“Poetry brings sound and sense together in words and lines, ordering them on the page in such a way that both the writer and reader get a different view of life.” (Donald Graves).
Poetry is all around us . . . in jumprope rhymes, nursery rhymes, songs, both modern and traditional, performances in theater, movies and television. Sometimes we don’t recognize it as poetry because it isn’t written down in the familiar format of a poem. There are three primary components of poetry: image, rhythm, and rhyme. Because of the emphasis placed on rhyming poems, you often have to convince students that the rhyme doesn’t need to be obvious or always come at the end of the line.
Poetry can find its voice anywhere along the continuum from Silly to Sublime. Sometimes even in the humorous poems of Shel Silverstein and Brod Baggart you will find serious thoughts being shared and a lot to think about. In the poems at the other end of the spectrum, Shakespeare and Carl Sandburg, although serious in tone, you may find apparent “playing around” with words and images. The important thing for children to realize about writing their own poetry is that images and rhythm, rhyme (if they choose to use it) and playing around with language are all just part of a process for sharing important thoughts they have with themselves and other people.
Poems written to a prescribed formula provide opportunities for children to experiment with a little support, and this can give them confidence. A completed formula poem almost always gives its writer a feeling of success. The teacher should provide children with many writing experiences in many different kinds of prescribed poetry. Children will then have a variety of ways to explore the magic of creating poetry on their own.
The following examples of formula poems are presented in random order.
“I Wish . . . “ Poems:
Children begin each line of their poem with the words “I wish” and complete the line with a wish. The following was written in a second grade class collaboration activity:
I wish I had all the money in the world.
I wish I was a star fallen down from Mars.
I wish I were a butterfly.
I wish I were a teddy bear.
I wish I had a cat.
I wish I were a pink rose.
I wish it wouldn’t rain today.
I wish I didn’t have to wash a dish.
I wish I had a flying carpet.
I wish I could go to Disney World.
I wish school was out.
I wish I could go outside and play.
After the collaborative experience, students chose one of their wishes and expanded on the idea in another poem. This is Brandi’s poem?
I wish I were a teddy bear
Who sate on a beautiful bed,
Who got a hug every night
By a little girl or boy.
Maybe tonight I’ll get my wish
And wake up on a little girl’s bed
And then I’ll be as happy as can be.
Students begin each line of their poems with a color. They can use the same color throughout the poem or choose a different color for each line. A class of seventh graders wrote about yellow:
Yellow is shiny galoshes
splashing through mud puddles.
Yellow is a street lamp
beaming through a dark, black night.
Yellow is the egg yolk
bubbling in a frying pan.
Yellow is the lemon cake
that makes you pucker your lips.
Yellow is the sunset
and the warm summer breeze.
Yellow is the tingling in your mouth
after a lemon drop melts.
Students can also write more complex poems by expanding each idea into a stanza:
Black is a deep hole
sitting in the ground
waiting for animals
that live inside.
Black is a beautiful horse
standing on a high hill
with the wind
swirling its mane.
Black is a winter night sky
to keep it
Black is a panther
creeping around a jungle
Hailstones and Halibut Bones (O’Neill, 1989) is one source of color poems; however, O’Neill uses rhyme as a poetic device, and it is important to emphasize that students’ poems need not rhyme.
Writing color poems can be coordinated with teaching young children to read and write color words, instead of using worksheets. Students can create color poems in booklets of paper stapled together, writing and illustrating one line of the poem on each page.
Students write about a topic using each of the five senses. Sense poems are usually five lines long, with one line for each sense, as in this poem, written by a sixth grader:
Sounds like thunder and lightning
Looks like a carrot going through a blender
Tastes like sour milk
Feels like a splinter in your finger
Smells like a dead fish
It must be horrible!
It is often helpful to have students develop a five-senses cluster and collect ideas for each sense. Students select from the cluster the strongest or most vivid idea for each sense to use in a line of the poem.
“If I Were . . . “ Poems:
Children write about how they would feel and what they would do if they were something else—a tyrannosaurus rex, a hamburger, sunshine, etc. They begin each poem with “If I were” and tell what it would be like to be that thing. Seven-year-old Robbie wrote about what he would do if he were a dinosaur:
If I were a tyrannosaurus rex
I would terrorize other dinosaurs
And eat them up for supper.
In composing “If I were . . .” poems, students use personification, explore ideas and feelings, and consider the world from a different vantage point. Student s can also write poems from the viewpoint of a book character. Fifth graders wrote this short poem after reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry:
If I were Annemarie,
I’d be brave.
I’d hide my friends,
and trick the Nazi soldiers.
I would lie if I had to.
If I were Annemarie,
I’d be brave.
Students experiment with comparisons as they write definition poems. The teacher or students begin by identifying a topic, such as anger or liberty; then students brainstorm descriptions and examples, which often employ metaphors or similes. Students pick their most powerful definitions and create the poem, beginning each line with the topic and the word is. A group of second graders wrote the following poem as part of their weather unit:
Thunder is someone bowling.
Thunder is a hot cloud bumping against a cold cloud.
Thunder is someone playing basketball.
Thunder is dynamite blasting.
Thunder is a brontosaurus sneezing.
Thunder is people moving their furniture.
Thunder is a giant laughing.
Thunder is elephants playing.
Thunder is an army tank.
Thunder is Bugs Bunny chewing his carrots.
Students begin each line of preposition poems with a preposition. This pattern often produces a delightful poetic effect. A seventh grader wrote this poem about Superman:
Within the city
In a phone booth
Into his clothes
Like a bird
In the sky
Through the walls
Until the crime
It is helpful for children to brainstorm a list of prepositions to refer to when they write preposition poems. Students may find that they need to ignore the formula for a line or two to give the content of their poems top priority, or they may mistakenly begin a line with an infinitive (example: to say) rather than a preposition. These forms provide the structure or skeleton for students’ writing that should be adapted as necessary.
Students write acrostic poems using key words. They choose a key word and write it vertically on a sheet of paper. They create lines of poetry, each one beginning with a letter of the word or words they have written vertically. Students can use their names during a unit on autobiography or names of characters during a literature focus unit. After reading Officer Buckle and Gloria (Rathman, 1995), the story of a police officer and his dog who give safety speeches at schools, two groups of first graders wrote these:
Loves to do tricks.
Officer Buckle tells safety
Rules at schools.
I wish I had
A dog like Gloria.
Good dog Gloria
Likes to help
Officer Buckle teach safety
Rules to boys and girls
I promise to remember
All the lessons.
Students choose words to describe something and put the words together to express a thought or tell a story, without concern for rhyme or other arrangements. The number of words per line and the use of punctuation vary. An eighth grader poignantly described loneliness concisely, using only 15 well-chosen words in the following poem:
Of broken dreams
Students can use several methods for writing free-form poems. They can select words and phrases from brainstormed lists and clusters, or they can write a paragraph and then “unwrite” it to create the poem by deleting unnecessary words. They arrange the remaining words to look like a poem.
Students create concrete poems through art and the careful arrangements of words on a page. Words, phrases, and sentences can be written in the shape of an object, or word pictures can be inserted within poems written left to right and to bottom. Three books of concrete poems are Splish Splash: Poems (Graham, 1994), Seeing Things (Froman, 1974), and A Poke in the I (Janeczko, 2001).
Students create these poems by culling words from other sources, such as stories, songs, and informational books. They collect words and phrases as they read and then arrange them to make a poem. A sixth-grader wrote this poem after reading Hatchet (Paulsen, 1987), the story of a boy who survives for months in the wilderness after his plane crashes:
He was 13.
Always started with a single word:
An ugly word,
A breaking word, and ugly breaking word.
A tearing ugly word that meant fights and yelling.
A hatchet on his belt.
The pilot had been sighted.
He rubbed his shoulder.
Aches and pains.
A heart attack.
The engine droned.
A survival pack which had emergency supplies.
When they compose found poems, students have the opportunity to experiment with vocabulary and language structures that are more sophisticated that they might write themselves. These poems also document students’ understanding of the stories and other texts they have read.
Poems for Two Voices:
A unique type of free verse is poems for two voices. These poems are written in two columns, side by side, and the columns are read together by two readers. One reader (or group) reads the left column, and the other reader (or group) reads the right column. Sometimes readers alternate when they read, but when readers both have words—either the same words or different words—written on the same line, they read them simultaneously so that the poem sounds like a musical duet.
Two books of poems for two readers are Paul Fleischman’s I Am Phoenix: Poems for Two Voices (1985), which is about birds, and the Newbery Medal-winning Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (1988), which is about insects. And, if two voices aren’t enough, Fleischman has also written Big Talk: Poems for Four Voices (2000) for upper-grade students.
Students, too, can write poems for two voices. A third-grade class wrote this poem about whales as part of their across-the-curriculum theme on the ocean:
dive deep dive deep
into the ocean
then surface for air
swimming looking for food
looking for food swimming
look like fish
but they aren’t but they aren’t
two groups two groups
the humpback whale
a baleen whale
fast swimmer fast swimmer
little beluga whale
a toothed whale
the blue whale
a baleen whale
big blue big blue
a toothed whale
black and white white and black
dangerous attacker dangerous attacker
Lorraine Wilson (1994) suggests that topics with contrasting viewpoints are the most effective. Students can also write poems from two characters’ viewpoints.
Syllable-and Word-Count Poems:
Haiku and other syllable- and word-count poems provide a structure that helps students succeed in writing; however, the need to adhere to these poems’ formulas may restrict freedom of expression. In other words, the poetic structure may both help and hinder. The exact syllable counts force students to search for just the right words to express their ideas and feelings and provide a valuable opportunity for students to use thesauri and dictionaries.
This is a Japanese poetic form consisting of 17 syllables and arranged in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Haiku poems deal with nature and present a single, clear image. Haiku is a concise form, much like a telegram. A fourth grader wrote this haiku poem about a spider web she saw one morning:
Spider web shining
Tangled on the grass with dew
This is another Japanese verse form. It contains 31 syllables arranged in five lines, 5 – 7 – 5 – 7 – 7. The form is similar to haiku, but with two additional lines of 7 syllables each. An eighth grader wrote this tanka poem:
The summer dancers
Dancing in the midnight sky
Waltzing and dreaming.
Stars glistening in the night sky.
Wish upon a shooting star.
A cinquain is a five-line poem containing 22 syllables in a 2 - 4 – 6 – 8 – 2 syllable form. These poems often describe things but they may also tell a story. Have students ask themselves what their subject looks like, smells like, sounds like, and tastes like, and record their ideas using a five-senses cluster. The formula is as follows.
Line 1: a one-word subject with two syllables
Line 2: four syllables describing the subject
Line 3: six syllables showing action
Line 4: eight syllables expressing a feeling or an observation about the
Line 5: two syllables describing or renaming the subject.
Here is a cinquain poem written by an upper-grade student:
coaching, arguing, pinning
trying hard to win
(If you compare this poem to the cinquain formula, you’ll notice that some lines are short a syllable or two. The student bent some of the guidelines in choosing words to create a powerful image of wrestling; however, the message of the poem is always more important than adhering to the formula.)
An alternate cinquain form contains five lines, but instead of following a syllable count, each line has a specified number of words. The first line contains a one-word title; the second line has two words that describe the title; the third line has three words that express action; the fourth line has four words that express feelings; and the fifth line contains a two-word synonym for the title.
Iris Tiedt invented the diamante, a seven-line contrast poem written in the shape of a diamond. This poetic form helps students apply their knowledge of opposites and parts of speech. The formula is as follows:
Line 1: one noun as the subject
Line 2: two adjectives describing the subject
Line 3: three participles (ending in –ing) telling about the subject
Line 4: four nouns (the first two related to the subject and the second two
related to the opposite)
Line5: three participles telling about the opposite
Line 6: two adjectives describing the opposite
Line 7: one noun that is the opposite of the subject
A third-grade class wrote this diamante poem about the stages of life:
crying wetting sleeping
rattles diapers money house
caring working loving
Rhymed Verse Forms:
Several rhymed verse forms, such as limericks and clerihews, can be used effectively with middle- and upper-grade students. It is important that teachers try to prevent the forms and rhyme schemes from restricting students’ creative and imaginative expression.
The limerick is a form of light verse that uses both rhyme and rhythm. The poem consists of five lines; the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme, and the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other and are shorter than the other three. The rhyme scheme is a-a-b-b-a, and limerick is arranged this way:
1 _________________________ a
2 _________________________ a
3 _______________ b
4 _______________ b
5 ________________________ a
The last line often contains a funny or surprise ending, as in this limerick written by an eighth grader:
There once was a frog named Pete
Who did nothing but sit and eat.
He examined each fly
With so careful an eye
And then said, “You’re dead meat.”
Writing limericks can be a challenging assignment for many upper-grade students, but middle-grad students can be successful with this poetic form, especially if they write a class collaboration.
Clerihews, four-lined rhymed verses that describe a person, are named for Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), a British detective writer who invented the form. The formula is as follows:
Line 1: the person’s name
Line 2: the last word rhymes with the last word in the first line
Lines 3 and 4: the last words in these lines rhyme with each other.
Clerihew can be written about anyone—historical figures, characters in stories, and even the students themselves. Heather, a sixth grader, wrote this clerihew about Albert Einstein:
His genius did shine.
Of relativity and energy did he dream
And scientists today hold him in high esteem.
Students model their poems on poems composed by adult poets. In this approach, students read a poem and write their own, using some of the words and the theme expressed in the model poem. Some books that provide examples of model poems are: Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? By Kenneth Koch, Poetry from A to A: A Guide for Young Writers by Paul Janeczko, and For the Love of Language by Nancy Cecil.
Using William Carlos Williams’s :This Is Just to Say” as the model, children write a poem in which they apologize for something they are secretly glad they did. A seventh-grader wrote this apology poem, “The Truck” to his dad:
that I took
I knew it
But . . .
Apology poems don’t have to be humorous; they can be sensitive, genuine apologies, as another seventh grader’s poem, “Open Up,” demonstrates:
Students write poems in which they invite someone to a magical, beautiful place full of sounds and color and where all kinds of marvelous things happen. The model is Shakespeare’s “Come Unto These Yellow Sands.” Guidelines for writing an invitation poem are that it be an invitation to a magical place and that it include sound or color words. A seventh grader wrote this invitation poem, “The Golden Shore,” and it follows the two guidelines:
Come unto the golden shore
Where days are filled with laughter,
And nights filled with whispering winds.
Where sunflowers and sun
Are filled with love.
Come take my hand
As we walk into the sun.
Student write poems in which they describe what they would do if they were in charge of the world. Judith Viorst’s poem “If I Were in Charge of the World” is the model for this poetic form. Children are eager to share ideas about how they would change the world, as this fourth-grade class’s collaborative poem illustrates:
If I were in charge of the world
School would be for one month,
Movies and videogames would be free, and
Foods would be McCalorieless at McDonalds.
Poor people would have a home,
Bubble gum would cost a penny, and
Kids would have cars to drive.
Parents wouldn’t argue,
Christmas would be in July and December, and
We would never have bedtimes.
A kid would be president,
I’d meet my long lost cousin, and
Candybars would be vegetables.
I would own the mall,
People would have as much money as they wanted, and
There would be no drugs.
Teaching Students to Write Poems:
Introducing Students to Writing Poetry:
One way to introduce students to writing poetry is to read excerpts from the first chapter of Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry, in which 10-year-old Anastasia, the main character, is excited when her teacher Mrs. Westvessel, announces that the class will write poems. Anastasia works at home for eight nights to write a poem. Lowry does an excellent job of describing how poets search long and hard for words to express meaning and the delight that comes when they realize their poems are finished. Then Anastasia and her classmates bring their poem to class to read aloud.
Mrs. Westvessel loves one student’s poem:
I have a dog whose name is Spot.
He likes to eat and drink a lot.
When I put water in his dish,
He laps it up just like a fish.
But she is disappointed in Anastasia’s poem:
hush hush the sea-soft night is aswim
with wrinklesquirm creatures
to them move smooth in the moistly dark
here in the whisperwarm wet.
In this free-form poem without rhyme or capital letters, Anastasia has created a marvelous picture with invented words. Regrettably, Mrs. Westvessel has an antiquated view that poems should be about only serious subject, be composed of rhyming sentences, and use conventional capitalization and punctuation. She doesn’t understand Anastasia’s poem and give Anastasia an F because she didn’t follow directions.
This is a dramatic introduction about what poetry is and what it is not. After reading excerpts from the chapter, develop a chart with your students comparing what poetry is in Mrs. Westvessel’s class and what poetry is in your class. After students understand this, you can move on to minilessons.
Teachers use minilessons to introduce students to poetic forms and write collaborative poems for practice before they write poems independently. Class collaborations are crucial because they are a practice run for children who are not sure what to do. The five minutes it takes to write a class poem can be the difference between success and failure for students.
Teaching minilessons about writing poetry is important; it is not enough simply to provide opportunities for students to experiment with poetry. Georgia Heard emphasizes the importance of teaching students about line breaks and white space on the page. Children often start writing poems with the same page arrangement as stories, but as they gain more experience reading poems and experimenting with line breaks, they shape their poems to emphasize rhythm and rhyme, images, and poetic devices. Students learn that there are not right or wrong ways to arrange a poem on a page, but that the way the lines are broken affects both how the poem looks and how it sounds when read aloud.
(Chart taken from Language Arts Patterns of Practice, 6th Ed. by Gail E. Tompkins.
Ideas and examples taken from that book and also from Literacy for the 21st Century, 3rd Ed. by Gail E. Tompkins. Both textbooks are published by Merrill Prentice Hall.)