Poetry: In the darkness, it rises


CC via Unsplash. Click photo.

I’m joining fellow teacher-poets for some December poetry writing with Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading). Carol Wilcox (Carol’s Corner) and I are adding poems over in the comments section of Mary Lee’s poem place (Poetrepository) after she posts her daily haiku, Kevin Hodgson joins in via Twitter (@dogtrax), Leigh Anne Eck on her website, A Day in the Life, and others, too, I’m sure, who are writing in various locations around the internet. I just haven’t figured out where, yet.

I shared this poem over at Mary Lee’s, but the formatting in the comments section didn’t let me get it “right”, so I’m sharing it here, too.

One of the great gifts December gives me is a reminder of the boundaries of time. Days are short. Snow turns to ice, then melts to water. Frost appears and disappears. For me, summer has a timeless quality; winter is about temporary things.



Poetry: A Missed Opportunity

evolutionary robotics nancy waldman via Compfight

I’ve been so busy trying to write curricula1 that I haven’t had the time or energy to write much of anything for myself. So when a friend told me a story recently, I grabbed hold to see where it would go.

What emerged was a prose-poem…of sorts. Though I’m never really sure exactly what one is, I’ve played with the form. I’m studying prose poems by the likes of Louis Jenkins, Mary Oliver, and, one poem in particular by Robert Hass, A Story About the Body.

From Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates: entering the mind of poetry) I learned that Japanese poetry “speaks of the nioi, it’s fragrance, and hibiki, reverberation, as qualities equal in standing to its ‘content.'” The prose poems I’m studying all seem to contain a rich layer of detail, even different stories, piled on top of each other. The close proximity of these stories creates almost a harmonic vibration, a polyphony, a resonant subterranean hum, which I love to listen to. Maybe all poetry does that?

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately, this way that stories slice time into measures that we play in the heart. Depending on where you end and where you start, a different tune emerges. What stories do you tell? Where do they end? Where do they start?

A Missed Opportunity

A friend told me about deer hunting recently; about how he spotted some wary does a good distance from the tree stand; about the long wait for them to come closer; about finally letting loose with one, then two, then the last of his three arrows, all missing their mark at that great distance. And then, only after the arrows were spent, did the does approach the stand, mere feet away when the buck arrived (eight points!), their close-breath pungent, their dew-wet bodies steaming in the cool dawn. What is the point of a story? Years ago we both felt a coldness grow; eventually our hearts became hard, then brittle. Do you remember? Our silence wrapped tightly around those days. And so we watched the years unravel like an old sweater. Once the yarn got wound back into a ball, needles clicked again. That’s what I mean when I say be patient. Stories end and begin in the heart. So will yours.

–Steve Peterson, 2015


  1. …which is, really, just to say that I have been barely keeping my head above the waterline that is daily life as a teacher, enough above to make a living, but not enough above to breathe very deeply, or to make a life, if you know what I mean? And there is a story that I need to tell about writing curriculum, too, and what that does to the soul.

Extra Ordinary

illuminatedCreative Commons License Vinoth Chandar via Compfight

The other day something small happened that caused me to think about big things.

We’d been writing short informational pieces (in this case descriptions) and, like last year, I brought in a large number of Indian grass stems from the prairie I am growing on the hill behind the house. The kids measured, observed, and dissected the stems. The goal was to write a physical description of the plant.

Like last year’s project, the kids noticed the joints that make up the stem of the plant; the way the leaves wrap around the stems and emerge from the joints; the way the joint pattern repeats all the way up the stem and into the seed head. They marveled at the lightness of the stem (nearly 7 feet tall!), hollow but flexible and strong. They saw a similarity between Indian grass and a more familiar grass -corn- a common sight in the ag fields in Iowa.

I wandered the classroom watching the kids interact with each other and their specimens; I asked questions and made observations. When I dropped by R.’s table, I noticed a lot of erasures on a drawing she’d created to help her see the grass more slowly. Sensing a story, I asked her about the erasures.

With an excited smile, R. said that she had looked at the grass, then drawn it from memory. But then, when she went back to look again, she noticed that her memory had placed a lot more leaves on the grass than actually existed, so she erased to make her drawing more accurate: “The picture of the grass in my head had a lot more leaves on it. When I looked at the grass again, I realized that I had not really noticed how many leaves there were! So I went back and changed it (my drawing.)”

A small thing, right?

But what a wonderful experience to have. In that small moment, she had learned a huge and valuable lesson about how our minds work, what (re)vision really means, and she felt, through lived experience, how changing your mind (and knowing you did it!) can, quite literally, change your mind. Through that interaction, too, I was able to help name for her how she opened her mind to see what was there, how she changed her mind when the world did not match her idea of what the world might be; how these small actions are what learning is really about, and, ultimately, what life is about.

Does the experience of revising one’s thinking get measured by the tests “that matter?”

Yet, isn’t this kind of interaction at the heart of each conversation teachers have with a child? It’s at the heart of any workshop model we use in reading, writing, science, or any other area of inquiry.

In addition to the planning and the assessing, maybe teaching is also most fundamentally about these momentary interactionsAt the heart of my teaching heart are those times I help a child notice the monumental in the ordinary and, together, we set that moment on the table to study.

Poetry Friday: More Renga with Friends

Moonrise Over Santa TeresaCreative Commons License Dawn Ellner via Compfight

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading) suggested we write another renga and Jan Burkins (Burkins & Yaris) agreed. Both are such adventurous souls! You can see a description of the renga form and our first attempt at writing one together here.

I loved being able to write a second poem in the same form with the same people. It was interesting to observe how having multiple opportunities to write the same thing opened up new layers of understanding for me; understanding of my process, our collaboration, and the ways the poem works to create meaning for me. Multiple tries at the same thing are important for kids; they are important for adults!

At some moment during the second attempt, I began to see the stanzas of the poem not as a linear form whose meaning resolved as I read, but as layers piled on top of one another, sort of like a pair of polarizing sunglasses that, when tilted just right block out the flashes of light on a lake in summer. The layered stanzas helped me see words and ideas in sharper relief and in deeper hues because they made certain images and words stand out.

For example, Mary Lee’s sharp wheel of cheddar/round of brie connected so nicely to the round cracker-moon in the stanza before, turning that image of fullness into one that I could taste as well. Similarly, Jan pulled from my crusts of bread a wide palate (fresh…sour…vast) that broadened my original idea of sparseness into one that had texture and verve. Finally, I loved the way Jan took my image of the wrinkled face and transformed it into a memory, which Mary Lee carried downstream to serve as the very soil for the renewal of a “new land.”

Lots for me to learn from these two! What fun to write together.

But enough of my marveling. Here’s the poem.

as the hummingbird sips the nectar

round moon not yet full
finds my cracker–full ‘til bitten
life full with roundness

sharp as a wheel of cheddar
smooth and creamy as brie

under the gnarled oak
an old couple tosses
dry crusts to the pigeons

we become what we take in
fresh foods, sour moods, vast ideas

mountain peaks tower
above the endless plains
full — sharp — old — vast — inspiring

toward evening, golden sunlight
settled on her wrinkled face

inside she’s a girl
surprised by her reflection
in her dreams she runs

river carries silt downstream
building up the new island

sweet alchemy —
orchard apples filled
by the light of a star

loose tooth lost with first bite
red orb of bittersweet

cold front passes through
scrubs away humidity
wren sings from the fence

once, he learned to see rainbows
in the oil on a street puddle

a skill important
for grownups who are often
too busy measuring

too concerned with to-do to
barter duty for beauty

You can find more poetry at Poetry for Children.

Building a Poem Place

I struggle with how to get more poetry in the hands of kids. Why? It all starts with my hope that others can have what I have. For me, poetry provides a place to slow down and see what is often unseen, to fill what might be empty, to hear a murmur in a world that shouts. In my hubris, I believe others might be like me in this regard.

Somehow I found out about Seattle’s Poetry on a Bus project. The project seeks to put poetry into the daily lives of people. Here is an example from this week’s featured poet.

from Poetry on a Bus. Click on the link to take you to see the archive.

from Poetry on a Bus. Click on the link to take you to see the archive.

But it is more than just poems on buses; it is also about fostering a city-wide poetic reflection on the theme of “home” as experienced by the citizens of the many home places that make up the people of Seattle. Poets fanned out into neighborhoods to teach workshops on how to write poetry. They met in community centers, churches, schools, businesses, wherever the people of that neighborhood met. Then they wrote poems. The poems on the buses are written by the people from the neighborhoods, regular people who have a story to tell, an image to share.


To build interest in poetry, one idea I had was to create a publically shared Poem Place outside my classroom where others could stop by and read as they went about their daily activities, kind of like a stationary bus, I guess.  At first, I would just put up poems that struck me or seemed to fit the time of year. Since I am inclined to look to the natural world and we live in a rural part of a rural state (Iowa), probably some of these would be connected to what students might see around them. I might also couple these with a short informational piece written by either me or by someone I found online, sort of like what Joyce Sidman has done in many of her wonderful books.

Since we recently moved to a 1:1 digital learning environment, I thought I could link the informational text(s) via that method as well.

So, maybe something like this, coupled with informational text on the history of tomatoes.


Poem is from the Writer’s Almanac. Click on the image to go to that page. (Made with Google Draw.)

Or this one since the bats are out at night, coupled with some short text/video about bats.

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems. (Made with Google Draw.)

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems. (Made with Google Draw.)

Or this one, since dogs are always so interesting to kids, then coupled with something on the history of dogs, or the science of anxiety.

From Mary Oliver, Dog Songs. (Made with Canva.)

From Mary Oliver, Dog Songs. (Made with Canva.)

My plan is to post these outside my room and online in a section of my classroom website. While I will be curating and publishing many of these early in the year, I hope that some students will begin to take over the job of finding poems and turning them into posters.

Maybe these poems and informational texts will foster conversations among students, between parents and children? Who knows?

Ideally, we might actually move toward something like what Poetry on a Bus does, which is to hold poetry writing workshops and gather poems from the students themselves. (I think I know some 7th and 8th graders who might be interested in that part!) But even if we don’t get that far this year, or ever, I think the project might be worth trying anyway.

I will keep you posted on how it goes as the year goes along.

Poetry Friday: Writing a Renga with Friends

Old house. Sibillini Mountains, Italy. Photo by Steve Peterson

Old house. Sibillini Mountains, Italy. Photo by Steve Peterson

A few weeks ago I approached Mary Lee Hahn and Jan Burkins about writing some poetry together. I proposed a Japanese form called renga, although I had never written in that form before. To start, the first poet writes a haiku. The second writes two longer lines, a bridge, based on the haiku. The next writes another haiku based on the 2-sentence bridge, and so forth.

According to the Academy of American Poets, the renga is very old. They say it gave birth to the shorter haiku. I can see how it might also have helped create the 5-line tanka form, too.

We finished our first renga a few days ago, and it’s time to reflect on the process. First off, I was super-excited to be writing with Mary Lee and Jan. I love Mary Lee’s poetry. She is a master of few words with many meanings. While I haven’t read much of Jan’s poetry, I think that everything she writes has a poetic feel to it. I was honored that both of them said, YES! Let’s give it a try.

The collaborative element was a lot of fun for me. I found that the form seemed to lend itself to a kind of contemplative practice. Since the lines are so short, and both the haiku and the 2-line bridge are designed to call forth an image and then give it a twist, there is a lot of room for interpretation. I found that large room gave me plenty of space to think not just about the words, themselves, but also about the writer of the words (in this poem, Jan.) What was going through her mind? What images did she use? I found myself wondering what she was thinking. Then, as I crafted my part, my mind shifted to thinking about Mary Lee, who would get the words that I wrote. I strove to speak what I heard inside me but to also open space for Mary Lee to write. I found myself wondering where she would take those openings. What was on her mind, in her heart at the moment?

Another fun part of this, at least for me, was the fact that the poem really did not hang together as a coherent whole from start to finish, that is, if you were looking for a tightly written poem. Rather, its “meaning” was something that I had to work pretty hard to infer. But, since the parts were connected, I began to see a few threads running through the poem that were, because of the exegetical work it takes to see them, almost more precious to my eyes. One thread that emerged was a focus on those propitious tipping-point moments when something happens that causes the next moment to be quite different from the preceding ones. The fires, thunderstorms, even the call of the meadowlark are examples of these. Another might be a sense of age, or loss that comes with age. And a quiet acceptance of the whole thing. Those images of dust and memories and time passing, for instance. At any rate, I had a great time looking back and trying to follow the threads.

I think I might like to try this kind of writing with kids. I can imagine that it might build a sense of community.

For much more poetry, please visit Margaret at Reflections on the Teche.

Poetry Friday Tag




So, here is the renga, without a title.

in the prairie dawn

a spider’s web snares the sun  —

cricket rejoices

meadowlark joins the chorus

breeze bends ripening wheat heads

whose lanky bodies

bow, sun’s church–peace be with wheat

and also with corn

they gather on folding chairs,

jello melts while the preacher prays

white-robed acolytes

shoulders shaking with giggles

two clouds hide the sun

even the adolescent stalks are sober today

word of fire in the neighboring field

this dark sky —

thunderheads poke fingers

at a thirsty land

near the abandoned homestead

ditch lilies toss flaming heads

who called this place home

does the ground remember

stories brought to earth

a faded calendar tacked

to the wall above the stove

try to imagine

the layers of memories

beneath the dust

how much memory is imagination

how much dust is history

sun slants through wavy glass

in the stale air

motes rise to dance

down the road, far down the road

reverberations can be felt

Tell Me a Story, Putting Ideas into Words in Science Class

A student writing The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

A student writes The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowLast year I read Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book about the two main thinking pathways in the brain. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of this work for my teaching. One of Kahenman’s main points is that our brains are basically wired to create stories; we almost can’t NOT create them when presented with new information. The reasons for that are fascinating, and have to do with how much effort it takes to hold information in our working memories. But one takeaway from that work, for me, was that stories are a device to help us to see, and to remember, the relationships among large amounts of information.

Minds Made for StoriesRecently, I read Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories. He was also fascinated by the power of stories and how this is linked to who we are as humans. In a short conversation with me at the NCTE14 (thank you Vicki Vinton, for introducing me!), Newkirk conveyed his sense of awe at just how automatically we create stories, and what that might mean for how we read and write expository text.

Newkirk’s book is a great read and has formed the backbone of some of the teacher-inquiry that I’m doing in my classroom these days.

If our minds really ARE made for stories, then what does that mean for how I teach science? (Or reading, or writing…?) What if I offered students some compelling stories (or some compelling problems or questions) and then, crucially, cleared space for them to create and revise stories in class? What if these stories could become the containers for the new information they were learning? Might clearing space for learners to create stories be time well spent?

In a previous post, I wrote about reading together Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm’s, Buried Sunlight, in science class.1 As a culminating activity, in lieu of a “test” taken individually, I decided to give the kids a large piece of blank newsprint to be filled as a small group.

I gathered them around and outlined their task: tell me the story of fossil fuels, where they came from and what their presence means for us today. We brainstormed some key ideas that might need to be included in their story. Ideas like these — buried underground, plants, plankton, millions of years ago, carbon chains, photosynthesis, Sun’s energy — emerged from our short brainstorming session.

Then they set to work in groups of 3-4. My work was to roam the classroom helping groups figure out the big ideas they wanted to convey, how to work on a project like this effectively in a group, and to prod and probe their thinking as it evolved. I also documented their work through notes and photos.

What I observed was learning that deepened the more they dug into the task. I saw children grappling with how to put the ideas they had heard (and seen) through the interactive read aloud into their own words and their own drawings.

As they told and retold the story to themselves, they discovered parts of the story that did not hang together, places where they could not explain the cause of an effect, or a step in a process, or describe well enough the world they sought to draw on the paper. That brought them back to the text — one copy for the entire classroom! — which they gathered around to re-read and re-interpret.2

The posters that emerged were different, though the story was the same. As they presented their work to each other (we did a gallery walk around the classroom) the students remarked on these differences and looked closely at the drawings that each group had produced.

Here's one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

Here’s one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

The other adults who come into our classroom and I felt that this activity helped ALL of the children reach a deeper level of understanding. Did everyone understand everything at the same level? No. But those who struggled with understanding the information came to see the links between the pieces of information to a greater depth. I think it was because they got the chance to place the information in the context of a story that the relationships between the parts were made more explicit. And, because it was done collaboratively, the children couldn’t just tell any story (perhaps filled with inaccuracies and gaps), they had to tell a version that “held up” to the scrutiny of their community of scientists, their fellow classmates.3

I came away with a greater sense of how important it is for me to make the stories in science class very explicit, to highlight, not bury, the problem, conflict, question, or oddity that brings us to study what we are studying. But I also learned that I need to clear space for the children to put their ideas into words, and, crucially, to give them the opportunity to collaborate and revise as they create the stories that will become the vessel that contains the new information they are learning.

  1. I stayed away from the textbook version of this big idea for fear that it would do more harm than good. Thomas Newkirk has a great chapter in Minds Made for Stories about textbook writing and how it intentionally buries the story (for lots of reasons), which makes textbooks incredibly difficult to understand. A reader has to read very actively (and have lots of background information) in order to figure out the problem, question, or oddity — the story — that lies underneath the desiccated textbook language.
  2. I’m kind of glad that we only had one text. It forced the kids to move from table to table, which, I observed, helped foster a “cross-pollination” of ideas. Scarcity also seemed to raise the value of the text, too. It became a sought after commodity. “Where’s the book?” was a question often heard throughout the two days we worked on this project.
  3. In this way the process mirrors the scientific method.

What the Indian Grass Revealed — Some Thoughts on Learning in a Time of Standards

What should the children know and be able to do?

My teaching work is to design lessons around the answers to this question. And I do. But then, like the other day, something happens that reveals the vast chunk of learning that never made it into the standards. Yet, this is the learning that sometimes seems most important to me and causes me to remember that “career and college ready” does not encompass some of the most important learning in our classroom.

The week before Thanksgiving we spent some time writing descriptions. My goal was to help the children be able to organize their own thinking and their writing. They will use these skills as they write informational pieces later this month. From our work, they will be able to describe an object with precision and artfulness.

This seems a worthwhile set of skills to learn. I love elegant, clear thinking. Certainly this kind of precise thinking and writing would be a boon in most careers; colleges might really groove on those, too, though sometimes I wonder if artfulness might be less well appreciated in many careers and colleges.

Big Blue WhaleWe began by studying several of Seymour Simon’s descriptions. You can pick just about any of his books since they are filled with great description. We ended our study with Nicola Davies’ short description of the outside of a blue whale from her book, Big Blue Whale.

The blue whale is big. Bigger than a giraffe. Bigger than an elephant. Bigger than a dinosaur. The blue whale is the biggest creature that has ever lived on Earth!

Reach out and touch the blue whale’s skin. It’s springy and smooth like a hard-boiled egg, and it’s slippery as wet soap. Look into its eye. It’s as big as a teacup and as dark as the deep sea. Just behind the eye is a hole as small as the end of a pencil. The hole is one of the blue whale’s ears — sticking-out ears would get in the way when the whale is swimming.

We noticed the way Simon and Davies started big — to give an overview of the object to be described, to help the reader see the big picture — before diving into the details. We noticed how good description is organized to help the reader assimilate this new information in an organized and logical fashion. We noticed how good description often uses comparisons to help a reader attach the unfamiliar to the familiar.

The more the children looked, the more they saw the art contained in a good description.

Over the next several days, we described various items around the classroom, practicing our craft. Then, just to see what they would do, I brought in some cut stems of Indian grass, a large prairie grass that grows in the prairie  we are trying to grow on the hill near my house. I thought the children might be interested in this very large version of a common plant: grass.

Indian grass from the prairie on the hill above my house.

Indian grass from the prairie on the hill above my house.

They were.

IMG_0845 - Version 2The children each took a piece to study. They measured against the tiles on the floor; each stem was between 5 and 8 feet tall! They marveled at the size. They marveled at how different turf grass is from prairie grass. And how similar, too.

They looked carefully at how the grass was put together. They began to name the parts, because in order to describe well, you have to name the parts. This need to notice and name parts helped the children see why science is so dense with vocabulary. Scientists must look closely at things, name the parts they see, and then describe them clearly.

At first, the children only saw the stem and the seed head. Some saw the leaves, but these thin strips don’t look like what they are used to calling leaves. The more they looked, though, the more parts they saw. They did not know the technical terms for all of the parts, but to describe well, they needed to call them something. So they set out as explorers, naming the new lands they saw. For instance, what are you going to call the little “hairs” that protrude from the flattened end of the seed? I urged them to think of the function these “hairs” might serve, and then give them a name that reflects that purpose. (Seed stickers. Seed grabbers. Seed attachers. These were some of the part-names they came up with.)

As they sketched, as they wrote, they began to see the wonder contained in the supposedly simple things around them.

Some saw how the large structures they noticed first (the long stem, for instance) are actually made from ever smaller structures, and these were made from even smaller structures, and so on. The more you looked, the more you saw. Where do you stop with your noticing? With your naming?

The stem is hollow! What do I call that hollow? Is it used for anything, or is it just hollow?

Did you notice the stem has sections? There are joints that separate those sections! It’s like the stem grows up to a certain point and then decides to stop and then it starts growing all over again!

The stem wall has all of these little strands of fiber in them. I wonder what they do? What are they for?

Some saw the connections between this grass and other plants they knew. (Some are farmers, after all.)

Indian grass looks a lot like corn, except the seeds are not all put together in a cob like corn, but in a spray of seeds. The leaves and the stem look like corn though.

Others began to see the overall symmetry of the basic grass design.

Did you know that Indian grass has the same pattern that repeats itself all the way up the stem? Each segment fits into the segment below it.

If you look at the seed head, even those tiny stalks that hold the seeds look just like the stem. They have all these little joints, but they are not nearly as big around as the stem farther down.

I wonder how the Indian grass knows how to stop growing up and when to start making a seed head?

Some saw patterns in the way the leaves came off the stem. Some, even wondered whether you could even call these leaves, since it looked like they were at one time part of the stem. Is a leaf a leaf? A stem a stem? When does one become the other?

I noticed that the leaves start at these joints and wrap themselves around the stem. Maybe they aren’t even different than the stem? But then they grow for awhile and separate from the stem. Why? How can a stem become a leaf?

When the children got to this stage in our investigation, it seemed to me that something special was happening. I told them that they were noticing things that only people who study plants, who look very closely at them, notice. And they were asking questions that no one knows the answer to, but scientists are very interesting in knowing these answers. “What, exactly, causes a plant to stop growing up and start to grow a seed head? What causes anything to change? What causes you to change? To grow?” These are important questions, important observations. I congratulated them.

For a moment, I stood there amidst the clamor watching the children run from plant to plant as they showed each other the discoveries they made. We’ll get back to the description, I thought to myself. But right then what seemed most important was to honor the curiosity bubbling through the room. And I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder how this kind of endeavor gets turned into an “I can…” statement, then packaged as a “skill” to be mastered.

So this time of learning, of exploration came, and then it went. And it DID take time; these moments don’t come free. If the moments we spent looking at grass, I mean really looking at grass, were “billable” hours in the great race to the top, under what standard would the Grand Accountant code them?

And yet, I know these times are important precisely because they reach so deeply inside.

Prose Poem: Frost

The frost came this weekend, which got me thinking about how things change, sometimes pretty darn quickly. Change has been on my mind lately: my father’s illness and the big changes it has brought to his life; how quickly my nation is marching (once again) to a war in Iraq; our inability to deal with a changing climate with any kind of effectiveness.

So, here’s a prose-poem (of sorts) that ponders how change can happen very quickly sometimes; at the same time it tries to recapture some of my writer-self that took a trip somewhere unknown for awhile. I hope it had a good time out there.


Have you ever noticed how days can go by and things change so slowly as to be imperceptible? Take summer, for instance. In Iowa, the sun glares at rows of corn for what seems like eons; the locusts lay down a wall of sound from behind the oak leaves. Then suddenly, like last night, the sky clears and the heat that had gathered in the rock wall, and under the leaves of the plums — so tenacious all summer — vanishes silently as an introvert at an office party. By morning, you wake to find Fall has already unpacked its valise, and the garden, filled with squash and cucumbers, wilts, tilting the color wheel from green to brown.

The ancients thought the world was flat, beyond which lay its rim. One minute you’re sailing blithely along, the next you’re over the precipice and in the jaws of a dragon. We modern people are wiser, of course, and know that there is no boundary, no limit, no moment where with a single step we leave one world behind and enter another. From deep within the middle the tomatoes are so ripe and red, the edge so very far away.

— Steve Peterson, 2014


On Seeing Slowly — What the Children’s Poetry Taught Me This Year

The year ended. I packed up my room for a move to fifth grade and am just now back from a trip to Chile (more about that later). Finally, after all of that I have a bit of time to think back on the end of the school year and to celebrate some awesome poetry that the kids wrote this year.

I was impressed with the level of observation that the children brought to their poetry writing. For instance, these poems came from a photo prompt (taken from the National Geographic photo archive) that captured a lightning strike on the prairie.



And J’s:



What impressed me about these poems was not just the way the children tried to capture the dramatic image of the lightning, but the way they tried to work that image into something larger (a mood or feeling) that the image helped to generate. G’s poem became a meditation, using repetition and a really cool comparative device that I don’t have a name for (“Vikings say…”, “Greeks say…”, “But I say…”) I was struck by how contemplative and quiet G’s poem was.

J’s poem, on the other hand, dropped the reader right into the drama of the photograph through superb word choice and the use of personification. (I really do love her imagination. Wow. She’s a good poet already at just ten years old.)

Other poems emerged from a couple of trips we took to the creek that runs behind our school. Sure the creek is controlled and channeled (as is too much of school, frankly), but we practiced watching and waiting and noticing all of the small creatures that seem to disrupt even the most controlled environment — spiders and ants, violets and bladder campion, minnows, scuds, and water striders. Heck, some kids even found the rolling, roiling movement of the sediment carried by the current, and the play of the sun off the water’s surface sufficiently inspiring to write about!

There’s a poem here, even in the darkness of that culvert.

L’s poems lingered, floating on the current…



…to places far beyond our backyard. (Did knowing that the Japanese poet Issa wrote over 250 poems about frogs — and about 150 about dragonflies — help L. write at least two about the creek’s current?)


E.’s imaginary encounter — deer and wolf — happened during a moment of reverie near the creek.


I was interested to see poems come from books we had read. Another of E’s poems, Dark, came at least in part from our read aloud, The Dark, by Lemony Snickett. Snickett’s personification of Darkness captured E’s imagination. But E. did the rest, building tension by varying his line breaks and choosing words to heighten the drama for the encounter between Darkness and Light.


Other poems came from objects the children and I brought in to school. A robin’s egg that I found on the path in the woods behind our house became inspiration for J’s haiku, which nailed the “twist” that haiku poets like to put in their poems.


Still others found in poetry a way to connect with their funny side. A’s dry sense of humor shines through in this pet store poem that uses questions, repetition, and the blank spaces between thoughts to communicate ideas beyond the words on the paper.


Or J, again, with her love of cats. I love that last line (“fierce master of stripes”) and the first image, too. That “needle in a haystack” image came from her knowing that tiger stripes allow for good sneaking in tall grass.


So, what worked this year? I haven’t always gotten such good poems.

First, and mostly, the kids seemed open to the task. Maybe that’s because, at fourth grade, they are a bit older than I’m used to teaching. Surely that extra part of a year helped them experience how language has literal and figurative components.

Second, I resisted giving the children “forms” to write from. In the past as the children begin to bog down in their poetry writing, I would offer them mentor texts that have more of a formula for how to write a poem of that kind (for instance, W.C. William’s “This is just to say…”) or I would send them to some websites that offer a chance to write poems in a certain form for the kids to print them out. However, this year the only form I gave them was haiku (and that wasn’t really much of a form since I didn’t insist they follow a 5-7-5 format) and a lot of poems by authors like Valerie Worth, Joyce Sidman, and Laura Purdie Salas. I chose these poems because they looked at common ordinary things in ways that transformed them into the extraordinary.

Third, I spent the better part of March writing poems of my own using Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks and Tom Hennen’s Darkness Sticks to Everything as mentors. My goal was to pick an image a day, describe it, and see where the image brought me. I like Kooser’s and Hennen’s poetry because they are image based. Yet they use that deceivingly simple image as a window into something deeper, perhaps grander. Of course, I read the children selected poems of mine, including ones that I posted on this teacher blog. Some of my courage to resist giving the children formulaic poetry this year came directly from my experience writing from images myself. I knew they could push through to something interesting because, well, I had done that earlier.

Finally, throughout the year I tried to develop an awareness in the children of what the phrase “seeing slowly” might mean. Early in the year we developed a model for how we learn; noticing and thinking were central to that model. When it came time to write poetry, we already had a good sense of what it might look and feel like to slow down a bit and notice the world around us. We had practiced it in our reading, our writing, our talking and our listening. Maybe that attention to paying attention had something to do with the poetry that emerged at the end of the year.

I am happy that summer is here so I have a bit more time to think and write and just be in this big ol’ world. But when school starts up again, I will try to take what I learned about poetry and seeing and slowing down as I begin a new year in fifth grade next year.