I hope you’ve collided with a powerful poem at least once in your life—that it called to your mind and heart and filled you with joy and thankfulness. Do you know how deeply poetry affects children? They have the advantage of being less self-conscious than we adults are. Children don’t know that poetry is intimidating and almost embarrassing to many people. All they need is a friendly introduction to the poet and poem, an idea to get them started, and a small handful of vocabulary words. What children take from poetry is profound thought, humility, and life. What do Ambleside teachers do to cultivate this natural love of verse?
We introduce our poet.
Etiquette expert John Morgan explains that, “In a curious way, until someone is introduced, they only half exist.” So it is with poetry! Over a semester, our students meet their poet by soaking up a few details of his or her life. What were Robert Frost’s heartaches? How did his friends help him? How did he become a poet? They want to know. When themes of relationship, hope, or appreciation appear in the poet’s verses, our students will respectfully ponder his influences.
We introduce the poem.
At the beginning of Poetry class, the new poem is introduced. Sometimes, all that is needed is to read its title and ask what comes to mind. “Today’s poem is called ‘A Tuft of Flowers.’ What does this have you thinking?” After a minute or two, the students have called to mind fields with grass, flowers, and butterflies. When they hear the poem, they’ll be able to take the setting for granted, and Frost’s simple and profound ideas will more easily settle on them. We also give them something to look for (“Watch for a change of heart in the poet,” for example), but the teacher does not explain what is going to happen, does not tell them what to think, and does not share her own opinions. How limiting it would be for children to hear the teacher’s thoughts and imagine that there is a “right answer” to poetry. No, all they need is a friendly introduction. They will treasure everything they discover for themselves.
We read and narrate in a way particular to poetry.
The younger the grade, the more likely it is that the teacher will give this first, careful reading, while her students listen. The teacher speaks clearly, but without a special “poetry voice.” The structure of the poem’s meter is present and helpful but does not need to be emphasized. Neither does the teacher toss her voice up and down to make the poem more understandable or “more interesting.” All that is needed is a restrained, respectful reading from a teacher who already has a fondness for the poem. After listening, the students tell back what they have heard. Poems are not narrated in the same way that other texts are, with an emphasis on sequence and author’s language. Imagine how intimidating and distracting it would be to try to tell back a poem with the richness of Milton or Shakespeare, without resorting to memory tactics or correcting one another on particular words. However, the students do tell about the poem’s characters and their story, and when a phrase from the poem naturally comes to mind, they are delighted to speak what they know. The poet’s ideas and phrases become a part of them.
There are so many questions one could ask students of poetry. The difficult part for the teacher is just choosing two or three! Too many questions tire young scholars, and they want time to hear their classmates’ opinions and insights as they gain a deep understanding and appreciation for this poem—together. “What struck you about the heart change in the poet?” we might ask. “What did you notice about the rhyme scheme? What symbols caught your attention?” Or perhaps, “What does the poem say or suggest? How did you see personification used in this poem? Describe its use of imagery and alliteration.” We end our discussion with gratitude. “And what did you appreciate about this poem?”
Just one more time.
Of course they want their own turn to read. Now they must give their best attention. Each student’s turn is made up of all the words which occur before the very next period, comma, or other punctuation mark. This is more natural and pleasant to the listener than pausing at the end of each line. If a student forgets, and stops too early, the other students will smile and wait patiently, and their desk-mate might give them a friendly pat on the shoulder. If a student reads too much, the person next to them will adjust and then take their turn. With any mistakes in Poetry, there is grace, but the students all feel that the beautiful flow of language is precious. Each student does their best to help protect it.
Children brought up on poetry in this way will not be intimidated. Their hearts will be open to meeting new poets and listening intently. Their minds will linger over the gifts of language, truth, and ideas. They will know that the best poets call to your soul, and that how you answer is unique to you.
Some suggestions for getting started in poetry:
“The Tuft of Flowers,” by Robert Frost
“Fragmentary Blue,” by Robert Frost
“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” by William Wordsworth
“All But Blind,” by Walter de la Mare
“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” by Emily Dickinson
“Poetry begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”
—Robert Frost, poet
“In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.”
—Paul A. M. Dirac, quantum physics scientist
“The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn…”
—Robert Frost, “The Tuft of Flowers”