When I was in elementary school, learning about poetry meant writing cinquains for Halloween and haiku in the spring. In junior high school we studied song lyrics, read a major work by a famous dead poet and reviewed cinquains and haiku. In high school — well, I don’t even remember studying poetry in high school.
Welcome to the 21st century, when — thank goodness — teachers have become far more creative in their poetry lessons.
Vinalhaven students were welcomed back to school the week after April vacation with the school’s second weeklong poetry festival of this millennium (the first was in 2000.)
Members of the Vinalhaven School Enrichment Committee, together with teachers, created a week’s worth of unusual and engaging activities for all students in grades K-12. In the lower elementary grades, students were exposed to many different kinds of poetry and poetry projects.
Second grade teacher Samantha Carter created a “Poetree” for kindergarten through second grade students. Each time a student or class read a poem, they wrote the name of the poem on a paper apple. At the end of the week they had collected over 100 apples, which were posted on a hallway wall in the shape of a tree. “The students got really enthusiastic about the Poetree,” said first-grade teacher Ann Osgood. “Everyone liked it, we got a lot of comments on it from other students and teachers.” In addition, the Poetree tied in with their study of concrete poetry, in which a poem is written in the shape of its subject.
The K-2 students also learned about alliteration by making alliteration crowns, complete with their names and decorations. Kindergartener Jordan Radley wrote “Jordan Jumps Jellybeans” on his crown, but said his favorite part of the poetry festival was “writing Poetrees.” Third through fifth graders concentrated specifically on haiku, couplets, quatrains and cinquains.
“The different kinds of poems strengthened various language skills,” explained Heather White, third grade teacher. “For example, the haiku focused on syllable work, while couplets and quatrains focused on rhyming and the cinquains had an adjective component that was good review as well.”
The writing of haiku fostered a novel approach. After the young poets finalized their original haiku in the classroom, the short poems were written on popsicle sticks and delivered to island shops as “guerilla haiku.” Accompanying each was a note of explanation. “Haiku is a form of nature poetry in Japan that consists of three lines which follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern,” the note read. “Guerilla is another way to say surprise — you can hang them in tricky places so customers will be surprised when they find them.”
White’s favorite part of poetry week was the third through fifth grade parent-student poetry reading, held at the Yellow Schoolhouse. “Students and parents chose a poem to read together for everyone to enjoy. We had a great turnout of parents; it was a super-positive morning. And then we ended the morning by delivering our guerilla haiku to downtown businesses. Everyone was glad to see us and happy to have poems from the students.” The island’s middle school students benefited from college-style poetry workshop sessions. According to poetry workshop leader Ally Day, these were particularly useful.
“I think the middle school has a really thorough understanding of the intentionality of poetry and how a poem requires careful crafting by its very nature,” she said. The middle school students were so taken with poetry writing that they continued their study the following week. Students will be using their poems to create individual poetry books, as well as a book of all middle school poems written during the festival.
Seventh grader John Morton enjoyed the week immensely. “For me, poetry is the easiest form of writing to do. I take experiences from my life and write about them — poetry is where I express myself more fully than I do in real life.”
The poems created during these classes were also used for chalk poetry, another unusual way teachers engaged their students during the festival. For one day, all drivers were asked to use the far parking lot at school, leaving the near parking lot free to be covered by student poems written in chalk. Students in grades K-8 participated in this activity.
One way high school English classes studied poetry was through poetry journals. Students were asked to read a number of poems by published authors of their choice, and then analyze and react in writing. “When I did the poetry journal I learned a lot of poets that I had never heard of,” said sophomore Brandon Osgood.
Each high school class also wrote a class poem, to which each student contributed two lines. After working the lines as a class, the final poem was recorded, each student reciting his or her own lines. “Slam” poets Luke Argrew and Marion Sprague, who perform regularly at Acoustic Coffee in Portland, came to Vinalhaven to make presentations to the middle and high school students, as well as a public performance one evening during the week. “Our slam poets were incredibly informative, energetic and grateful for the opportunity to come out here,” said Day. Day was very enthusiastic about their impact on Vinalhaven students.
“The high school students were introduced conceptually to a whole new style of poetry and can look at poetry as a genre of literature with a bit more of an open mind,” she said. The Vinalhaven School Enrichment Committee sponsored the poetry festival. “VSEC really felt that we were ready for [another] school-wide poetry festival,” said Day.