Bang. Thud. Thump. Crack. Ono. Mato. Poeia.
Head. Hit. Wall. Hard. One-ah. Two-ah. three-ah.
Ah, the sounds of cranium meeting the gentle-energy, yellow wall after a mere fifteen minutes (who am I kidding? It was more like 34 seconds!) into a homework session with my child. On the agenda: writing.
How could I fail? How could she? How could we? How couldn’t we not? Ugh. Fragment much?
Are you, like me, shocked and awed that the yellow wall lovingly and painstakingly and researchedly painted wasn’t enough to promote happy learning? Have you finally done it? Have you messed up your child forever by not choosing the mathy, sciencey think-clearly-blue or empowering, earthy, go-for-it-green?
Perhaps, like me, you have a gifted or twice-exceptional child who loves to be expressive and extravagant with his or her word choices (at bedtime, hair-brush time, quiet time, and now) but can’t seem to focus on writing, can’t seem to complete a sentence, and can’t seem to breathe when the assignment calls for details in the form of words.
Egad! What to do?
Take a deep breath. Find your center. Let the gentle-energy yellow bring you back to your happy place.
At some point our children must learn to read and write, to use many good grammar, and to communicate, explicate, and punctuate. None of these can (or should) be avoided. As I said in my previous blog post, I will leave that to their wonderful teachers- my words like to PLAY!
Think of this series as recess. Think of verb use as retired rubber tires bolted to a chain, spinning four nearly-vomitus children to sheer glee. Think of writing prompts as the rules to a competitive game of foursquare: I’ll be the princess, you can be the king, but Sarah gets to be the kangaroo. Think of writing blocks as scraped knees: nothing serious, just a few crumbs of concrete that need to be brushed away (if you don’t look at the block, it won’t hurt as much).
So here we are, on the playground, and the first ball I’d like to throw in is POETRY. How doth she expect us to wanteth to doeth thith… (too far… possibly too far).
At a writing workshop in 1994, Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks told a group of young writers that poetry is like wine, that it is meant to be sipped, meant to be savored, and meant to be shared; but if you drink too much at once, you will just get a headache and wake up with regrets. If poetry to an adult writer is like a gentle and fruity wine like Maison Roche de Bellene Savigny les Beaune 2011, then surely structured writing to a child is like fire-breathing and burn-your-throat Spirytus Polish Vodka 192 Proof.
The only conclusion I can reach is that exposing our children to a long sit-down with poetry is akin to getting our dear children drunk- fall on the floor, fall in love, fall back out, and lean on a friend or two drunk.
So why would I choose poetry as my first recess game, you ask?
Because poetry is full of rules, structure, and (shhh!) grammar, but it is also full of musicality, cadence, and rhythm. Poetry doesn’t say mop the floor, it says dump out a bucket of soapy water, strap sponges onto your feet and go for a skate. It is true that all creative writing is flavored by poetic diction, but poetry just seems to reach children in a way that is inviting, invigorating, and yes, a little intoxicating.
Here are five poetry games and activities I came up with to cater to the various moods, abilities, and desires in my household. All three of my children are gifted; but as you know, no two gifts are the same and no two gifted kids need the same thing. I hope you find one or more which work for your kids. Give them a try and share your creations, your successes, or your failures in the comments section below.
Imitation is key when it comes to clever, capable, and go-get-‘em writing. I could fill space with the arguments for and against imitation as a form of learning poetry; but since this is for our kids (and for our sanity), I will leave the analysis, theory, and rhetoric to the experts. For me, as a twice-exceptional gifted child, reading was everything. All of the movements my mouth, my body, and my brain couldn’t make were transferred into the words I read. They waltzed, gallivanted, and galloped across the page. Without reading, I can say with absolute certainty, I would not have become a writer.
Read greeting cards, signs, menus, and captions. Read picture books, chapter books, any books, and every books. For this exercise read a ton of poetry. Get very drunk. You don’t have to read poetry to write poetry, but reading poetry to children helps to emphasize form. Whether or not they want to discuss the author’s reason for using a particular method (another plus!), gifted children seem crazily giddy when reading or listening to poetry. From a very early age many gifted kids will notice things such as assonance, word play, rhyme, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and metaphor. It doesn’t mean they can name it, recreate it, or analyze it, but they light up. I love lights.
Read to them, let them read to you, let them read alone, whatever it takes. Just READ.
Pick a word, any word (even orange, silver, month and bulb)
My oldest is twice exceptional and completely asynchronous. The spread between his processing speed and his next score is 40+ points (apple –> tree, you say?). Still, he was a voracious talker (why should it only apply to reading??) who had an impressive vocabulary by two and a half, memorized whole books we read to him, could play guitar and write a song at the same time by three years old, and he would, just for fun, change letters in words, say them backwards, rhyme them, or give them a rhythm. Yet, he was never a good reader, choosing instead to talk. Even now, in high school, the kid will talk his way out of reading every time.
When he was little I created a game and it has survived through the ages. We called it Pick a word, any word. The rules: my son would pick a word first (kids are always first, second, and third so that the game sticks before they give up!) and I had to rhyme it. Then I would pick a word (or not). It is simple, but it often became very challenging. Ask a gifted child to give you any word to rhyme… and the skies open up! But as his skill grew, so did the game: we added sentences. So what once was cat/sat and road/toad, for example, eventually became Once there was a little cat/Upon his bed he always sat and Looking out at the road/I worry for the green-eyed toad. When this type of word play became too easy, we would put together whole stories in that couplet style. Nothing made him happier than my writing out our collaborative creations and I can recall writing many road trip games on envelopes, scraps, and receipts.
Remember that every child is different. This game was fun for two of my three children. The middle child would burn this file if she saw this game included in my list.
Sonnets, Villanelles, and Sestinas, Oh My
Meters, feet, counting, structure, structure, STRUCTURE… my oldest goes running from all of these. He finds poetry stupid and makes no qualms about it (more on that fix later). My middle child loves rules, so for her a poem with a structure makes sense and is easier to stomach. This game is simple (and the most difficult). Take the time to look up poets, poetry, and some of the most eloquent forms of the art, and then sit down with your child and both of you try your hand at it.
Right now I am in love with sestinas. I wrote my first sestina at twelve years old after reading Rudyard Kipling’s Sestina of the Tramp Royal. It wasn’t a keeper. But remember, this isn’t about becoming the next Dickenson. This game is about getting out of our rooms, getting out of our heads, and getting past our stuck points to explore everything lyrical and poetic.Only you know if this is appropriate for your child and age/grade has very little to do with poetic ability, so I won’t give it an age or grade range.
There are many ways to adapt this to all levels and styles. If your daughter is a processor, try a Haiku… if your son loves music, try a sonnet… if nothing sounds good, give an acrostic poem a spin.
After such rigorous word play it is time to go Braveheart on this thing. That’s right- free verse. If you dig, you will find rules, but there are no rules here. This is your bucket of words, your pouring of all things odd, great, and fantastic. This is when my youngest two look at me and say, “What are we supposed to do?” because they want rules and structure. And this is when I paint their faces blue and say, “No rules, girls, no rules! Only FREEDOM!”
I’m not saying it is easy. Free writing is one of the most difficult things you can ask your child to do. And if they don’t feel like free writing- don’t. You can’t write and create when you are forced to do so. That said, you can make choices to help them feel the groove. I like lapboards, unique writing spots (under a table, next to a tree, in a closet, whatever makes them smile), and colorful pens, pencils, or markers. I always let them know they can share or not share; it is their choice. Some kids must share or they do not want to create and others are not able to create if they know they will have to share. That is okay. Let me repeat that thought- it is okay not to share. In fact, not sharing may bring out much more in the way of real, emotional writing.
This game is intentionally vague. I think it is important to sit and write without rules. For those kids who are older and resist, this is when I bring up my child who decided he hated poetry and the five minutes I made him sit and watch Billy Collins read his poem The Lanyard. Poetry is for everyone, by everyone, and it is so important to remind young adults that poetry is not mind death; that, my dear teenager, is Drama.
Lexicon (my new pet dragon)
I always loved the word Lexicon. My daughter said it sounded like the name of a dragon and it stuck. The Lexicon Dragon Game. It is relatively new in our house and it is a favorite for everyone. The rules: pick an article, a website, a book, a menu, an advertisement, a bill, a textbook, anything you have nearby, and pick out twenty (or more) words. Write the words in list style (numbered 1-20), underline them, or write them on a white board. Using these words, create a story verbally or in writing. There are no rules. You can use two or three of the words in one sentence and none in the next or one in each. Let your child guide their own piece. To start, make sure you choose a lexicon your child can read and understand or it won’t be as much fun; alternately, you can use something over-the-top difficult and foreign (figuratively or literally) for your child and giggle away.
For older kids, have them use one of their own pieces. Underlining the words that jump out at them will be an exercise which helps them write better and with more intention. This game is whimsical, interesting, funny, enlightening; and for our word-loving kids, it seriously feels like drinking, absorbing, and swimming in words.
We have expanded this game to classics, such as Homer and Shakespeare with fantastic results. Choosing a lexicon from poetry begets poetry.
Are you excited to start writing poetry with your child? Are you feeling a bit sick and nauseous at the prospect? Both of these are normal and expected. Sip each of these tips slowly. These tools are not meant to be implemented overnight and not every game will be a fit for every child.
Sharing the gift of poetry is about so much more than writing. It is about the love for and the appreciation of words. They will stumble away from poetry feeling lightheaded and woozy, spinning happily into their world, a world which is labeled, laid out, and loaded with more and more and more words.
So where should we spin next? Why, writing without punctuation, of course. (Yeah, she be crazy!)
Spinz, whooz, craz. Grab onto a base word, hold tight to a root, connect yourself to something synonymous with those things. Words be spinning out of control ’round here.
“A Selection of poems by Billy Collins.” Fora TV. .City Arts & Lectures, San Francisco, Califonia (2008). http://fora.tv/2008/04/07/A_Selection_of_Poems_by_Billy_Collins