The Art Of... Writing Poetry | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Art Of... Writing Poetry 

Published March 1, 2013 at 4:00 a.m. | Updated April 4, 2022 at 7:35 p.m.

Scissors open and close like "angry alligators" and corn chips are as "salty as the sea" in Janet Bellavance's second-grade classroom. The 30-year teaching veteran is a big believer in encouraging her students at Burlington's Edmunds Elementary School to read and write poetry. Consequently, the descriptive language her students have produced over the years is a far cry from your garden-variety "Roses are red / Violets are blue..." sing-song verse.

Bellavance sees poetry as "self-expression" and "a way to work through things." No matter your age, she says, poetry "can help you understand yourself and the world."

As proof, she offers her students' reaction to Kalli Dakos' poem "Something Splendid," about a child who rips off the legs of a spider.

...I looked at those legs
And imagined
How just this morning
They worked
With six other legs,
On a body
That snuggled so close
To the ground
It could probably hear
The earth's heartbeat...

Some of the kids laughed at the first lines, Bellavance recalls. But then she read further: The students' expressions changed, and Bellavance could see the poem "take their breath away."

How do young writers learn to produce such powerful poetry themselves? Local teachers suggest a few different strategies.

In addition to exposing them to good poetry, adults can help them to see the world through the eyes of a poet. Claire Noble, a first-grade teacher at Burlington's J.J. Flynn Elementary School, takes her students on a winter walk in the woods at the start of their poetry unit. Kids carry clipboards and charts to record sensory details such as the quality of light and the "crunch, crunch, crunch" of footsteps on snow so they can incorporate those observations in their poems.

When it's time to sit down and write, Libby Bonesteel, teacher development coordinator for the Essex Town School District, emphasizes word choice. She helps students contrast the way a scientist and a poet would describe a leaf, for example, and encourages students to use a rich vocabulary — or what she calls "delicious words."

Matt Hajdun, a fifth-grade teacher at Burlington's Champlain Elementary School, reads free verse aloud to debunk the commonly held belief that poetry must rhyme.

"I tell them that rhyming limits them," says Hajdun.

All of the teachers stress that kids will be more inclined to write if there's an audience for their poetry. Last year, Bellavance's class hung its poems around the school in places where students wait in line, such as the cafeteria. At the end of Noble's unit, students dress in black and read their original works at a school event attended by their families. Aziza Malik, a fifth-grade teacher at Champlain Elementary, has organized poetry slams at local coffeehouses, such as Radio Bean and Maglianero.

Sharing the beauty of language is important, says Bonesteel. "It gets them engaged and loving words, and that's what matters most — especially for the very young."

Local poetry and writing opportunities for kids:

Write Now! is a writing group for students in grades 6 through 12 that's held every first Monday of the month, 6:30 p.m., at Burnham Memorial Library in Colchester. Info, 878-0313.

The Young Writers Project is a nonprofit helping Vermont and New Hampshire students write, improve their skills and find an audience. Info, youngwritersproject.org.

High schoolers recite acclaimed literature at the Poetry Out Loud State Competition, held on Wednesday, March 13, at the Barre Opera House. The semifinals take place at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.; finals begin at 4 p.m. Admission is free. Info, 828-3291.

Recommended poetry books for ages 5 and up:

  • Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield
  • Hailstones and Halibut Bones: Adventures in Poetry and Color by Mary O’Neill
  • All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth

Recommended poetry books for ages 7 and up:

  • Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
  • Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman
  • If I Were in Charge of the World by Judith Viorst

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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About The Author

Alison Novak

Alison Novak

Bio:
Alison is the former managing editor at Kids VT, Seven Days' parenting publication and writes about education for Seven Days.

About the Artist

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen

Bio:
Matthew Thorsen was a photographer for Seven Days 1995-2018. Read all about his life and work here.

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