Guest Post: Professor Marjorie Maddox from Lock Haven University Discusses the Use of Children's Literature to Teach the Reading and Writing of Poetry
In this series of guest posts, a variety of experts in children's and YA literature from public higher education organizations will discuss their perception of the role of children's and YA literature in public higher education curricula.
This post in the series is brought to you by Marjorie Maddox, a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University.
[Views and opinions expressed here are the authors' own, and not those of the Universities or any other organization.]
A Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published 11 collections of poetry, a short story collection, the anthology Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (co-editor, PSU Press), 4 children’s books, and over 550 poems, stories, and essays in journals and anthologies. She is the great grandniece of Branch Rickey—the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who helped break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues—and gives workshops around the country at universities, libraries, and primary and secondary schools.
I stroll around a classroom teaching students to write. I skip around a school auditorium teaching students to write. I hop down an aisle teaching teachers to teach. At one I am at Lock Haven University; at another I am at an elementary school; at a third I am at a branch campus of Penn State for a conference for teachers. At each, we—my students of all ages and I—are twirling, scribbling, imagining, debating, swinging baseball bats—all in the name of poetry.
And why not? Both writing poetry and teaching how to write (and teach the writing of) poetry are whole-body-and-mind creative activities. The primary and secondary school students and teachers are all in! The college students (except for the Education majors, who are game) are more hesitant. Still, for all three groups, a combination of movement and meditative silence combines for bursts of creativity.
For instance, for elementary and middle graders and their teachers, I conduct workshops on “Poetry that Moves,” including an activity on using powerful verbs, where I pass out to each participant synonyms for “move”—“slink,” “trot,” “crawl,” “saunter,” “pace,” “waltz,” etc.; class members then act out their word, until others guess the correct verb. I follow this up with a quick—and often hilarious—exercise on onomatopoeia, where students/teachers dramatically read from a list of onomatopoeia such as the one found here.
What ensues is a lively discussion on the power of action, sound (onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, consonance), and specificity in writing that leads into a new activity on similes, metaphors, and extended metaphors. For the latter, I bring in hula hoops, golf clubs, baseball bats, basketballs, jump ropes, umbrellas, and so on, and ask volunteers to demonstrate their use while classmates describe as specifically as possible—employing sensory detail, similes, extended metaphors, personification, odes, shaped poems—the sounds and movements of the object. Of course, we also act out and discuss such brief models as Duane Ackerman’s “The Umbrella”:
I press a button,
and this black flower
with its warped pistil
broods over me,
tears dripping from a dozen
It catches water, this flower,
and sheds it,
consents to wilt in a closet
like some wrinkled mourner
In addition, to lure in the athletes in the room, I sometimes use poems from my book Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems (Boyds Mills Press). To discuss alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and shaped poems, try “Choking Up on the Bat’:
High on the handle hurries the wood toward its whack. But Jack,
A quick crack loses the stronger smack that attacks the ball, creates a neck-
turning trek past the mound on the ground, thwack—like that!
Or, for extended metaphor, “Home Run”:
Anything less is a slice.
Hungry, you want the whole pie.
With the ball out of sight past the wall,
you crave every last crumb of the run
as you trot with arms held high
from plate to plate to plate,
all the way back to Home,
your fans deliciously happy,
stuffed full of satisfaction,
unable to ask for one bite more
of such scrumptious summer joy.
In addition, students have the option of directly addressing the object or writing from the point of view of that object. For instance: how would you warn the baseball about the bat? What might the Hula Hoop say to the hips? For this exercise, there are lots of fun examples in Paul Janeczko’s anthology Hey, You!: Poems to Skyscrapers, Mosquitos, and Other Fun Things. Here’s one of mine from the anthology, called “Warning to a Fork”:
Pitchfork for pie,
trident for tuna salad,
savior of sticky fingers,
heed my dishwasher’s voice:
steer clear of the electric disposal,
mangler of metal utensils,
mortuary of soup spoons and knives.
I am young but a wise witness.
I’ve heard the clank and crunch,
the torture chamber for leftovers
churn and churn. Burn this
into your stainless steel mind:
the left sink is death,
a black hole with sharp teeth.
Beware! You will never
spear lettuce again!
For my very young students (kindergarten and early grades), I teach rhyme by distributing a word to every student. I then shout a word from up front. Everyone who has a word that rhymes stands up and waves her/his card—a great, interactive way to get students talking about the joy of words and sound.
Getting students up and moving often motivates them to observe and describe more closely. This is true for my college students as well. Although they are not as eager to “prance,” “jog,” or “meander” around the classroom, muscle movement encourages brain movement. It’s all about proportion. At the university level, I allow much more time for brainstorming and writing, but still include a bit of time for the all-important element of motion. For example, to teach simile, metaphor, and extended metaphor, we may discuss Robert Francis’ poems “The Pitcher” and “Catch” by asking fans and athletes to use their expertise to analyze each line, sometimes while using a Nerf ball to act out the poem. I also have asked participants to bring up an object on their person—a water bottle, a cell phone, a ring, a notebook, an umbrella—that we then use as our starting point for writing extended metaphor poems.
At the college level, when discussing jargon and extended metaphor, I might use e. e. cummings’ “she being brand new,” which leads to important conversations about the body and how women are/should be viewed. When I teach poems of address at LHU or a local high school, we might use a poem like Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to My Hips,” then chat about image and identity. For exercises on point of view, I often begin with Sharon Olds’ evocative poem “Photograph of the Girl,” followed by students describing a chosen magazine photo from an assigned first person, second person, or third person point of view. For persona poems at the university level, I begin with Patricia Smith’s powerful “Skinhead,” accompanied by a session where students brainstorm and research ideas for poems by interviewing one another on personas that they’ve picked out of a hat: The abominable snowman, Amelia Earhart, Noah’s wife, Jackie Robinson, Jack the Ripper, Madame Curie, Steve Jobs, Beyoncé, and others. This exercise also can be adjusted for age.
When I teach sestinas, I draw on my experience with the kindergartners. Yes, really. Passing out cards with the six repeating words in the sestina, I ask chosen students to wave their cards whenever their word appears in the poem. Again, proportion is important. Such sometimes silly but effective devices could not be used exclusively at the university level, but they do stick in the students’ minds and underscore specific literary techniques. Thus, when I teach Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun,” I ask students, using the evidence in the poem and in their groups, to draw either Shakespeare’s or Petrarch’s beloved. (Warning: the results can be side-splitting.) However, I balance this with scholarship and a healthy conversation on the final couplet, including the various ways poets (and society) portray love and the beloved.
Even for those who do not consider themselves writers, it is helpful for students to get “inside” the poem and understand it from an author’s point of view. I find this especially true for Education majors, who can best learn figures of speech by employing them, before then teaching them (through writing or reading) to their own students. Yes, for many of us, writing poetry can be a very solitary act. But teaching the writing and reading of poetry for all ages takes mind and movement, as well as a teacher who is “all in” and engages her/his students to be “all in” as well. At the core of effective teaching is the same type of creativity used by the best writers. This is true for all levels of literature—children’s, MG, YA, and beyond. Whatever the level, allow yourself and your students time to think, move, experiment—and always time to enjoy each other and the poem.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.