For the past four years, I have had the privilege of spending a few weeks each spring teaching poetry to the kindergarteners in Lisa Dugach’s class at Gurney Elementary in Chagrin Falls, OH. Before staying home with my own children, I had been a high school English and communications teacher. While I always considered high school my natural habitat as a teacher, spending time in elementary classrooms has been an incredible learning experience.
Shortly after returning from the Conference on Poetry & Teaching at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH in June 2010, my younger daughter was assigned to Lisa’s class. My daughter told her teacher about my trip and mentioned that I went to Robert Frost’s house where Robert Frost taught me about poetry. Whatever else can be said about that claim, it’s certainly a great way to have someone ask about the teaching conference at The Frost Place. Lisa, also a poetry enthusiast, immediately asked if we could plan a poetry unit together. With the help of her incredible classroom aide Mary Jo Czerr, we developed a unit that has served a diverse group of students. Each year we tweak the lessons to best serve the individual needs of that year’s class, but the core of the unit remains about the same.
We set some goals for ourselves before selecting mentor texts. First, kindergartners often hear poems with a regular rhythm and rhyme, so we wanted to include poems to challenge their notion of what makes something a poem. Second, we wanted to introduce poems not typically taught in elementary grades in a meaningful way. In other words, we tried to select poems students could relate to even if it required some stretching on their part. Finally, we needed poems that would inspire student writing. Whatever else would come from this unit, student writing would be the best measure of our success.
A few of the key lessons and teaching ideas are included below. We have incorporated other poems over the years and have used different graphic organizers and activities. These, however, remain the staples of our unit.
Day One: What is a poem? The importance of titles.
Featured Poem: “Crayons: A Rainbow Poem” by Jane Yolen
Download worksheet here
Lisa Dugach, NBCT, spends time prior to our first class getting students excited about studying poetry with their guest teacher – me. One of the tools I’ve developed over the years is a poetry lab coat.
The images on the lab coat remind students of some of the ideas we promote about poetry. It’s also a terrific visual aid!
Our first activity is just a discussion, and it flows from the following introduction:
I ask, “How many of you like poetry?” All the hands will go up. Students read poems to their family members each week from a growing poetry binder. The poems contain many of the star words students learn in class. After several readings in class and at home, many of these are committed to memory. Then I add, “Awesome. I love poetry. I want to ask you a question. When you see something, or when you hear something, how do you KNOW it’s a poem?” Without fail, students thoughtfully respond to this question. I note all of their responses on an oversized pad which we can refer back to as we learn about poetry. I hear many things I expect to hear. One of my favorite lists of qualities is from the 2012 group. They captured many of the ideas we hear every year, plus a few unique observations of their own.
The 2012 class noted these observations about poetry:
Poems have words.
Poems have more than one word.
It is not a book and it doesn’t have a cover.
We can write
We can sing
Poems can have pictures or not have pictures.
Poems have to make sense.
Poems can be funny.
Fairy tales and nursery rhymes are poems.
Poems can be long or short.
There are lots of poems in the world.
Poems contain star words (that we can highlight).
Poems can be fiction or nonfiction.
Like all days in the unit, I bring a poem which is projected for the kids to see while it’s read aloud. Not all students will be able to read all the words in these poems, so we point to words when we read or discuss them.
Our first poem is Jane Yolen’s “Crayons: A Rainbow Poem.” When I share it, however, I hide the title. As students look at the lines of the poem, we ask them to wonder what kind of “box” the poet could be describing. The guessing game is animated. Someone will guess that the box is the earth. Once they start guessing big items, I show them a small plain bag I’ve brought with me and tell the students that the kind of box Yolen is describing is inside the bag. Once we reveal what is in the bag, we also show them the title of the poem. Lesson: Never underestimate the importance of a title. Most students never notice that the poem didn’t have a title until we reveal it. They are much more aware of titles when we study our other poems.
After examining the Yolen poem, we return to our list of things that make a poem. Rhyme falls from its Kindergarten poetry pedestal with this poem. They understand that poems can rhyme, but they realize that a poem doesn’t have to rhyme.
Next, we ask them to write one more line of the Crayon poem on a simple handout. Students choose a color, then write a line about something that color that is in the “box.” They use the remaining space to illustrate what that object looks like. This is the first line of poetry they write.
Later that day, Lisa will read students the picture book Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening illustrated by Susan Jeffers. She does not refer to this book as a poem, but I will surprise them by bringing this poem to study on Day 2.
Day 2: Stories and moods.
Featured poem: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
When I bring today’s poem, I tell students we are going to read a poem often studied by students in middle school, high school, and college. They expect it to be hard. We assure them they’re ready since they did such a great job with the Crayon poem. We project the words of the Frost poem and the strongest readers are sometimes onto us before I can even start reading. Usually, I don’t get beyond the title before they begin wiggling and raising their hands. Someone must tell me that they know a book by the same title.
“That’s a book,” someone will say.
“What do you mean that it is a book? This is a very famous poem by Robert Frost” Oh, they can hardly contain their excitement. As someone works hard to convince me that they read a book yesterday that has the same words in it, Lisa produces the book from their reading corner.
There are so many lessons here. Poems can be books of their own. Poems can be illustrated. Poems can tell stories. After we read this poem aloud twice, we ask students to report what they notice. They notice the rhyme in this one. Students will come up and help underline the rhyming words. When we ask them to listen for sounds that repeat in this poem, we introduce the word alliteration. More than once, when we’ve asked what students notice, someone will report that this poem sounds peaceful and quiet like the woods at night. As students ask questions or make observations, we introduce the vocabulary that helps them explain what they notice.
We also ask them to notice something else about poems. After looking at this poem, we briefly project a paragraph from a book they know well. How is a poem different from prose? They can see the wiggly right edge of a poem is different from the square profile of a paragraph.
The Poetry Toolbox
Another visual aid I use with the students is a Poetry Toolbox. Once they discover a new tool, we take it out of the toolbox and display it in the classroom. This not only helps them know what we can look for in a poem, but they will later use these tools when they are writing their own poems. The toolbox has laminated visual reminders of each tool we discover. A printable copy of the items in the poetry toolbox is attached here
Day 3: Action
Featured Poem: “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis
Today I bring the Robert Francis poem “The Base Stealer.” Kindergarteners may not know about stealing bases in baseball, so we share some images of baseball players in different stages of stealing a base. In 2014, we focused on the action words in the poem and Lisa created signs for each student to wear while they acted out their word. By the time each word was identified and assigned, the room was vibrating with action. The action of this poem is a tremendous contrast to Frost’s snowy woods.
Day 4: Description plus feeling.
Featured poems: “Real Snow” by Karen Hess (From Out of the Dust) and “Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost
Today’s poems both have description of a natural scene accompanied by the feelings of the speaker. Since we teach this unit in the spring, we like the idea of using images from a season we are not experiencing anymore. When students start writing about what they see in the natural world, they have the snowy poems to use as a model, but they have a different season to consider. They’ve learned about description using the senses before, but these poems help them remember to also add the speaker’s feelings.
Day 5: Art and Poetry
Featured poem: “The Great Figure” by William Carlos Williams (accompanied by The Figure Five in Gold by Charles Demuth)
Download heart map here
We study the images in the Williams poem and examine how Demuth interpreted the scene. Then, students create their own picture of the scene from “The Great Figure.”
We also adapted Georgia Heard’s heart mapping exercise for students by providing them with heart-shaped graphic organizers. The number of spaces varies on the three heart maps we copy. Lisa knows which maps will stretch students to find writing territories that appeal to them. I bring a copy of my own heart map and model how to complete the heart map.
Day 6: The voice of poetry
Featured poem: “Night Moon” featured as a video of a signed poem on Sesame Street.
We are preparing students to read their own poems at an end of unit poetry party/poetry slam for families. The video helps them imagine a child’s voice reading a simple poem.
Today they will also see the acrostic poem “Shel” by Shel Silverstein. We help them discover how the lines begin with letters from the poet’s name. We do not tell them it’s an acrostic, but instead help them to focus their attention on those beginning letters. Afterwards, they write an acrostic poem using the letters in their first names.
Day 7: Onomatopoeia
Featured book: Snow Sounds: An Onomatopoetic Story by David A. Johnson
Featured song: “Onomatopoeia” by Todd Rundgren
Lisa hides the subtitle of the book and reads Snow Sounds to the class. Often, without being prompted, someone recognizes that all the words in the book are sound words. This is an opportunity to introduce onomatopoeia to the class. We listen to the Rundgren song and students brainstorm other onomatopoetic words.
Days 8-12: Writing Days
Now that students have been exposed to many types of poems, they spend time writing. Finished poems are neatly handwritten and published in a book of their own original poems. Students complete an “About the Author” page and create a book cover. Once polished poems are written, students like to spend some time illustrating them.
Day 13: A poetry celebration!
Family members are invited to a poetry party. Students perform one original and one class poem for the audience. This takes days of practice. We’ve used a karaoke machine and microphone to amplify the voices during the performance. Students are encouraged to bring a prop to accompany their poems. The room is decorated for our party, and juice and small pastries and cookies are served.
A tip about applause: We teach the students from the beginning to click their fingers instead of applaud when we show our appreciation for a poem. Finger snapping is hard work for Kindergarteners, but the sound is less intimidating and everyone tends to get the same amount of clicking. One difficulty we’ve had with applause is that it often starts strong for the first few poets, but then fizzles as more and more poets read. The finger clicking seems to remain constant across all the performances. Everyone feels appreciated and those fine motor skills are getting a good workout.