Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Poetry and Hurricane Katrina

Today is the one year anniversary of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans, southern Mississippi, and other parts of the Gulf Coast. I heard on the news this morning that 70,000 New Orleans residents have set up permanent residence in my north Texas area. I can’t imagine what a traumatic experience all this upheaval has been for them. I’ve been to New Orleans myself many times (since it’s only an 8 hour drive away) and have returned twice since Katrina hit there. The devastation—even a year later—was incredible. Many ninth ward neighborhoods are still a stroganoff of houses, cars, trees, and debris. People’s HOMES. And the city itself is still operating at half capacity. A vibrant, fun-loving city like New Orleans brought to its knees—it’s ankles, even. So sad. How do we share these experiences with children? How do we capture what we are all feeling? One poem by Janet Wong comes pretty close to conveying the differing emotions and perspectives that have bubbled to the surface. Janet was kind enough to write this as a poem for my book, POETRY ALOUD HERE! SHARING POETRY WITH CHILDREN IN THE LIBRARY (ALA, 2006) and it’s featured there alongside a moving and inspiring essay that she wrote. Meanwhile, as a tribute to the children of Katrina, here is the poem itself.

Coin Drive
by Janet S. Wong

There’s a coin drive going on at our school
for children hurt by the hurricane.
Teacher says, “Handful of dimes is fine.
But only give if you want to share.”

Momma says, “Those people should have known.
Should have done more than they did to get out.”
Poppa says, “Look how those people stole.
Criminals. Animals, them. Their kind.”

I saw the pictures, too, myself.

People with nothing, no cars, for sure.
Swollen old ladies could barely walk.
Crazy boys with stolen guns,
but also daddies grabbing bread.

I saw the pictures, too, myself.

So many bodies floating, dead.
Waiting, water creeping up,
up past neck, past mouth, past eyes.
How long did they wait for help?

I feel proud for the fifty cents
I put today in the coin drive jar.
I feel proud that I can say:
I saw the pictures for myself.

This poem and a few others are featured on Janet’s excellent web site:

Other books of poetry by Janet Wong:
Behind the Wheel: Poems about Driving
Good Luck Gold and Other Poems
Knock on Wood: Poems about Superstitions
Minn and Jake
Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams
The Rainbow Hand: Poems about Mothers and Children
A Suitcase of Seaweed, and Other Poems

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Poetry and girlpower

On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote, was declared in effect. Girlpower! Look for poetry collections that showcase girls, women, and their contributions and potential. Women’s History Month is in March, but we can share poems that celebrate girls any day! Here’s one of my favorites which also happens to be a gem of a mini-biography:

Harriet Tubman
by Eloise Greenfield

Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff
Wasn't scared of nothing neither
Didn't come in this world to be no slave
And wasn't going to stay one either

"Farewell!" she sang to her friends one night
She was mighty sad to leave 'em
But she ran away that dark, hot night
Ran looking for her freedom

She ran to the woods and she ran through the woods
With the slave catcher right behind her
And she kept on going till she got to the North
Where those mean men couldn't find her

Nineteen times she went back South
To get three hundred others
She ran for her freedom nineteen times
To save black sisters and brothers

Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff
Wasn't scared of nothing neither
Didn't come in this world to be no slave
And didn't stay one either
And didn't stay one either

from Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems by Eloise Greenfield

You’ll find many other poems to showcase and inspire girls in these collections:

Bush, Timothy. 2000. Ferocious Girls, Steamroller Boys, and Other Poems in Between. New York: Orchard Books.
Glaser, Isabel Joshlin, comp. 1995. Dreams of Glory: Poems Starring Girls. New York: Atheneum.
Paul, A. W. 1999. All by Herself: 14 Girls Who Made a Difference: Poems. San Diego, CA: Browndeer/Harcourt Brace.
Philip, Neil, comp. 2000. It’s a Woman’s World: A Century of Women’s Voices in Poetry. New York: Dutton.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Posting poetry

Here’s a tidbit that I picked up from a teacher that I think is a wonderful way to promote poetry. Post poems in places children stand, stare, and wait. In her classroom she posted a poem on the wall above the pencil sharpener. Whenever kids sharpened their pencils, they stood idly and read a poem. Ingenious! (Are there still pencil sharpeners on classroom walls?!) I started to think of other places throughout the school where children stand and have a moment to read a poem.
* at the water fountain
* on doors
* on lockers
* at entrances
Can you think of other places? This kind of incidental sharing of poetry is a lovely, gentle way of making poems a part of children’s everyday lives. In addition, once this practice is established, kids could take over choosing favorite poems to post on a rotating basis. They could copy their favorites (for handwriting practice), create an original illustration to accompany the poem (for an art activity), or even share their own original poems. They might even have creative ideas for WHERE to post poems. And when it’s time to take down a poem and replace it with a new one, the “old” poems can be compiled in a class anthology to revisit in book form. Surrounding children with poetry in these incidental ways shows children we value poetry as an everyday part of life. We know children are learning from us and from their surroundings every minute. Why not maximize their absorption with their environment by infusing poetry in subtle, yet powerful ways?

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Ralph Fletcher has written a new collection of poetry that expresses the sadness many children feel when they have to move to a new place. In addition, the poems are loosely connected one to another to reveal the grieving process of separating from the familiar and slowly establishing new roots in a new place. Although each poem can stand alone, each has even greater impact when read as a story narrative. The poems are grounded in familiar moments and images (a new bike, an old sweatshirt) that become metaphors for deeper feelings. Small watercolor illustrations by Jennifer Emery add just the right touch throughout the book, a small window into the moment. The poems are written in free verse, but their structure, rhythm, and layout craft an easy readability that is inviting and accessible. Here’s one example:

Defrosting the Freezer

One container of spaghetti sauce
Grandma made before she died.

Two old pieces of wedding cake
you couldn’t pay me to eat.

Three snowballs from last winter
slightly deformed, no longer fluffy.

Four small flounder from the time
Grandpa took me deep-sea fishing.

Everything coated with a thick
white layer of sadness.

Published by Wordsong (2006), the poetry imprint of Boyds Mills Press, this collection is a reassuring voice for children who are dealing with one of life’s most challenging transitions.

P.S. Ralph Fletcher is also the author of many helpful books for adults who work with children on writing, including A WRITER'S NOTEBOOK, CRAFT LESSONS, POETRY MATTERS, and many more.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Poetry about teachers

The topic of the teacher has also been the focus of many poems. Douglas Florian’s “My Monster” poem from BING BANG BOING is one of my favorite “teacher” poems, one that requires a sense of humor on the part of teachers. Another poem, “But I Have Mr. Cratzbarg“ by Kalli Dakos found in DON'T READ THIS BOOK, WHATEVER YOU DO! is a lovely tribute to that special teacher. I’ve used the poem below many times at teacher workshops, inviting the participants to join in on the line "Mrs. Fuller does.” It’s from a small collection of wry poems from the teacher’s point of view entitled HIDE YOUR EX-LAX UNDER THE WHEATIES by Cheryl Miller Thurston (Cottonwood Press, CO).

Miss Lee and Mrs. Fuller
by Cheryl Miller Thurston

Miss Lee's rows are straight
and her cabinets are dusted.
Her blotter is fresh
and her shades are adjusted.
She always has staples
and Elmer's and tissues.
She never misplaces
a pass that she issues.

Mrs. Fuller does.

Miss Lee's books have covers;
she hasn't lost any.
Her milk money forms
come out right to the penny.
Her class in assemblies
is quite in control.
She never miscounts
or forgets to take roll.

Mrs. Fuller does.

Miss Lee has a gradebook that's neat,
not a smear.
Her lesson plan book
is complete for the year.
Her duties for playground
or lunch never tire her.
She never has principals
trying to fire her.

Mrs. Fuller does.

Miss Lee sees no value
in things that don't fit.
Her warmest remarks
run to "Quiet" and "Sit."
She never sparks passion,
excitement or dreams-
She never sees minds that are
bursting their seams.

Mrs. Fuller does.

OK, so it’s a little bit corny, but I agree with the focus on children over protocol, particularly in this test-driven age. Teachers who put children first are worth celebrating in poetry!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Poems about school

Here in Texas, most public schools are starting again this week. Although temperatures still soar above 100, kids are back at their desks starting a new year. To commemorate this moment, here’s one of my favorite back-to-school poems.

By Prince Redcloud

Close the barbecue.
Close the sun.
Close the home-run games we won.
Close the picnic.
Close the pool.
Close the summer.
Open school.

From THE SKY IS FULL OF SONG. Selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Harper & Row, 1983

This poem lends itself to several different read aloud techniques. Kids can just join in on the repeated word “close” or alternate reading every other line in two groups, with everyone joining in on the final line. Or individual volunteers can read individual lines solo, with everyone joining in on the final line for added effect.

School is one of my favorite poetry topics to share with kids since it’s where they spend so much of their waking hours. School experiences are so important to them. And there are so many fun collections of school poetry to share. Look for:

Dakos, Kalli. (1990). If you're not here, please raise your hand; Poems about school. New York: Simon and Schuster (and others by Dakos).

Harrison, David L. (1993). Somebody catch my homework. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong Boyds Mills Press.

Hopkins, Lee Bennett. Editor. (1996). School supplies: A book of poems. Simon and Schuster.

Kennedy, Dorothy M. Editor. (1993). I thought I'd take my rat to school: Poems for September to June. New York: Little Brown and Company.

Paraskevas, Betty. (1995). Gracie Graves and the kids from Room 402. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Shields, Carol Diggory. (1995). Lunch money and other poems about school. New York: Dutton (and others by Shields).

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Poetry portfolio

There’s nothing quite like seeing the rough drafts of a published poem. The finished product we read in a book seems so perfect that it’s hard to imagine the writer ever struggling with ehttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifvery word and phrase. This is particularly true for children who think adults never make mistakes in their writing. Showing them drafts of writing (including your own) is a very eye-opening experience for them. Showing them drafts of a published poem can open up a whole world. The Children’s Literature Research Collections held at the Kerlan Collection of the University of Minnesota offer a unique resource for sharing poetry with children: a portfolio of materials donated by NCTE Poetry Award winner, Barbara Esbensen. The Barbara Esbensen Poetry Portfolio is multi-media learning tool that uses the work of Barbara Esbensen to highlight her versatility as a writer, poet and storyteller. The kit is appropriate for grades 2 through 8 and includes lessons, biographical information, supporting documents, and overhead transparencies of manuscript pages and galleys of Esbensen’s writing. This can be invaluable for helping children understand the process of writing and publishing poetry. Aspiring writers, in particular, will find this “behind-the-scenes” view fascinating.

Barbara Esbensen Poetry Portfolio

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Poetry BY children

My son leaves for college this week and we are excited for him as he begins this new adventure, but I sure am going to miss him, too. In honor of this event in our family, here’s a poem written by a teenage boy that touches my mother’s heart.

By Richard Furst
Grade 10

I walked through the empty kitchen
to the door,
to leave the warmth of home
for the bitter-cold anxiety of
a Monday at school.
Ducking the old dogwood outside,
I heard a familiar call,
and turned to see my mother
waving me off to school,
sending me a small fire
to keep my heart a little warmer.


Several poets who have worked in schools, libraries, and with other youth projects have gathered and edited collections of poetry written by children of all ages. Collections such as SALTING THE OCEAN edited by Naomi Shihab Nye (2000) or TEN-SECOND RAINSHOWERS (1996) and SOFT HAY WILL CATCH YOU (2004) both edited by Sanford Lyne are beautiful books full of unsentimental and authentic young voices. For children who aspire to be writers or who may find personal poetry writing a helpful release, these books are an invitation to see oneself as a writer, to see children as capable of poetic expression, too. Here are a few notable collections of poems BY kids:

Franco, Betsy. 2001. YOU HEAR ME?: POEMS AND WRITING BY TEENAGE BOYS. Candlewick.
Lyne, Sanford. 1996. TEN SECOND RAIN SHOWERS; POEMS BY YOUNG PEOPLE. Simon & Schuster.
Lyne, Sanford. 2004. SOFT HAY WILL CATCH YOU: POEMS BY YOUNG PEOPLE. Simon & Schuster.
Nye, Naomi Shihab. 2000. SALTING THE OCEAN; 100 POEMS BY YOUNG POETS. Greenwillow.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Baking cookies and poems

I heard in the news this week that it is so hot this summer a woman in New Hampshire actually baked cookies on the dashboard of her car! She placed two trays of cookie dough on the dashboard of her car while the outside temperature was in the high 90’s, but the temperature inside the car was around 200 degrees. Voila! Fresh baked cookies. She said that an extra benefit was how wonderful her car smelled afterward.

I was reminded of a fun poem I have often used with kids entitled, "Nutty Chocolate Cookies” by Pauline Watson. This is an actual recipe turned into a poem that has a strong rhythm, rhyme, and easy to follow sequence. Kids love to join in on the read aloud. In fact, I have found that you can even SING the poem to the tune of the old folk song, “She’ll be comin’ ‘round the mountain,” if you’re feeling really adventurous. (More on singing poems another time!) You’ll find the recipe-poem “Nutty Chocolate Cookies” in the wonderful resource book, THE POETRY BREAK, by Caroline Feller Bauer. I highly recommend her book for a multitude of creative ways to present poems to children.

So… find the poem, gather the ingredients, sing the poem, mix the cookies, and then bake them on the dashboard of your car! Eat the cookies and enjoy the poem all over again. What a fun summer memory that would be for kids.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Poetry Foundation

Are you familiar with the Poetry Foundation? If you know poetry for adults, I’m sure you know of their work. They publish POETRY magazine and are committed to fostering a “vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.” Don’t you love that mission? You may have heard of the enormous Lilly grant that morphed the Modern Poetry Association, founded in 1941, into the Poetry Foundation of today. And their web site is a meaty resource of information. In particular, they are creating a lovely CHILDREN’S area that bridges classic and contemporary poetry for young people.


Currently, it includes a growing list of “Feature” articles on a variety of topics, a helpful “Essentials” poetry booklist, a regular “Book Pick” poetry book review, and a mini-archive of full text poems for children. This month’s “Book Pick” (by yours truly) features a lovely anthology by the new U.S. Poet Laureate, Donald Hall (also author of the Caldecott award book, OX CART MAN). It’s almost a history of poetry for children, with its chronological collection of American poems and art—but still very accessible for kids today. Check it out.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

August poem to read aloud

Just for fun—here is a poem for a hot August day.


In August, when the days are hot,
I like to find a shady spot,
And hardly move a single bit--
And sit--
And sit--
And sit--
And sit!

By Anonymous
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, comp. 1983. THE SKY IS FULL OF SONG. New York: Harper & Row.

This poem lends itself to several different read aloud strategies. First, write the words “and sit” on four index cards numbering them from 1 to 4. Ask for volunteers in the audience, one per card. Then as you read the poem out loud, the four seated volunteers each read their part (“and sit”) right where they are seated, one after the other (1, 2, 3, 4). (Practice once with the four volunteers before reading it with the whole group, if needed.) Read it again and again with four different volunteers each time, if interest is strong.

Next, incorporate motions or movement—sitting. Break the audience into four groups, invite them to stand as you read the poem, and then point to each group to sit as you read the phrase “and sit” each time.

Then, read it again and invite them to join in with you in the reading (and sitting). (Kids will often join in even before they’re invited which is a good sign that your poem reading is engaging!)

If you are feeling really brave, this poem can even be read in a round or canon. Divide the group in two, each group reads the whole poem, but the second group begins after the first group finishes the first line—much like singing “row, row, row, your boat” in a round. It takes some practice, so you may have to do this several times before everyone gets the hang of it, but it’s a lot of fun. You might even try incorporating the sitting action along with the group reading for lots of laughter!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Kids' #1 Favorite Poem

As we look for poems we think children will enjoy, it helps to know a little about what research has found about children’s poetry choices. In several studies of young people’s responses to poetry (Terry, 1974; Fisher & Natarella, 1982; Kutiper & Wilson, 1993), there were fairly consistent results. Their findings:
*Narrative poems that tell a story were the most popular form of poetry
*Free verse or haiku were the least popular forms of poetry
*Students preferred poems with strong sound patterns, rhyme, and rhythm
*Children preferred humorous poetry, poetry about familiar experiences, and animal poetry
*Younger students preferred contemporary poems

Although these are helpful guidelines for selecting poems, they are not absolutes. Children enjoy many forms of poetry, including free verse and haiku, for example, but generally when they have had some broader exposure to poetry. There is also no guarantee that every humorous, narrative poem about animals will be a hit with every group of children. Also most studies in the past are based on a limited exposure to poetry over a brief period of time (e.g., 50 poems read in 6 weeks time). If we share more poems more often, we will probably find more variety in their choices. As we get to know children, we can also seek out more variety to suit their different tastes and interests. So, what was the number one choice of children in these previous studies? It’s this poem by award winning poet and scholar John Ciardi.

Mummy Slept Late and Daddy Fixed Breakfast

Daddy fixed the breakfast.
He made us each a waffle.
It looked like gravel pudding.
It tasted something awful.

“Ha, ha,” he said, “I’ll try again.
This time I’ll get it right.”
But what I got was in between
Bituminous and anthracite.

“A little too well done? Oh well,
I’ll have to start all over.”
THAT time what landed on my plate
Looked like a manhole cover.

I tried to cut it with a fork:
The fork gave off a spark.
I tried a knife and twisted it
Into a question mark.

I tried it with a hack-saw.
I tried it with a torch.
It didn’t even make a dent.
It didn’t even scorch.

The next time Dad gets breakfast
When Mommy’s sleeping late,
I think I’ll skip the waffles,
I’d sooner eat the plate!

by John Ciardi

From YOU READ TO ME, I'LL READ TO YOU. Philadelphia: Lippincott. Reprinted. New York: HarperTrophy, 1987.

It’s a terrific example of a humorous, narrative poem that tells a story (although with a bit of a stereotype of the roles of moms and dads perhaps more common when the poem was first published in 1962). It has a strong, regular rhythm that begs to be read aloud and word choice that is second to none. Many of Ciardi’s smart and wry poems have a similar tone, paving the way for Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky who follow.