Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Poetry for Children

As I work on my newest grant application, this time to put together seminars and workshops for middle school teachers, I keep butting up against the limits of my own knowledge about poetry for children. And for adolescents. And for young adults. I have some sense of what "grown-up" poems are out there that might teach well to kids, or at least by loved by them, but my sense of the broad expanse of work that bridges the gap from childhood to college is weaker than I'd like.

Browsing for that Frost quote about poetry as "serious play," I stumbled on this page about "Serious Play: Reading Poetry with Children" from the Academy of American Poets. Here's part of their text:

"Play is what we want to do. Work is what we have to do." said W. H. Auden. Poetry is both of those things. Robert Frost, in fact, defined poetry as "serious play." Poetry is the liveliest use of language, and nobody knows more instinctively how to take delight in that playfulness than children. Surely no parent or educator feels that children must be force-fed Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, or Mother Goose for that matter; children love rhymes, word games, and the magic effects of verse. At the same time, anyone familiar with the techniques pioneered in the 1960s by the poet Kenneth Koch knows that children are equally delighted by more sophisticated poetry when it is presented creatively. It is not an exaggeration to say that all children, at least until adolescence, are natural poets.

The trick is how to translate this energy, once aroused and captured, into the desire to read poetry seriously, to do the intellectual work necessary to gain a basic mastery of the literary art, just as one does, say, with math, biology, or Spanish. There are several crucial components which apply equally to many fields of knowledge: natural affinity, family, school, and community.

It is a simple fact that some children are more drawn to words and literature than others. Sometimes all it takes is the influence of the right person or book at the right moment, to tap something that is set to blossom inside--a love of language, of the sound or meaning of words, of their look on the page. But it is critically important for all children that the right opportunities, the right people, be there when the moment is at hand.

Often the first of these opportunities is the influence of family. How many of us can't remember a song that our parents sung, a book or a poem that was read to us countless times, or a favorite bedtime story? At that intersection of love and language is poetry. Naomi Shihab Nye urges us to "remember the dignity of daily affirmation, whatever one does--the mother speaking to the child is also a poem."

After the home comes the classroom, a frequent stumbling block for poetry. Any subject--even school itself--can be characterized as "liver and onions" by a student who isn't turned on to the excitement of learning. Although many teachers were raised to believe that poetry was an obscure, inaccessible, and unpalatable art, just as many understand its intrinsic value, but want guidance on how to approach it in class: recipes for poetry.

I like that last phrase--but then, I like to cook. And eat. Hmmm... On the other hand, I like liver and onions, too. Maybe I'm not their audience.

Anyway, if you teach younger grades, or if you don't but want to explore the topic, they seem to have a fine list of links to poems, essays, and author pages. I'll spend some time exploring them later today, once I get more work done on the grant proposal. If I find anything really startling, I'll let you know.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Great Pennywhistle Mystery

So on my way to the Great North Woods this summer, I picked up a Generation pennywhistle, key of D, to noodle away on and commune with the loons. Took me longer than I'd like to admit to get a decent sound out of it, but I was determined--and, to be honest, I figured if my son saw me struggling, he'd give it a try just to show up the old man. It was the one on the top there, with the green fipple. (Or is that the chiff? I still haven't learned.) About halfway to the woods, in Stevens' Point, we stopped by a lovely musical instrument store to browse and bargain, and I had a thought: since my son and I were now competing, not only with each other, but with my daughter for the whistle, why not pick up another couple of them for the road?

No sooner thought than done, and we walked out of the store the proud owners of a sweet, smooth-blowing Susato whistle, also in D, which my son seized for his own, and one of those old-fashioned conical Clarkes, with a wooden fipple (or chiff?) and a breathy sound I instantly loved, although it drove my wife rather mad. (Yes, dear, that's an although and not a because.)

Naturally, before we left our little house in the Big Woods, the Susato went missing. Memo to self: black whistle, easy to lose. Next time, leave on ugly sticker, if only to spot the damned thing. The others, though, we should be able to keep an eye on, right?

Well, no. Of course. Now my daughter's wandered off with the original Generation whistle, just when I hanker to try it again, and after an hour's search, I declare it, too, defunct. Damn! And I could have taken it off to school tomorrow, to keep it safe and torment my hallmates, too.

Wistfully whistling on me Clarke, then, let me post a poem: "The Penny Whistle," by Edward Thomas. (A British poet, not an Irish one, but Clarke's an English brand.) And if you see one of my lost friends, do send it along.

The Penny Whistle

The new moon hangs like an ivory bugle
In the naked frosty blue;
And the ghylls of the forest, already blackened
By Winter, are blackened anew.

The brooks that cut up and increase the forest,
As if they had never known
The sun, are roaring with black hollow voices
Betwixt rage and a moan.

But still the caravan-hut by the hollies
Like a kingfisher gleams between:
Round the mossed old hearths of the charcoal-burners
First primroses ask to be seen.

The charcoal-burners are black, but their linen
Blows white on the line;
And white the letter the girl is reading
Under that crescent fine;

And her brother who hides apart in a thicket,
Slowly and surely playing
On a whistle an old nursery melody
Says far more than I am saying.

(There's a penny whistle in Pound's Canto XIV, as I recall, receiving somewhat less pleasant treatment, wielded by "vice-crusaders" in a Boschian inferno. You can look it up.)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Dreaming in Public

Well, I'm back, as I love to say. Back and busy, too--especially where poetry teaching is concerned, and you reading this (whoever you are) can be mighty helpful to me, if you don't mind weighing in.

I am trying to design a series of workshops to be held here in Chicago, with the goal of getting local K-12 teachers (maybe mostly middle and high school teachers) in contact with resources at my university (DePaul) and in the Chicago area. These could be the model for other such programs in other college towns, if they go well, so your dreams are as good as mine.

Now, here's the question.

Speaking from your own experience, your own desires, dreams, etc., and those of your own school, what would be the most useful things these workshops could offer?

One way I could organize them would be around approaches to poetry, for example:

Performance: teaching through recitation and performance analysis

Interdisciplinary Approaches (poetry and music, poetry and history, poetry and visual art, etc.)

Close Reading

Reading and Creative Writing

On the other hand, I've also thought that as teachers, you might find it more helpful to have workshops on particular poets and poems, so that you come away with some immediately importable materials for your own classroom practice.

We could have a series of workshops on famous, regularly-taught poems, for example, with each workshop featuring background on the poem and poet, material on its context, a jointly-done close reading of the poem, maybe something about how it could be performed, etc.

What do you think would be best, most useful, most popular? If you could click your ruby heels together and visit such a workshop, or set of workshops, what would you find?

More soon,