Poetry Friday is surely my most subversive act of teaching. From the outside, you see a suspension of the regular routines of reading workshop. You see children sitting side-by-side with perhaps an unlikely reading partner reading poetry aloud to each other. For the last 20 minutes of the hour, you see children sharing poetry (with or without impromptu dramatization) with the rest of the class. Sometimes there is a piece of candy. Sometimes there is an iPod shooting video.
Here’s what’s really happening: authentic fluency practice, peer modeling, instruction in the fine art of effective oral communication (volume, diction, etc.), and the perfect opportunity for informal observation and assessment. And it’s fun.
I recently started hosting a mini Poetry Friday for our staff. There’s nothing subversive about what I’m doing for the staff, but it is quite interesting what can result from a simple agenda and an open mind.
Nuts and Bolts of Poetry Friday for Teachers
In a few months, J. Patrick Lewis will be our visiting author. Rather than adding a gigantic serving of Author Visit Preparation to our already-too-full teaching plates a few weeks before his visit, I wanted to get us started thinking about reading and writing poetry in a more leisurely, small-bites approach. We have a tradition of “Friday Treats in the Lounge,” so about ten minutes after our official arrival time, I get on the public address system and invite folks up to my room. We spend about 20 minutes together, leaving everyone with 10-15 minutes before the kids walk in for those last-minute morning preps. In our 20 minutes together, I aim for about 10 minutes of reading poetry and 10 minutes of writing poetry. For the folks who don’t bring their own notebook, I provide a mini-composition notebook and a pre-sharpened pencil.
Rather than inventing something brand new for the Staff Poetry Fridays, I am following the poetry “curriculum” I created for my fourth-grade writing workshop. We began with writing “15 Words or Less” poems. On the SmartBoard, I projected a picture of my cat standing at the front window, gazing intently out at the yard. I modeled by brainstorming some words and phrases, and then wrote a quick draft of a 15 Words or Less poem. Everyone brainstormed and wrote, and a few shared their poems. We ended by browsing the many J. Patrick Lewis poetry books in my collection.
Those who attended were palpably relieved that we were finished 10-15 minutes before the students came in. What I learned: small bites are good. Voluntary attendance is also good — only the people who really want to be there are there. There is no uncomfortable tension in the air, and nobody sits in the back playing Solitaire on their phone or grading papers.
We wrote haiku the next time we met. I again gave them an image (as I always do with my students), to help eliminate the “I can’t think of anything to write about” syndrome. I brainstormed words and phrases. We counted syllables together as I composed my draft. This time I showed them where I got my image (Pics4Learning.com), and talked a bit about getting my kids to use Creative Commons images whenever possible, and to always cite the website from which they borrow images, rather than just taking images from wherever they find them on the Internet. I opened the Keynote presentation software on my Mac computer, dropped my image into a slide, typed my haiku into the text box, and added the citation for the picture. I had the start of a digital poetry collection/portfolio. Everyone gave haiku a try, and we ended by browsing the few haiku books in my collection.
That small Keynote example was the biggest hit this week. It seems like we are either given all-encompassing technology in-services that overwhelm us with too much information and no ideas for application with young children, or we are left to figure things out for ourselves. Yet another reminder that small bites were good.
Banking on my success with Keynote the week before, the next week I showed the group the acrostic generator on Read Write Think. We read acrostics and explored how to write acrostics that say something, not just list random words that start with the letters of the vertical topic word.
Our second-grade teachers were on the lookout for a creative way for their students to report their Ohio’s Native Animals research. This acrostic generator was the right tool at the right time for them.
It was at this third session that we started talking about classroom teaching strategies for poetry (and by extension, strategies for reading and writing workshops in general). The first Poetry Friday session was a presentation with audience participation, and the second had more of a half-and-half give-and-take feeling. It wasn’t until the third session our time together started to feel like a conversation.
Big learning: conversations about classroom practice do not take place on demand. It takes time to build a trusting community for these conversations, and the best conversations might occur in a setting where the agenda is something on another topic altogether — poetry, for example. If it’s subversive to wind up with outcomes that don’t match your stated purpose, then maybe my Staff Poetry Fridays are subversive after all.