Back in the summers of ’83 and ’84, I had the opportunity to lead a workshop on teaching poetry to a group of fourth through sixth grade teachers from small schools all over Texas. My theme song throughout this workshop was that nothing kills an appreciation or love of poetry quicker than arranging it as a “poetry unit”. To me, poetry should be an integral part of the curriculum, not only the language arts curriculum, but the entire academic curriculum. I feel that poetry is felt most effectively when it occurs spontaneously, ingeniously, and naturally.
In the elementary school, especially, the recognition or celebration of occasions can be marked through poems of occasion. Although much bad poetry has been written about “Holidays, “some good holiday poems exist. However, merely remarking on what day it is we are celebrating and then reading the poem seems rather artificial and an isolated way of presenting the poem. Ideally, the poem can be integrated into the activities and assignments for the day.
For example, our sixth grade language arts class used a basal reader which had a story about Abraham Lincoln which described Lincoln’s early relationship with his stepmother as she cut his hair, but it also explored how she influenced his love of books and reading. I saved this story for February twelfth and supplemented it with anecdotes and jokes from The Abe Lincoln Joke Book, a scholastic publication. It also included a poem by Eve Mirriam that I feel gives the students a sense of the persona of Lincoln and what the appropriate child’s response to it might be.
To Meet Mr. Lincoln
If I lived at the time
That Mr. Lincoln did,
And I met Mr.Lincoln
With His stovepipe lid
And his coal black cape
And his thundercloud beard,
And worn and sad-eyed
“Don’t worry Mr. Lincoln,”
I’d reach up and pat his hand,
“We’ve got a fine President
For this land;
And the union will be saved.
And the slaves go free;
And you will live forever
In our nation’s memory.”
Not only can the traditional occasions be celebrated, but also the lesser known, everyday ones will lend a light note to a sometimes dreary week. One year on a calendar of trivia, I spotted the birthday of the Earl of Sandwich. It came up right after a week of testing–the perfect time for some relief. The entire class brought peanut butter sandwiches for lunch that day. One of the mothers had baked a decorated birthday cake, complete with candles. After our makeshift lunch in the cafeteria, we sang Happy Birthday, and when we got to the line, “Happy Birthday, Earl of Sandwich,” the other children began to “Who?” like a chorus of owls.
Other activities back in the classroom involved writing How-To paragraphs on “How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” and a reading of Shel Silverstein’s poem, “Peanut Butter Sandwich.” It tells of the king who loves peanut butter sandwiches, but his jaws locked and he couldn’t speak because the peanut butter stuck to the roof of his mouth. As I read the poem, each student was eating half a dry, peanut butter sandwich. They listened to such lines as “Oh darn that sticky peanut butter sandwich!” Very few of the students, after chewing and chewing, had the same response the king did when his jaws were finally pulled apart, “The first word they heard him speak/Were, How about another peanut butter sandwich?” Instead, I heard many pleas asking, “May I get a drink of water?”
Poetry, whether for an occasion or celebration can give students many memorable moments. You can write a limerick about each child, using his name, or like this one I wrote about my Kid’s class in Reading Improvement.
There once was a class called reading,
And to Mrs. Longest we’re pleading,
Please no more tests;
We have done our best,
So, tell us what else you are needing.