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Teaching Kids Poetry

Matt Sharpe has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia University. In addition to writing fiction, he does ten-week poetry residencies at elementary and middle schools in New York City. He "borrows" the students from their regular English or humanities teacher. We asked Matt what kids learn by reading and writing poetry.

Family Education Network: What's the value of teaching kids poetry?

Sharpe: Poetry is a great way for kids of any age to learn language. As far back as Aristotle, educational theorists have said that we learn more by doing stuff than by thinking about stuff. Poetry engages language at the highest level. You need to be grammatical and specific, you need to stretch your vocabulary, you need to engage the reader's five senses. For example, you can't just say, "The building across the street is beautiful." You have to say in what way the building is beautiful.

When I write, I discover things that I didn't know I was thinking. This works for kids, too. I encourage them to surprise themselves, to be silly, to express what's going on in their minds. I encourage them to stretch to the very edge of what they know, and push it a little further.

Family Education Network: Do you remember your first lesson plan?

Sharpe: I brought in a newspaper article that criticized David Dinkins, the mayor of New York City at the time. It said: "Mayor Dinkins is like a billiard ball. He wakes up in the morning, and waits for something to happen to him." Now billiard balls don't wake up in the morning - the writer personified the billiard ball. I asked the kids to pretend to be some inanimate object, and write about it. We talked about personification, which is part of a poet's tool kit.

Family Education Network: What are some of the other "tools" you teach kids?

Sharpe: Alliteration, assonance, metaphors, similes, the patterns you can make in a non-rhyming poem. I often ask my students not to rhyme. They tend to put too much energy into getting the words to rhyme, and the rest of the sentence doesn't make much sense. A lot of my lessons are about imagining the world from a point of view other than one's own. This is one thing that I can help kids of all ages do -- empathize with others.

Family Education Network: What kind of poems do you teach?

Sharpe: I think a lot of modern poetry is actually quite easy to understand. For example, kids really respond to this poem by William Carlos Williams:

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I ask them to riff on that, and write apology poems. Kids can relate to guilty pleasure. They're always doing stuff that they know isn't quite right, but it's still fun really!

I give my students poems that are written by adults for adults. It's like when your mom buys you a shirt that's too big. She says, "You'll grow into it. Next year it'll be perfect." These are poems kids can grow into. They may get something out of it this year, and more if they come back to it next year. I read poems this way. I come back to them and see things I didn't see before.

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