Monday, April 20, 2009

“I Used to Be A Giraffe…”: My Young Poets

One of the joys of my life over the past year and a half has been teaching poetry-writing to kids in the public elementary school in nearby Emeryville, Calif. After contacting the district’s volunteer coordinators in fall 2007, I was quickly matched with a fabulous teacher eager to have me work with her then-second-graders for an hour every week. Without really knowing what I was doing, I found my way as a teacher thanks to Kenneth Koch’s brilliant book of poetry-writing exercises and advice, “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams,” and thanks to the open, respectful, creative vibe the teacher had already set in the classroom. And most of all, because of the sweet, talented kids  African-American, Hispanic, Filipino, and Indian, most from low-income families  and the rapport we found together. This proved true even with the few kids with sporadically disruptive classroom behavior.

Every week I’d come in and greet them with “Hi, poets!” I assumed they could write. And they matched my assumption by doing so. I soon learned the impact on them of certain things I said. Early on, before we started the writing part of each class, I would instruct them that they could raise their hands if they were “stuck” and I’d come around to help. Shortly I had a batch of kids every week moaning about how stuck they were. Well, they were writers. They could have writer’s block. (And I found ways to nudge them out of it.)

In one session, I read them part of one of my favorite poems, Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Romance Sonambulo” (in English and then partly in Spanish) – “Green I love you green/Green the wind, green the boughs…” The assignment was to use a color in every line. A very shy Mexican-American girl, a bit taller than the other kids, really found her voice in response. Her poem using the color white (blanca) was so poignant and lyrical that it brought tears to my eyes when I read it aloud to the class. (For most of that first year, I read all the kids’ poems to them at the end of every class, as we only had an hour in total, not enough time at this stage for them to read their own poems. They’d gather on the rug up front and listen raptly with sparkling eyes, often laughing, impressed and moved by their creations.)

The next class, I assigned one of the Koch exercises: “I used to be______/but now I am ____.” The kids were to write as many of these couplets as they could during the writing time. Lupita (not her real name), the girl inspired by Lorca, started with this:

“I used to be a giraffe
but now I am a paragraph.”

What an inventive match of elements, and what an original rhyme! Even more moving was what the lines said about Lupita. She was no longer an isolated animal, looking down from her slight height silently at the rest of the class. She had become something changed. Something rich with meaning, more than just a word or a sentence. She had become a paragraph.

These kids have kept me creating. As I tell them every week: “Thank you, poets. Give yourselves a hand.”
copyright 2009 Lisa Bernstein