Getting started – writing
Your students may never have written poems before. That is absolutely no barrier! These exercises are for getting started with beginners or younger students but can be used with older grades as well.
For kids who have never written poetry (or teachers who have never taught it), a great way to begin is with class poems. This is where each child writes one line from a starter provided by the teacher, and then all the lines are put together. The teacher should help the process along a little by making suggestions for small improvements. But remember, at this point the kids don’t have much confidence in writing poems and discouragement is the last thing we want. Small improvements can be made by asking questions such as “Can you think of more words to describe that?”, “What else could you add to show everyone what you mean?”, “Do you have more of that picture in your head that we could put on the page?”
These questions are obviously about encouraging the child to write more, to create a bigger word picture. The picture will already be in their head – they just need help to put it into words. I like to describe poems as word pictures.
Suggestions for class poems
(These are starter lines, so every child uses the same starter to get going – it’s up to the teacher to decide if the repetition of the starter line will stay in the poem or become the title – some starter lines can become too dominant in the poem) :
If I could be any animal, I’d be… (the child should name the animal and say why, or use a description)
Example: If I could be any animal, I’d be a wombat, round and slow, sneaking out at night, burrowing in my hole.
Or: If I could be any animal, I’d be a cat because cats can balance on high fences, land on four paws and snooze in the sun.
I never told anyone … (can be an imaginary secret or a real one!)
Example: I never told anyone that I swam the Pacific Ocean and wrestled sharks and took a shark fin home for dinner
Or: I never told anyone that my baby name was Bighead.
People think … but really … (again, can be imaginary or real)
Example: People think I’m just a kid but really I’m hungry vampire with long red teeth
Or: People think I love dogs but really I want a pet pigeon that will always fly home to me.
Thirteen Ways of Looking At … (loosely based on the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird – the number depends on how many students contribute). You can choose your city or town, your school, the ocean, the world – subjects for this are limitless. This is a good poem to follow earlier, simple class poems as it allows them to spread their writing wings a bit and write longer segments, up to six or eight lines if they want.
When you have compiled a class poem, read it out to them (as teacher, you can decide on the order of their lines to provide variety), and then print it up and put it on the wall.
A poem doesn’t have to be long – the smallest poems can create very successful word pictures. A poem also doesn’t have to rhyme – it is very difficult to rhyme well and keep the rhythm smooth and flowing. Children think that a poem has to rhyme – I actively discourage rhymes in the beginning in order to free up their ideas and use of great language to express what they “see”. (Even in my poetry workshops with adult beginners I usually don’t allow them to rhyme! It can be so limiting and off-putting.)
Suggestions for small poems
If I could be any animal, I’d be… (the child should name the animal and say why, or use a description). This was listed in the class poems, but can be taken further into longer individual poems – encourage your students to think up at least three descriptions and/or reasons for choosing their animal.
I’d like to be a big brown bear
with a big brown growl
and four huge paws and claws
to hook fish right out of the river.
In winter, I’d curl up
in my deep, dark cave
and snore and dream
Five Things I Like About …
You can provide a list of possible subjects (my house, my friends, my school) for those who might be stuck, but you should also open this up to any subject the student chooses. This is a good poem to follow the earlier, simple class poem as it allows them to write in short bursts, one idea at a time. Again, encourage them to be descriptive, to provide reasons and embellishments.
A colour poem can work in two ways – either the student can choose one colour and write about how it makes them feel, what it reminds them of, what significant things are the chosen colour; or they can choose a number of colours and describe a feeling and/or description for each one.
Example: Blue makes me feel like I am floating in the sky,
Red makes me think of blood,
Gold makes me feel bold,
Green makes me feel like jumping through the grass,
Yellow makes me think of the early morning,
Black makes me think of smoke and fire.
Make up a monster! Not like any monster you’ve ever seen before. Put in all the scariest things you can think of – write your poem so everyone else can imagine your monster too. (This is a poem that helps students move away from TV and movies, into their own vast imagination – encourage them to come up with new possibilities.)
Example: The Stringaling
The Stringaling hides in the wardrobe
and eats coathangers,
he’s made of thick brown string
with long skinny arms
and long skinny legs.
He sneaks out at night
and ties you up
then winds his string around and around
and around you until
you’re dead like a mummy.
Students can draw pictures to go with their poems if you want them to, but not until the poem is completed – let them use the words to create the poems, and then read them out so that you share the word pictures first.
Moving on to poems that are a little more challenging…
Writing Poems by “Talking Back”
One of the best ways to learn how to construct a simple poem is to take someone else’s poem and use it as your structure. This is not cheating or copying, because you write your own version with your own ideas. For example your students could write their own poems based on William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”, but instead write about a topic of their choice. They use Willams’s simple one or two word lines as a starting point.
For a whole book on this topic, try Talking Back to Poems by Daniel Alderson. It has lots of examples and poems to use.
A haiku is a three-line poem with a total of 17 syllables (5/7/5). There are websites such as this that explain how to write a haiku and give a number of examples.
However, be careful of how you present these poems with “rules”. I have heard many a student groan at being asked to write haikus and tankas yet again (in other words, every year their teacher has used these as a fallback). You may find it better to leave these for a time when you can spend several lessons on exploring what traditional and contemporary haiku are, how they differ, and some variations such as the Australian rooku. (A rooku has no rules other than it’s three lines and has an Australian theme.)
First Lines/Last Lines
Give your students several first and last lines to choose from, then ask them to write a poem using the lines they have picked. If you like, you can use lines from published poems, or make up your own, or use mine:
This was not the day…
Beneath the bridge…
The photos on the piano…
In the small town, on the widest street…
In the mirror…
You must not call me…
…and the sound went on.
…you ended with nothing.
…painted on the wall.
…like the black night.
…too many flies in the soup.
…only you will know the answer.
…in the box.
There are many ways to use repetition in a poem:
1. Choose one word (e.g. nose, which can also be knows or nos) and use it at least ten times. It’s good to use a word that sounds the same but is spelled differently and has different meanings.
2. Repeat the same word or words at the beginning of each line. E.g. Someday I will, Can you hear, You will be, When I am – these are simple ones.
3. Write a line that can act as a refrain, then use it three or four times throughout the poem.
Write a poem in which you compare two opposite things (such as rocks and water, or smile and frown), or a poem about two completely different things (such as car and cloud, or tennis ball and snail). It’s often better to use concrete objects or actions rather than emotions or abstract concepts such as honesty or courage.