During the first lesson of my creative writing residency, I introduced the concept of “white space” as an integral part of poetry. I held up examples of prose pieces and examples of poetry, and I asked the students to tell me how pieces of poetry and pieces of prose “looked different” on the page. The white spaces in a piece of poetry, I told the students, give us extra time to look at and think about certain words. As the students wrote their own first pieces of poetry, I encouraged them to play around with white space on the page.
In a discussion a few lessons later, I discovered that most of the class had thought I was saying “wide space.”
They'd done it again. Time after time, the students in my elementary school classes have demonstrated that they know a lot more about poem-making than I do.
It's been a privilege and a delight to encounter the wide, wide spaces of these children's imaginations:
I love you nametag
When I got my first nametag
it looked like garbage
It smelled like paper
It sounded like air
It tasted like nothing
It felt like the road.
It had all these things, and
all the things had it.
Emily M., 2nd grade
The mad genius caterpillar
made earth live and the earth
Angela K., 2nd grade
The stream teaches
the moon how to reflect.
The moon showed
the orca how to shine in the night sky.
The orca told
the stream how to swim gracefully.
Ciara B., 3rd grade
I remember being in the bathroom
I'm really, really small,
I'm washing my hands.
My legs far from the ground
wearing green, wobbly pants.
My dad's recording me,
and the sea,
shower curtain too.
Ricky H., 3rd grade
All the preparation, all the discussions, presentations and pedagogical theory this past fall semester, all the errors and trials and nervous fumbling and triumphs and tragedies transformed and treated in Laynie Browne’s incredible “Intersections” course led me to this: the moment I would throw out everything I’d prepared for that day and simply listen to what the young poets were saying.
Confidence? Maybe; bravado assuredly. For the first five weeks I celebrated many breakthroughs and suffered many missteps in my first residency with the 1st and 2nd graders of Hollinger Elementary. But in my mind I still hadn’t felt a deeper connection with these students. I’d brought in some fantastic lesson plans and we’d shared some amazing work; still I worried a distance between us. My best activity in hand I opened the door to Daisy Carrillo’s classroom after a big breath in and out.
They greeted me at the door with warm smiles and hugs as always, and almost immediately Juliana H. pointed to the windows: “Look at our robots!” Wonderful machines of cardboard and tin foil with superpowers galore. I realized these young people were letting me know exactly what they wanted me to do: listen! We reviewed each and every robot and the students got down to work. In academic circles I have often waxed philosophical about the role of a teacher as a student. This program has given me very real evidence of that magic.
Mi robot me quiere.
Mi robot puede volar.
Mi robot es bebé.
Mi robot no tiene pies.
Mi robot tiene dinero.
Mi robot se come la comida.
Mi robot va a la tienda.
Mi robot es feliz conmigo.
Mi robot es feliz con mi maestra.
Mi robot no trabaja.
Mi robot juega conmigo.
Mi robot se llama Juliana.
by Juliana H.
Highlights from the First Year
of a Successful Program
At the Intersection of Teaching and Writing: Creative Writing in K-5 Classrooms is a new year-long program in which M.F.A. Students develop skills and experience as Teaching Artists. Recent graduates of the program describe here some of their favorite writing activities and present writing by their elementary school students. ―Laynie Browne, Elementary Education Coordinator and Instructor of “At the Intersection of Teaching and Writing.”
Zach Buscher: It became clear to me early on that the 4th and 5th grade students at Corbett Elementary appreciated writing in received forms. Free verse seemed too amorphous, too open an entryway to poetry. Taking a page (literally) from Kenneth Koch’s classic “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams,” I found the sestina assignment produced some of the most wonderfully strange (or strangely wonderful?) writing of the semester.
While Koch employed the sestina as a collaborative form, I thought the students might like to write sestinas of their own. After introducing the form through
readings of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” and Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” (edited, of course), I drew out the sestina template on the whiteboard. To simplify things a bit, we took a class vote to decide the six end-words we would use. In Mrs. Ahumada’s 5th grade class we settled on “penguin,” “potato,” “wave,” “weird,” “lavender,” and “cool.” These words produced fantastical narrative poetry of the highest caliber, worlds of personified penguins and potatoes, as the following example illustrates:
Sestina, Mr. Penguin
An old animal named Mr. Penguin
sold many kinds of potatoes
on the ice he lived on before overtook by waves.
He sold many kinds, some weird
like his favorite potato, the one that was lavender.
He bought some water to keep him cool.
The water kept him cool
but so cool, it froze Mr. Penguin.
He turned into a block of ice colored lavender
like his favorite potato.
He thought this was weird.
He drifted slowly into the ocean, carried by waves.
He couldn’t stop the waves,
and the sea water kept him cool.
He wanted to get out of the ice, which he did by
throwing fits, what a sight that was, so weird.
The penguin sat and saw no other penguins.
He never got a lavender potato
which he wanted, in the block of ice that was
He heated up the ice with his breath, which was
He fell out of the ice and into the wave.
He swam home and sold more potatoes.
He never drank water again to make him cool.
Mr. Penguin stopped selling potatoes to penguins
and moved to the Island of Weird.
He lived in Weird,
and ate flowers of lavender.
He met another penguin,
but hated him and thought he wasn’t cool,
so he moved to Hawaii, and sold cars to
the inhabitants which were potatoes.
His only customer was Mrs. Potato,
and then she stopped buying cars, which was weird.
He drank some soda to keep him cool.
The soda was lavender.
He wasn’t carried off by waves,
and that’s the story of Mr. Penguin.
-Raevyn C. 5th grade
To get the students over the idea that writing poetry is boring, I incorporated games into the lessons.
One of the most successful of these I called ‘Madlib Poetry.’ The class began by writing as many comparisons as they could, including a color in each one. Once they had written these, I wrote a list of other adjectives on the board: ‘loud,’ ‘sweet,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘hot,’ ‘soft,’ and ‘light.’ I gave each of these adjectives a number, one through six, and for each of their lines, the students had to roll a dice to determine which new word they would use. The random nature of this activity produced some wonderful results, and helped the class expand on the literal way of describing things they were used to.
Here is an example of a poem produced during that lesson:
As Light as a Poppy
Roses are as loud as bell peppers,
Puddles are as sweet as an egg,
Brownies are as soft as wood,
Mustard is as loud as gold,
Pigs are as lazy as ribbon,
T.V.s are soft as a bat,
Dragons are hot as the sky,
Clouds as sweet as chalk,
Chairs are as hot as mud,
Gum is as light as a poppy.
by Daniela P.