The Missouri Reader Vol. 40, Issue 1 - Page 33

Learning takes place when we add something new to our base of knowledge and prior experiences. When we ask students to choose writing from the long list of possibilities that vie for their attention, we’re expecting too much if, for them, writing does not bring pleasure. Readers who stumble at making sense of words strung together into sentences and paragraphs often find the shorter, more inviting lines of a poem easier to “get.” Other senses become involved. They hear the beat, feel the rhythm, and see the pictures.

Poetry teaches while it entertains. A letter from a little boy who was a struggling reader expresses what it feels like when words work their magic. “The words (in your poem) have a rhythm to them,” he wrote. “I can hear the beat in my head. Then when I get it down I read it out loud to myself.”

A six-year-old girl was given one of my books called Farmer’s Garden in which a dog interviews various inhabitants of his master’s garden. The girl sat on her mother’s lap and listened to the poetic interviews over and over. She read them silently to herself. She read them aloud. She asked an adult friend to sit down and listen to her read her new poems. She asked the adult to take turns reading with her. The little girl loved the words so much that she began acting out some of the parts, leaping and waving her arms and dancing in exuberant interpretations of what she heard and felt and saw in her imagination.

The following morning she took the book to school. There she organized her classmates into teams. As the book was read aloud, the children performed the girl’s choreographed movements. Was this youngster a struggling reader? I doubt it, but I’m willing to bet that some of her dancing classmates were, and her rambunctious joy in turning words into dance must surely have been good for every reader in the class, wherever they were along the reading scale.

Poems can convey moods, messages, and voices as broad and deep as the experience of being human. Sometimes the most serious among us feel like being silly. The most rambunctious have quiet moments; the classroom comic, his reflective times. We may feel certain emotions so deeply that we find them difficult to talk about. Being embarrassed, abused, poor, homeless, hungry, frightened, degraded, alone, are hard to discuss. Sometimes a poem can express what the tongue cannot. I remember being mortified


I tend to have paper and pen close by. I stash them in my bedroom, my car, and my pockets. If there’s anything I’m better at than recognizing million dollar ideas at unexpected times and places, it’s forgetting them if I don’t quickly scratch out a note.