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.


Robert said...

Another excellent resource in this regard is Sandy Lyne (of Ten Second Rainshowers fame):


E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks, Robert!

Alice Finkelstein said...


Why don't you contact Michelle Taransky, Program Coordinator at the Poetry Center of Chicago? She and I met in Louisville last spring, and had some later correspondence. I know she is involved in outreach to Chicago Public Schools, including elementary schools.

E. M. Selinger said...

What a wonderful idea! I'm so stuck in my academic way of thinking--scholars, teachers, schools, scholars, teachers, schools--that this never even crossed my mind. Now that the grant is getting into shape, I'll definitely do this, and let you all know the results!


Marinela said...

Poetry for children i think needs to be promoted more.