Wednesday’s Words: On Shel Silverstein and Other Things

Continuing with the idea of teaching poetry to elementary age kids, one sure fire poet is Shel Silverstein, a favorite of kids and adults alike.  With Silverstein, one does not have to wait for an occasion to integrate poetry into daily activities, whether in the classroom or at home (Listen up Grandparents!). Looking at trash from the classroom or from the home, Silverstein’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” is the perfect poetry “happening.” Reading aloud the sound-filled poem (“She’d scour the pots and scrape the pans”) introduces what Sarah will and will not do.  Taking the garbage out is where she draws the line.  Vivid, but gross images follow:

“And so it piled up to the ceilings:

Coffee grounds, potato peelings,

Brown bananas, rotten peas,

Chunks of sour cottage cheese…

…With bacon rinds and chicken bones,

Drippy ends of ice cream cones,

Prune pits, peach pits, orange peel,

Gloppy glumps of cold oatmeal,

Pizza crusts and withered greens,

Soggy beans and tangerines,

Crusts of black burned buttered toast,

Gristly bits of beefy roasts…

This poem is as much fun for Mom or Grandma to read as it is for Sally and Noah to hear and imagine.  It is a smile bringer when little Joe or Carole do not want to fulfill their daily chore of taking the garbage bag to the trash can in the garage or to the dumpster. After hearing the poem, they will be in a better mood, laugh, and “get it over with.”



When we studied homonyms, I found a delightful book, Your Aunt is a Witch, which presents homonym pairs in easy to remember rhymes.  The cover alone catches the eye of the reluctant reader. I converted the rhymes into a painless but practical worksheet series for the students to illustrate.  Here is one of the rhymes converted into worksheet style:

Little Prince Randolph is ( heir  air ) to the throne,

And some day he will be king.

He simply adores to fly through the ( heir   air )

On his solid gold, diamond-trimmed swing!

After the children pick the correct word, there is space to illustrate the rhyme.

When we discussed literal vs figurative language, I found The King Who Reigned a humorous combination of figurative images illustrated by literal drawings which also dealt with confusing homonyms. The children enjoyed making their own funny illustrations of “She’s all ears,” and “Someone’s on the phone,” and others they thought up themselves.

Poetry was a daily occurrence in my classroom, and as far as I was able, I “sneaked it in” to whatever we were studying at the time. We did not scan, analyze, or dissect the poems, but we did talk about what made them work and how they made us feel.

Poetry can be “worked in” and become a part of the classroom life and activities; it just takes a little ingenuity and a desire to get students thinking along poetry lines.


Somewhere near the beginning of the semester, I tell my students the story of Don Marquis, a newspaper journalist who came into his office one morning to find a strange letter in his typewriter. The letter was from archy, a cockroach who claimed  he was the reincarnated soul of a Roman poet who writes in free verse. I pass out copies of the letter and ask for reactions.  Of course, the students say there are no capital letters or punctuation, and I explain the laborious way in which archy composes his poems.  He stands on the space bar and dives headlong into the keys to make them work.  Since he can’t be in two places at once, he can’t operate the shift key, and he leaves out punctuation as one less key to have to manipulate.

A few students have insisted, like the walrus-mustached Oral Interpretation professor I once had, “This is not poetry!” Sometimes I have trouble myself concocting a defense. Several of Mehetibel’s (a cat who was Cleopatra once in a former life) poems do have a definite rhythm and sound qualities.  These are fairly dependable poetry-appreciation-starters, although for youngest audiences, I censor out some of the passages when Mehitebel hitchhikes to Hollywood and takes up with a coyote along the way who is so tough, the resulting kittens are born wearing spiked collars.  I received a parent call once about Mehitibel’s poem that ended with Mehitibel’s motto: “Toujours gay,  toujours gay, what the hell, what the hell.” I also received a call from a mother who said her son had told her he had read poems written by a cockroach at school today…she wanted to know, “what the hell kind of crap I was ‘feeding’ her kid.”

Granted this method is gimmicky, but it is a “grabber” and a painless place to start. Students discover that poetry does not have to rhyme, that it does not have  to use “highfalutin” language, and it doesn’t have to be about a “pie-in-the-sky” subject.  Along the route, they gain insights into the historical and sociological occurrences of the thirties and forties as I explain archy’s comments on what were current concerns when the “poems” were written.  I do not encourage by the use of The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitibel, a disrespect for poetry, but a familiarity with it. Hopefully as students read poetry from a cockroach about a mundane subject like what goes on after hours in a newspaper office, they will view poetry as something accessible.  Later in the semester, I make  a concentrated effort to elevate the students to an appreciation of the “specialness” of poetry and to introduce them to recognized and acclaimed poets. The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitibel, however is one place to begin.


Shel Silverstein is a staple in 5th grade.  Many years ago, while teaching 5th grade, I received Light in the Attic for my birthday.  I brought it and Where the Sidewalk Ends, its companion, in to class where I shared it with small groups.  I let them find their favorite funny pictures and accompanying poems and mark them with bookmarks they had designed themselves.  I read a few favorites aloud in class, showing the drawings on the video camera.  We did this in the few minutes before lunch or after PE for a “settle down” effect.

To integrate poetry with a grammar lesson later, students were asked to supply a noun for each blank in Richard Armor’s poem, “Money.” Then we compared our answers with the original which follows:


__________earn it.

__________burn it.

__________lend it.

__________spend it.

__________fake it.

__________take it.

___________leave it.

__________receive it.

__________save it.

__________crave it.

__________seize it.

__________increase it.

__________lose it.

I could use it.

Not only did we talk about why a word that fit the blank was a noun (Was it a person, place or thing?  Did it form its plural by adding “s” or “es”? ) but also why Armour chose the particular word he did.

Here were Armor’s choices:


Workers earn it.

Spendthrifts burn it.

Bankers lend it.

Women spend it.

Forgers fake it.

Taxes take it.

Dying leave it.

Heirs receive it.

Thrifty save it.

Misers crave it.

Robbers seize it.

Rich increase it.

Gamblers lose it.

I could use it.

Just look at the new words to be added to the students’ vocabulary list!

These little “tips” using poetry in the classroom lend fun to the tedium of the Language Arts Bloc and brighten up both the students’ and the teacher’s day while “getting the job done.”



Monday Morning Musings

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

He appeared:

“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.