My favorite unit of study during the year is our poetry unit. We read and explore poetry all year, using a variety of resources (especially Nancie Atwell’s Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons) so that my students are familiar with poetry and not as wary of it as they might be. However, I still leave the unit until rather late in the year because I know that we need to be close as a class and community in order to open up our hearts and minds when sharing our own poems. I don’t think I would get the same results earlier in the year.
I began the unit this week with an exploration of the genre, which is my normal protocol when beginning a new unit o study in writing. My students had two days to complete poetry centers, which allowed them to read through poetry anthologies and picture books, listen to poems read by their authors, crack open words, illustrate their poems, and more. I think it went really well this year!
Here are the centers I used, with huge thanks to Georgia Heard and her amazing book Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School (my poetry bible- if you don’t have a copy, get one ASAP!) :
Using the centers as an exploration of poetry really allowed my students to delve into poetry as a genre by reading poems and playing with language. They enjoyed themselves and were surrounded by amazing words and authors for two full days. I also gave them a packet of poetry that I put together, with poems by “cool” authors that they already know and love and new poets that I knew they would like; Walter Dean Myers, Valerie Worth, Jack Prelutsky, Naomi Shihab Nye, J. Patrick Lewis, Douglas Florian, Nikki Giovanni, and many more. The kids are always amazed to find out that “poets still exist today” because all too often they think of poetry as a genre that has come and gone, a genre that isn’t still written today.
After spending two days exploring poetry, we began to dig into our own lives and write as poets. I teach poetry using Georgia Heard’s doors of poetry and it has always been a success for me. This week we started with the heart door (or the feelings door, as my kids refer to it). Without a doubt, the day we begin our heart poems is one I always treasure. Without fail, I end in the class in tears, with at least 2-3 students also crying.
The heart door allows us to write poems about what is true in our lives- feelings like grief, sorrow, happiness, stress, anxiety, love, etc. I begin by sharing poems written by my former students and talking to my current kids about what poetry looks like in our writer’s notebooks. I assure them that it’s ok to write their poems in a more paragraph-like form, because line breaks, spacing, and punctuation will be dealt with in our revision stage. At this point, I tell them, I just want them to get comfortable getting their ideas down on paper. I also let them know that they will never have to share these if they are too personal, but not to be afraid of writing a sad poem or an anxious one. Poetry can be an excellent way to work through feelings they might not be comfortable sharing with their parents or their friends.
Some students always begin writing immediately. Others take a little longer. Those who are stuck might start with a list of events they could write about or they may go back to their heart maps from the beginning of the year. Within 10 minutes I usually have everyone writing. And I allow students to share as they finish, because I tell them that hearing their classmate’s read their poems might inspire other poets in the classroom.
This year’s heart poems were absolutely phenomenal. I was so proud of my students because they truly opened their hearts and poured their feelings onto the page. One student wrote a powerful poem about her step-sister’s death earlier in the year. She shared it with the class because she told me she wanted them to understand why she had been so quiet this year. She asked me to read it for her, because she wouldn’t be able to get through it- my heart broke. I was barely able to read the words aloud. But when she shared her words and her feelings, my class drew around her like a huge hug, embracing her as a family would. After she shared, another student tentatively raised her hand and said, “Miss M., I was afraid to write a poem about my Poppy because I thought it would make me cry. But when A. shared her poem I saw how brave she was. I’m going to write about my Poppy now, because she inspired me and showed me it’s ok to cry when I write”. At this point, my heart just shattered. These sixth-graders have become so mature in the last few months and I am so proud of them that I could just burst!
Lest you think that only my girls were working hard at becoming poets, let me tell you about my second class. As I was explaining the heart door, I saw one of the popular, cool boys in my class with his head over his notebook, pen moving furiously across the page. Within minutes of setting the class loose, he raised his hand and asked if he could share the two poems he wrote. “Of course”, I said. Well, those two poems were some of the most emotion-laden poems I have ever heard in my classroom. Dedicated to his grandfather who passed away a few months ago, this young man bared his heart and soul to his classmates, showing them the empty space still in his life and the ache in his heart everyday. He read the poem with flushed face, tears in his eyes, and his voice wavering. When he finished, he walked over to the tissue box and took a few minutes to compose himself while his classmates slowly went back to writing. You could hear a pin drop in the room. And I have never been prouder.