio or video recordings of poets or actors reading poetry aloud. Your public library probably has tapes or CDs. If your program’s computers have multimedia capabilities, check out the Favorite Poem Project, which offers not only a good multicultural list of accessible poetry but also videos of ordinary people reciting their favorite poems.
Particularly in the younger grades, concentrate on poetry children can have fun with. You know the names of the modern poets young kids enjoy: Dr. Seuss, Judith Viorst, Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein. And don’t forget the "classics" children of many generations have loved, such as Lewis Carroll’s "Jabberwocky" or "The Hunting of the Snark", or Edward Lear’s nonsense poems.
Older children, too, will enjoy some of the poems children have been memorizing for a hundred years: Longfellow’s "Paul Revere’s Ride", Browning’s "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," Poe’s "The Raven," or my favorites listed above. These poems were not written specifically for young people, and the same is true of appropriate poems by modern authors. Pre-adolescent and adolescent children can enjoy, for example, Gwendolyn Brooks’s "We Real Cool," Nikki Giovanni’s "Kidnap Poem," Langston Hughes’s "Dream Deferred," or Sandra Cisneros’s "Arturro Burro."
Online lists of suggested poems for teaching come from the American Academy of Poets as well as Poetry 180 and the Favorite Poem Project. Copies of tried-and-true poetry anthologies should be part of your program library. One favorite among teachers is the Random House Book of Poetry for Children. See this issue’s Bookshelf for other recommendations.
Regular poetry reading shouldn’t always include discussion or activities: The reading is the activity. But there are many ways to integrate poetry into program literacy activities as well. I would urge you not to "do a poetry unit" or to teach poetic forms and techniques directly, unless they come up naturally in discussion of what children like or don’t like about a poem. Instead, focus on activities that make poetry come alive. For instance, if you do thematic units or project-based learning, you can find a poem or two on most any topic. Mrs. Magliaro’s Poetry Place has a list of poetry across the curriculum.
Once you’ve established poetry reading as a regular part of program activities, ask children to bring in their own favorite poems or to ask family members for their best-loved poems. If a favorite poem isn’t in English, program participants can still enjoy the sound of the poetry though they might not understand the words, and the child can provide a translation if he or she is able. Favorite poems can also be posted on a special bulletin board.
There are lots of ways of performing poetry, including group participation in choral or antiphonal readings. Children may also enjoy the opportunity to act out poems using props, simple costumes, and gestures. Imagine a staged version of my old favorite "The Highwayman"! Other arts activities might include drawing and paintingrealistic depictions of a scene or character from a poem, or more abstract renderings in color of "how this poem makes you feel."
Scouring the Internet for fun poetry activities led to a depressing number of "more of the same" lesson plans, but I found a couple of sites that had some more creative activities. Bruce Lansky, children’s poet, offers ten great activities (plus two pieces of shameless self-promotion) for making poetry fun on PoetryTeachers.com. Also, ProTeacher’s lesson plans are mostly creative and can be adapted to afterschool settings.
Of course, one of the most important activities that goes with reading poetry is writing poetry. Here’s a tiny sample of the many online resources.
Once children have written several poems, you may want to