How a Classroom of 1st Graders Became Published Poets
I made a confession to Kwame Alexander, that when he originally asked me to share my thoughts on his work-in-progress titled, “Page-to-Stage”, I was secretly worried. How was I going to tell the Newbery winner that no one was going to buy this book? We (the teachers) had all had enough years of trying to get our students excited about poems, gluing them in journals, never to be looked at again. I had given up on poetry in the classroom and my colleagues had too. But still, (he’s a Newbery winner!) I agreed to read it.
He had me at the preface. Kwame was talking to me. I could hear his voice. He was sitting next to me, helping me through, holding my hand, as I confronted the painful subject of poetry. His approach was relaxed, yet bursting with information, and surprisingly, it was applicable to me. Page-to-Stage was about understanding the purpose of poetry, the power of poetry. Page-to-Stage would turn my first graders into poets. This I had to try.
I borrowed and adapted some of Kwame’s ideas to use with my students. I began my first impromptu poetry workshop with a Shel Silverstein poem. Then we dove right into a whole class List Poem titled, “Poetry Can.” This same poem ended up IN the Page-to-Stage book. It took very little prompting before everyone was calling out ideas in this spontaneous, free-flowing activity. It was beautiful. In case you didn’t know, “Poetry can give us energy.”
For days my students wrote their own list poems, and not because I made them. They were pleading to write them. So like any smart teacher would, I took advantage of their enthusiasm and introduced more styles of poetry. Nine kinds of poems and a few weeks later, I was implementing the entire program. We were on our way to publishing our own book! “Poetry can give us new ideas.”
Page-to-Stage suggests breaking your students into teams such as Editing and Marketing. I was sure I’d have to warn Kwame on this one. Six and seven-year-olds would never comprehend the duties of these jobs; much less remember the complicated team names. I was wrong. As I began meeting with each team, every member showed up ready to work. Editorial was looking through quotes to choose an epigraph, Proofreading was finding my typos, Production was interviewing everyone to write up bios, Marketing was planning the book launch party (maybe even over planning!), and Design was carefully choosing the perfect layout for our book. When we weren’t meeting, they were begging to meet. They did all the work and as one student later told Kwame, I “just did all the typing.” It’s the truth. “Poetry can make you smarter.”
As a writer myself, it has always been my favorite subject to teach. For years, my students have been allowed to think outside of the box, have original thoughts, self-publish stapled paper books, and share their work. They leave my room confident, practiced, writers. Knowing this, made it hard to admit that it wasn’t until Page-to-Stage that I realized something had been missing. Poetry.
Now, I designate time almost every day for poetry. When it happens, a change comes over my class. I can see it in their faces. Boys start using phrases such as, “my heart was crying” and “I was like a goldfish breathing underwater.” Deep thinkers write haikus, and my students struggling with the English language, dictate poems that could make you cry.
Page-to-Stage taught us the reason for poetry, the rules for poetry. But Kwame showed us how to bend and even break them. I’d seen the program work with middle and high school students. I couldn’t believe how effective it was with my young ones, like it was written for them. Kwame’s lessons allowed my students to be themselves while reinventing themselves. I offer writing options, and they choose poetry. I offer time on the iPad, and instead of clicking on an interactive app, they write poems. I hear them give feedback to each other such as, “That really feels like a poem.” My first graders truly get it. “Poetry can teach us stuff.”
We did publish a book. The students chose the title “Finding the Truth, Feeling Your Heart – Our Journey Through Poems.” The day of our book launch party, I sat them down and we talked about the impact this book was going to have on the world. Lots of people were going to read our book. “You are going to be famous,” I told them. “You are published writers now.” One student was quick to ask, “Don’t you mean poets? We are poets now.” Then everyone cheered at the prospect of being famous and more importantly, eating as many cookies as they wanted at the book launch party. “Poetry can change the world.”