Content note: poetry in the elementary classroom
I’ve written before about my dislike of the adjective “cute” in regards to my students. Sometimes, it’s used as a disability consolation prize. Most of the time, “cute” is more about how the adults feel than about how my students feel. They’re getting older now, some of them are 10 and 11; “cute” is becoming more condescending. Context matters, of course. Several friends pointed out on my previous blogs posts on this topic that context matters, and that “cute” can be a compliment. It can be, but I maintain that for people who see my students every day, who know them, who have seen them from many angles, “cute” is a non-compliment that ignores the many dimensions of their personalities. It’s the “Hihowareya” fly-by of the school environment.
Right now, my class is diving into the thick of our spring open house preparations. The open house is a month from yesterday. It may seem like we have a lot of time, but with only four days of school a week, and field trips, parties, therapies, and other interruptions thrown into the mix, we really do not have a lot of time to get ready. I decided to focus our energies into literature and poetry study. We just finished our first-ever novel, so we are doing open-ended wrap-up projects: the students each chose their favorite character and completed a character web, descriptive paragraph(s), and illustration. The kids finished their writing today, and the mini-essays are so different. Ponyo focused on one specific event that only took up two pages of the entire novel, an interaction between the main character and her little brother, whose relationship during the rest of the novel reminded me of Ponyo and her younger brother. TLK chose the father, and talked about actions; every action he picked (killing a one-horned buck, surviving smallpox) was centered around the love for his family. Sir New Dude also chose the father, but focused on character traits like bravery and strength.
We are reading and writing poetry. They picked a favorite poem from a wide selection of books I offered, and they will be presenting it in a few different ways. The students will each work with me to translate it to ASL and record it. The students who wish to read it in spoken English may do so (three students asked if they could, so I added this). They will illustrate the poems they picked. We are also translating a song and recording a music video. Working with them, hearing and seeing them give voice to each poem, looking at their illustrations, digging through the meaning they attach to the ideas has been simultaneously surprising and totally expected. It fits with how I understand their minds and hearts to work, but the nuance and depth they bring reminds me how often we (and I include myself here) do not give enough credit to young people for their ability to make connections to the world and each other through text.
Sir New Dude and TLK selected “Grasshoppers” from Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. TLK follows SND’s lead for reading aloud; the roles are reversed for signing. They each wear one hearing aid, so they sit side-by-side, their aided ears together when they read it. SND is a fast reader, so he is practicing listening and waiting for a partner; he has a tendency to steamroll people in regular conversation, too. As a hard-of-hearing kid, it might be a compensatory tool for controlling his environment so he doesn’t miss anything–if he’s the one talking, he knows what’s going on. When they were drawing, they searched YouTube for nature videos of grasshoppers jumping, some in slow motion. Using science to understand art–beautiful.
Freckles chose a poem from Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson titled “failing.” Right away he told me, This kid needs to learn math but it’s really about life too. I asked him why he liked the poem. He said it felt good. The kid in the poem laments the adult answer of, Just ’cause; Frecks was nervous, but when I told him he wouldn’t get in trouble for saying adults make him feel frustrated, too…well, you can probably guess what he told me. I added a few pencil marks on the poem and asked him to read it again. After he did, adding the pauses and a breath, he looked at me and said, Yeah. That was good. That last line was even sadder when I breathe. Frecks gets poetry. Of course he does; there’s a reason he was drawn to that book–his whole life is poetry. I am not trying to be profound or emotive. I mean that the first two stanzas of the first poem in that book could have been written about Freckles and his noisy brain that no one ever calls cute but everyone is always telling to be quiet and sit down and stop singing.
Elsa picked a poem from the book Food Hates You, Too, called “Toast.” It’s about bread getting eaten and being dead. She drew a really morbidly hilarious picture of dismembered bread being eaten by worms, and two angel breads going to heaven. All those people who tell me how cute she is are missing out on a wicked sense of humor. That toast was gross, man. And so, so funny.
Ponyo’s poem is from Heartsongs, by Mattie J. T. Stepanek. She stares at the picture of Mattie during poetry time. While other kids were drawn to a book, or a specific poem, she was drawn to the poet. She spent 20 minutes today watching subtitled clips from Oprah on YouTube. Mattie was a boy with muscular dystrophy who started writing poetry when he was 3; he died when he was 13 before my students were even born. He was a peace activist and poet who became quite famous in the late 90s when he wrote his Heartsongs books. Ponyo drew a picture of Mattie instead of a picture of her poem. She originally picked the book because she was going through a goofy sweetheart phase, and the book is called Heartsongs. But when she learned about Mattie, and read the poems, the sweetheart stuff stopped. Completely. But if I ask her why she loves it, she doesn’t know. That’s a bit more complex than “cute” can give her credit for.
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