For kids who have never written poetry (or teachers who have never taught it), a great way to begin is with class poems. This is where each child writes one line from a starter provided by the teacher, and then all the lines are put together. The teacher should help the process along a little by making suggestions for small improvements. But remember, at this point the kids don’t have much confidence in writing poems and discouragement is the last thing we want. Small improvements can be made by asking questions such as “Can you think of more words to describe that?”, “What else could you add to show everyone what you mean?”, “Do you have more of that picture in your head that we could put on the page?”
These questions are obviously about encouraging the child to write more, to create a bigger word picture. The picture will already be in their head – they just need help to put it into words. I like to describe poems as word pictures.
Suggestions for class poems
(These are starter lines, so every child uses the starter to get going – it’s up to the teacher to decide if the repetition of the starter line will stay in the poem or become the title – some starter lines can become too dominant in the poem) :
If I could be any animal, I’d be… (the child should name the animal and say why, or use a description)
Example: If I could be any animal, I’d be a wombat, round and slow, sneaking out at night, burrowing in my hole.
Or: If I could be any animal, I’d be a cat because cats can balance on high fences, land on four paws and snooze in the sun.
I never told anyone … (can be an imaginary secret or a real one!)
Example: I never told anyone that I swam the Pacific Ocean and wrestled sharks and took a shark fin home for dinner
Or: I never told anyone that my baby name was Bighead.
People think … but really … (again, can be imaginary or real)
Example: People think I’m just a kid but really I’m hungry vampire with long red teeth
Or: People think I love dogs but really I want a pet pigeon that will always fly home to me.
Thirteen Ways of Looking At … (loosely based on the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird – the number depends on how many students contribute). You can choose your city or town, your school, the ocean, the world – subjects for this are limitless. This is a good poem to follow earlier, simple class poems as it allows them to spread their writing wings a bit and write longer segments, up to six or eight lines if they want.
When you have compiled a class poem, read it out to them (as teacher, you can decide on the order of their lines to provide variety), and then print it up and put it on the wall.
A poem doesn’t have to be long – the smallest poems can create very successful word pictures. A poem also doesn’t have to rhyme – it is very difficult to rhyme well and keep the rhythm smooth and flowing. Children think that a poem has to rhyme – I actively discourage rhymes in the beginning in order to free up their ideas and use of great language to express what they “see”.
Suggestions for small poems
If I could be any animal, I’d be… (the child should name the animal and say why, or use a description). This was listed in the class poems, but can be taken further – encourage your students to think up at least three descriptions and/or reasons for choosing their animal.
I’d like to be a big brown bear
with a big brown growl
and four huge paws and claws
to hook fish right out of the river.
In winter, I’d curl up
in my deep, dark cave
and snore and dream
Five Things I Like About …
You can provide a list of possible subjects (my house, my friends, my school) for those who might be stuck, but you should also open this up to any subject the student chooses. This is a good poem to follow the earlier, simple class poem as it allows them to write in short bursts, one idea at a time. Again, encourage them to be descriptive, to provide reasons and embellishments.
A colour poem can work in two ways – either the student can choose one colour and write about how it makes them feel, what it reminds them of, what significant things are the chosen colour; or they can choose a number of colours and describe a feeling and/or description for each one.
Example: Blue makes me feel like I am floating in the sky,
Red makes me think of blood,
Gold makes me feel bold,
Green makes me feel like jumping through the grass,
Yellow makes me think of the early morning,
Black makes me think of smoke and fire.
Make up a monster! Not like any monster you’ve ever seen before. Put in all the scariest things you can think of – write your poem so everyone else can imagine your monster too. (This is a poem that helps students move away from TV and movies, into their own vast imagination – encourage them to come up with new possibilities.)
Example: The Stringaling
The Stringaling hides in the wardrobe
and eats coathangers,
he’s made of thick brown string
with long skinny arms
and long skinny legs.
He sneaks out at night
and ties you up
then winds his string around and around
and around you until
you’re dead like a mummy.
Students can draw pictures to go with their poems if you want them to, but not until the poem is completed – let them use the words to create the poems, and then read them out so that you share the word pictures first.