Scissors open and close like "angry alligators" and corn chips are as "salty as the sea" in Janet Bellavance's second-grade classroom. The 30-year teaching veteran is a big believer in encouraging her students at Burlington's Edmunds Elementary School to read and write poetry. Consequently, the descriptive language her students have produced over the years is a far cry from your garden-variety "Roses are red / Violets are blue..." sing-song verse.
Bellavance sees poetry as "self-expression" and "a way to work through things." No matter your age, she says, poetry "can help you understand yourself and the world."
As proof, she offers her students' reaction to Kalli Dakos' poem "Something Splendid," about a child who rips off the legs of a spider.
...I looked at those legs
How just this morning
With six other legs,
On a body
That snuggled so close
To the ground
It could probably hear
The earth's heartbeat...
Some of the kids laughed at the first lines, Bellavance recalls. But then she read further: The students' expressions changed, and Bellavance could see the poem "take their breath away."
How do young writers learn to produce such powerful poetry themselves? Local teachers suggest a few different strategies.
In addition to exposing them to good poetry, adults can help them to see the world through the eyes of a poet. Claire Noble, a first-grade teacher at Burlington's J.J. Flynn Elementary School, takes her students on a winter walk in the woods at the start of their poetry unit. Kids carry clipboards and charts to record sensory details such as the quality of light and the "crunch, crunch, crunch" of footsteps on snow so they can incorporate those observations in their poems.
When it's time to sit down and write, Libby Bonesteel, teacher development coordinator for the Essex Town School District, emphasizes word choice. She helps students contrast the way a scientist and a poet would describe a leaf, for example, and encourages students to use a rich vocabulary — or what she calls "delicious words."
Matt Hajdun, a fifth-grade teacher at Burlington's Champlain Elementary School, reads free verse aloud to debunk the commonly held belief that poetry must rhyme.
"I tell them that rhyming limits them," says Hajdun.
All of the teachers stress that kids will be more inclined to write if there's an audience for their poetry. Last year, Bellavance's class hung its poems around the school in places where students wait in line, such as the cafeteria. At the end of Noble's unit, students dress in black and read their original works at a school event attended by their families. Aziza Malik, a fifth-grade teacher at Champlain Elementary, has organized poetry slams at local coffeehouses, such as Radio Bean and Maglianero.
Sharing the beauty of language is important, says Bonesteel. "It gets them engaged and loving words, and that's what matters most — especially for the very young."