by Kenn Nesbitt
In the Wire Side Chat, Peeing in the Ool and Other Kids' Poems, Education World talks to popular poet Kenn Nesbitt about reading and writing children's poetry. In that interview, Nesbitt explains why poetry is important for children and how teachers and parents can inspire a love of poetry in kids. His ideas were so helpful -- and so inspiring -- that we decided to remove them from the interview and share them in their entirety with you. Read on to discover, in Kenn Nesbitt's own words, how you can engage kids with poetry. Included: Five reasons why poetry is important plus five ways to engage kids with poetry!
When I visit schools, I talk to kids about poetry and I get them laughing and having fun. I even show them how to have fun writing a poem. I tell them where to find poetry in the library, and I share lots of funny poems with them. I tell them that their teachers might be aliens from outer space; I talk about peeing in the swimming pool and sticking your finger up your nose. But I never tell them that poetry is important. As far as the students are concerned, I'm a comedian. I tell jokes and we have fun.
My methods are subversive, though. I don't tell them poetry is important because I don't want them to shut off. I don't want them to think I'm trying to teach them something. I want to get them hooked on poetry because of the poetry itself. I don't teach kids how to analyze a poem. I don't teach them how to count syllables or recognize alliteration. I don't tell them about personification or similes. I don't show them how to write haiku or acrostics or sonnets or villanelles.
Instead, I crack them up with a poem about underwear or bugs or eating spinach (or eating bugs!) and I tell them where to find more fun poems in the library. Then I let them do the rest. And what do they do? They write poems like crazy. They read so many poetry books that the school librarian can't keep them shelved. If I told them that poetry was important so they'd darned well better memorize lots of it and learn to write it, I'm pretty sure they would want nothing to do with it.
POETRY IS IMPORTANT
So even though I never tell kids that poetry is important, I do believe it, and here's why.
Good poetry always makes you FEEL something. Not all poetry is good, so when I say that reading poetry is important, I am talking about reading good poetry, not all poetry. Just as if I were to say that books are important, I'm talking about good books, not poorly written trash novels. A good poem will give you goose bumps or butterflies in your stomach, or it will make you cry, or it will make you laugh. Or a good poem will make you feel better when you are sad or grieving.
The following e-mail (names and locations changed) is from a girl who wrote to me last month to tell me how important funny poetry was to her at that moment.
Dear Mr. Nesbitt,
Hi, it's Mandy, do you remember me? You visited my old school, Glenbrook Elementary School. I am in middle school now. Anyways, I have your book My Foot Fell Asleep, and it makes me happy when I think about my dad. You see, he passed away a couple of months ago, and it makes me sad, but when I read your poem book, it makes me smile. That's why I wrote you, to say thank you.
Sometimes a good poem will have something you can identify with; something that makes you say, "Hey, that's just like my life." For you and me that might be a poem about the stress of raising children, or a poem about losing a loved one. For kids it might be a poem about video games or cafeteria lunch or not getting what you wanted for Christmas. But a good poem always makes you feel something.
Poetry has power. Does everybody remember this? "I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them. ..." The reason you remember that has to do with the meter, the rhymes, and other tools from the poets bag of tricks.
In ancient Greece, there were no newspapers; there was no television, no radio. There were books, to be sure, but they were rare and expensive. There were no printing presses. Information was made public by orators: public speakers. Those orators didn't just want to tell you something ... they wanted you to remember it. They wanted not just to persuade you; they wanted their words to stick in your head. To this end, they discovered that poetry was more memorable than prose. People remembered the poetic lines of the plays that they saw better than other spoken words. Of course, if an orator wanted to persuade, he couldn't speak like Dr. Seuss. What he could do, however, was learn the techniques of the poet, of writing words in a metrical fashion, of using alliteration and assonance and internal rhymes in a way that would give his words more force and make them more memorable.
The orators of ancient Greece honed their craft. They worked on their breathing and their enunciation the way a weight lifter works on his triceps. And they worked on their writing. Although they did not write poetry -- for this would strike the audience as artifice -- they used the poets' toolbox to write persuasive and memorable prose.
How many people remember, to this day, a poem they learned as children? Well, imagine if your children became little poetry sponges. What would stick in their brains? New vocabulary. New ideas. What would be the result? A bigger imagination. More fun reading. Possibly a lifelong addiction to books. Possibly a desire to write.
Poetry is intimate. A poem can say things that might never be said any other way. Where I live, I regularly go to poetry readings, and I am often amazed at the depth of emotion that people put into their poetry. I've read poems written by fourth graders that bowl me over. Writing poetry can be a catharsis. It can get those bottled up emotions out (and possibly save a fortune on psychotherapy). With poetry, you can express your love, your disgust, your giddy elation, your mild bemusement, your wild imagination or any other feelings you have roiling around inside you.
Poetry is something you can share. Poetry used to have a much bigger part in American life. Before the invention of radio, families talked in the evenings. They didn't watch Frasier. They didn't play video games. They didn't instant-message one another. They read books together. They read stories together. They read poems together.
I'm not lamenting the death of family story hour. Rather, I'm trying to point out that poetry is meant to be shared. It's one thing to sit and read "Casey at the Bat" or "The Cremation of Sam McGee" to yourself. It's quite another thing to have your father sit and read it to you.
Sharing poetry doesn't just mean reading it aloud together either. It means giving your daughter a copy of Dr. Seuss's Oh, The Places You'll Go when she graduates. It means writing a silly love poem for your spouse and sticking it on the milk carton in the refrigerator, making him or her fall in love with you all over again. It means reading Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night" to your father when he's dying.
A poem you wrote can make a better gift to a friend than just about anything money can buy.
Poetry will get your kids reading and maybe even writing. When I wrote back to Mandy, the girl I mentioned earlier, I told her I would give her another book for free, because I know how hard it can be to lose a loved one, and I was glad to be able to help her through it. Here is her reply.
Dear Mr. Nesbitt,
Thank you so much, I would love to have a copy of I Saw My Kitchen Sink. It looks like a great book. Another book to make me smile would be wonderful. My mother says thank you to you because she's heard so many poems from My Foot Fell Asleep that it would be great to hear some new material. I have read it about 100 times! I have even memorized a few. Thanks for taking the time to answer my e-mail personally, it makes me feel special when I get e-mail from somebody.
You see, kids don't just read poetry once. They read it again and again and again. Buy your kids a book of funny poetry. (It doesn't have to be one of mine!) Buy them Kids Pick the Funniest Poems or Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Pizza the Size of the Sun or A Bad Case of the Giggles. And watch what they do. They won't sit down and read one poem; they'll read a poem and they'll smile. Then they'll turn the page and read another one, and it will make them laugh. Then they'll read another one and another and another until they've finished the whole book. And then they will read that book over and over and over again until you get them a different one to read. It's a rare book that kids will read a dozen times.
Give kids a good, funny book of poetry and they will read rather than watch TV or play video games. Put poetry in your kids' hands and you will make lifelong readers out of them.
ENGAGING KIDS WITH POETRY
The way to instill a love of poetry in kids is to engage them with poetry. You can't engage kids by bogging them down with a bunch of rules for counting syllables or analyzing form, content, and technique. (These things are important, but they should come a little later.) Here is my list of ways to engage kids with poetry.
Lots of things are important for kids in grade school. Good health. Good nutrition. Plenty of exercise. Learning to read and write. Math, geography, science, and so on. But if you want your kids to not just learn to read and write, but to learn to LOVE to read and write, bring poetry into their lives. Read them your favorite poems. Buy them a book. Take them to the library on Saturday. Make poetry a priority.
To read more of Kenn Nesbitt's thoughts on poetry and kids, read this week's Wire Side Chat, Peeing in the Ool and Other Kids' Poems.
Article by Kenn Nesbitt
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