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Poet Laura Shovan Ignites a Creative Summer School Spark in 4th & 5th Grade Writers

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The latest installment in our occasional series of blog posts from friends of HoCoPoLitSo. Today, the multi-talented — poet, blogger, teacher, editor, (the list goes on and on) — Laura Shovan shares with us her experience working with elementary school writers this summer. 

It was my first, and only, time calling into a radio show. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins was on the air with WYPR’s Dan Rodricks. I often use and recommend Collins’ website Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools for classroom-friendly poems.

I wanted to know: Was there a Poetry 180 for younger students in the works? Collins said “No” and reasoned that elementary school children get enough poetry in their literary diet already.

Perhaps. But that poetry is often limited to work that’s easily digested. Elementary schoolers love Jack Prelutsky, yet are unfamiliar with more complex poets writing for children: Marilyn Singer, Sharon Creech, and Tony Medina. Their curriculum for poetry composition is rarely richer than limericks, haiku of the 5-7-5 variety, and cinquain. That’s why poetry educators, such as those on the Maryland State Arts Council artist-in-residence roster, are such highly valued classroom visitors. We are poetic master chefs. Give us the ingredients of poetry – form, figurative language, and voice – and we’ll turn out a dishy treat even the most reluctant writers will enjoy.

This month, I visited Lisa Johnson’s creative writing class at the Howard County Public School System’s G/T Summer Institutes. Certainly the fourth and fifth graders in a class called “Creative Writing: Ignite the Creative Spark” must like to write or they wouldn’t have been in the class. Still, many of them were unsure about writing poetry. Distaste for poetry often sets in by fifth grade, as evidenced by one student who wrote me this note: “At first, I thought you were going to be BORING!”

TowerAs this was a group of strong writers, I brought a favorite lesson: portrait poems. To begin the workshop, we looked at a photograph of a man holding a baby. Our discussion focused on the facts of the picture. For example, we noted that “The man is wearing a baseball cap”. Once we exhausted the facts of the photograph, we let our imaginations take over. The class told stories about the man and the baby. Were the two of them related? Had the man rescued the baby from an accident? Was this a family reunion?

Next, we read a poem called “Face Poem” written in response to the photograph in question. [The poem and the related photo can be found at The Poem Farm, the online home of children’s poet Amy Ludwig VanDerwater.] We compared the class’s imaginings to the details of the poem. How did “Face Poem” work as a portrait?

After seeing the example, the students were ready to begin the writing process. Ms. Johnson and I had clipped portraits out of newspapers and magazines ahead of time. The children each chose one image to write about. They sat with their writing notebooks and the photographs and created a T-chart. On one side: the facts of the portrait. On the other: Who is this person? What is she doing? What is he thinking? What happens next?

Imagining someone else’s life through a workshop like this stretches young writers. My students often express a depth of empathy that surprises the adults in the room. The tangible details of a photograph are like a list of ingredients. How the children use those ingredients is what gives the resulting poems substance.

Here are three of the students’ responses.

The Newborn

By Aiai C.

A baby cry echoes through the room. The mother
rushes to calm her. The baby was as pale as snow,
her hair as black as the night sky, her lips
as pale pink as peaches. She would resemble
a snow maiden. She thinks she is the only one there,
but her mother is there gently whispering in her ear,
“Little one, little one, go to sleep.” The necklace
on her mother’s neck gently sweeping on her face.
her mind finally relaxes as she drifted off to dream
through the clouds of sleep.

The Hard Working Teacher

By Katelyn M.

The night was warm and bright
No noises filled the night
Her eyes sparkled like the night sky
Her chalkboard filled with white letters like the moon
Her lamp shines on her like the sun shining on the earth
That’s my teacher that teaches me

The Fisher

By Samuel C.

I stand in the lake
with a red shirt,
waiting for a fish to take
the bait on my hook.

I have a backpack
to carry fish back,
but now I just wait.

My family also waits
patiently as can be,
but they also wait
as quietly as a mime.

As soon as I catch a fish
I will go back to them,
I think to myself,
but now I just wait.

My son also waits.
On the land he stands,
as tense as a cricket
waiting for me to catch one.

The he’ll go back
and bring the fish back
for my family to eat.
Suddenly I feel a tug,
so I pull the fish ashore,
and go back to my family,
to eat that big fish.

I finally got back
to my family
at the camp
in the forest
in the depths of Quebec.

— Laura Shovan

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