Teaching Journal

Mr. Belz
School: Jackson Elementary, St. Louis, MO
Subject: poetry
Grades: 3-5

3/7/00 – The First Day

At 9:00 this morning I stood in front of a classroom full of kids — 19 of them in a moderate hubbub, rustling books and papers, dressed for school. The sunlit front of that third-floor classroom was perhaps the warmest place in the entire building, and I felt a trickle of sweat roll down my side. I taught four one-hour classes, three consecutively from nine to noon, then another after lunch.

The first part of my plan was Introductions. Breon, Demarko, Sylvester, Tinieria, Rafael, Tomonica, Gentry, I'Necia. It's a different world down there, and a different group of names. I asked the kids to stand up one by one and tell me their names and answer this question: if they could be animals, what kind would they be, and why? Of the 67 kids in four sections, only one refused to participate. Although there were a lot of "cat" and "dog" answers with no good explanation as to why, some kids really came out of their shells. Brianna said she wanted to be a butterfly, because they are colorful and can fly. Latanya wanted to be a tiger, because they eat people. Several kids in different classes said they wanted to be koalas, and there were also eels, gorillas, seals, a shark and a zebra.

To segue into the second part of my plan, What poetry is, I told them that what we had just done was essentially a poetic exercise. We had taken some knowledge that was useless on its own — their names — and brought it to life with a comparison. I told them that they had just written little poems, and not realized it. They thought that was really cool.

We talked a little bit about what they had been doing with Mrs. Wertsch (my predecessor), with whom they had read Langston Hughes and written imitative verse. I asked them to tell me what they thought "a poem can do," and I wrote their answers on the board. Oddly, each class seemed to a take a different group approach to this question. The first section was stumped; I had to prod them for answers. The section after lunch, by contrast, was nearly perfect and almost comprehensive in their group definition of a poem. I told them that one thing a poem can do is tell a story, wacky or serious.

The first poem I used to illustrate this was an excerpt from Seuss's I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, which I read aloud, walking around holding it up so they could see the pictures. I read, "I stubbed my big toe/ on a very hard rock/ and I flew through the air/ and I went for a sail/ And I sprained the main bone/ In the tip of my tail!" One boy in the front row just shook his head and muttered, "man, that's tight."

Before I read the second poem to them, I asked them which sport will start in St. Louis in three weeks. In every class, three or four of them chorused, "BASEBALL!" I asked them why I in particular might like baseball, and one of them said, "Because you look like Mark McGwire." For the sections that didn't get it, I added, "Who do I look like?" Many of them were convinced I must be related to the ruddy slugger (I have a red goatee). I said, "Yeah, but I have bigger muscles, so I couldn't be him." They shrieked. I then read aloud, and rather dramatically, "Casey at the Bat," which is much funnier than I had remembered. They loved it, despite its strange verbiage ("dun sphere" for instance), and were surprised when I told them it had been written over 100 years ago.

At this point I was about 1/2 hour into the lesson, and almost out of prepared material. The third part of my plan was a rather loosely-organized discussion of Liking poetry. I asked them if they liked it, and tried to get them to tell me why. I went back to the chalkboard and pointed to the list of things we had said a poem can do, and asked them, yes but how does it do these things? One girl said, "through faith." One said, "belief." Both good answers, but there was always someone who came up with the answer: through words. I told them that I started writing poetry because of the words themselves, all through college, and even went to two years of school just for poetry. Then I read them a cleaned-up version of "Hank Strange and the Natural Spatula," which they loved!! One class chanted, "Again! Again!" When the dust settled, I asked them, "Did you like it?" Everyone nodded, and I asked, "What did it mean?" Silence. One boy timidly raised his hand… "Machines?" I replied, "Right! What else did it mean?" Another kid said, "Going downtown?" I said, "Right!" and told them that it was like music, like jazz, it just sounds good and it means whatever you want it to mean.

Still about 20 minutes left to go in the hour, so I had to think quick. I looked at next week's lesson (on rhyming) and came up with an impromptu exercise related to "Hank Strange" that would introduce them to the fun of rhyming. First I told everyone to think of a word and keep it to themselves. "Make sure it's a good word," I said as I erased the chalkboard. Once you're sure, I told them, raise your hand and I'll call on someone. They concentrated and a few hands arose. In each class, someone was able to come up with a good word – one of them was "rock," one was "believe," one "shoe" – which I wrote on the board and drew a box around. Then I said, "Now tell me words that rhyme with it," and every hand shot up. They excitedly thought of dozens of rhymes, which I wrote on the board all around the box of the original word. I allowed slant rhymes. Once the board filled up (!) I said, "Now. Who thinks we can make one sentence out of all those words?" Some kids jumped out of their desks and said, "No WAY, man!!" I said, well how about several sentences, and asked them to think hard again and come up with a sentence that had at least three of the rhyming words in it. The result of this was terrific, and the kids were very creative. At the end, I had them take turns coming up and reading aloud the group-written tongue-twister to the class. Here's an example:

Source word: BELIEVE

Rhymes: leave, Steve, conceive, achieve, feed, cheese, seed, me, breathe, receive, see, steam, eve, tease, read, TV, flee, flea

Result: "See me flee. I will watch TV and read on Christmas Eve. We will leave to go get the cheese. Dave will tease Steve. I will receive a flea on Christmas Eve. Me, my mom, and Steve will taste the cheese. I believe we can achieve. I saw Eve on TV. I cannot breathe when I eat cheese."

Every time a kid finished reading the class-poem aloud, everyone applauded. I told them that the thing I wanted most for them is to have perfect freedom to write things that don't make sense, because I want them to think about how a poem means what it means. Their books (segue to the final part of the plan, What we're going to do in this class) should be filled with funny words, rhyming words, opposites, comparisons, riddles, tongue-twisters, and also some "real tight poems." They laughed, but I believe they got my drift.

Well, that took us to within five minutes of the end of the class, and so I asked if anyone had questions. In one of the classes, there were still 12 minutes left, so I finished reading "Solla Sollew" aloud.

3/14/00 – Silverstein, the aborted "rhyming bee," and our first writing exercise

New workbooks

I came into class this morning carrying a large Bounty box full of 75 spiral-bound workbooks entitled The Right Time for Tight Rhyme. I'd spent the past several weeks creating the prototype, and the kind ladies of Springboard had helped copy and assemble them – overall, a lot of work. So foisting them on the students was momentous. The book’s title alludes to the hilarious comment from last week. Of course, the kids loved the title, which they whispered in waves as I handed it out, and quickly flipped through the book and found the LL Cool J lyrics slated for week eight.

But they were not uncontrollably interested, and this would prove to be a much more mundane day of teaching. The first thing I did was to tell each class to turn to page one. I asked that someone read the words at the top: "Fable of Contents." In each class, someone knew the meaning of the word "fable," and together we figured out how that could be an acceptable but differently-nuanced substitute for "table." This may have gone over their heads. Some of the older female 5th graders rolled their eyes at the very idea of "fable of contents," as they were far maturer than the rest of us.

The poem of the day

The second thing we did was read the poem of the day — Silverstein’s "If the World Was Crazy." There are three stanzas to this poem, so I asked three volunteers come to the front, provided they could "read well" and promised to project their voices loudly. In each class, at least 2/3 of the students wanted to come up and read. These kids aren’t shy. And the readings themselves were successful. Kids got stuck on "licorice," understandably, and "eclair." A couple of the children read really well. One girl, Ronnesha, shouted her stanza so loud that the others giggled, but she was such an incredibly cute third grader. She had about thirty little brightly-colored barrettes which clicked when she wiggled her neck.

After we'd read the poem, we read a bio of Shel Silverstein that I'd found online. I told them that I had a picture of this weirdo, which I would show them after we read about his life; that kept them interested. In the bio itself, I eliminated the reference to his working for an "adult magazine" but did tell them he was from Chicago, made a living by drawing cartoons, and also wrote a lot of lyrics and music, some of them for movies. I told them that Silverstein developed his very own writing style at a young age and was unfamiliar with the poetry of the great poets of his time; I read them this quote, "I was so lucky that I didn't have anyone to copy, be impressed by. I had developed my own style, I was creating before I knew there was a Thurber, a Benchley, a Price and a Steinberg. I never saw their work until I was around thirty." So, I told them, the lesson is, you don't have to know much about poetry to write it well. (And it's true, you really don’t.)

Then we moved back into "If the World Was Crazy" in order to discuss the content of the poem. I asked the class, what were the three ways this guy was crazy – EATING, WEARING, and DOING, they answered with little prodding. But what was wrong with the things he wanted… what made those things crazy?? What were your favorites? The funniest? What did you like about this poem? We had a fairly productive discussion, in which the kids decided that it wasn't just silly stuff they thought was funny, it was silly stuff plus rhyming that was especially funny. Why? "It just sounds good!" was a common answer.

What is rhyme?

So we left the poem for awhile, and ventured into the territory of rhyme itself. I taught them about three different kinds of rhyme that poets use when writing. I stressed that they didn't have to remember the specific names for these rhymes, but they should know that they're all okay and even encouraged when writing. The first was perfect rhyme, such as most of the rhymes in the poem. We talked about the meaning of the word perfect. Kids thought it meant "with no mistakes" or "very good." I wrote on the board their examples of perfect rhyme (mostly culled from the Silverstein poem). The second kind of rhyme was slant rhyme. I had the class say it aloud, and said, "If the first one is perfect, what do you think slant rhyme is?" To which one boy responded, "Bad? No good?" I said, sort of. "Not perfect?" volunteered one; ah, the wonders of a leading question. Then I read them a poem I'd written especially for the occasion, to illustrate slant rhyme:

Near the Slant

There was plenty of rain
out on the range
where the buffalo roam
and dangle their tongues.
Wet were the bison
who ate nothing but raisins,
and in their great wisdom
saw beautiful visions.

I wrote "rain" and "range" on the board, and we discussed how the rhyme's not perfect, yet the words still sound the same. Again with "bison" and "raisins", I said. Some of the students got it, but I fear this discussion went over a lot of heads. But when I reread the poem, stopping before the end of each line, the whole class chorused the right end-words! Kids seem to have a miraculous aural memory. I closed the slant-rhyme discussion by saying, "See, sometimes poets can't think of a perfect rhyme, and it's okay to use a slant rhyme. Try to find a word that sounds kind of like the other word."

The third and final variety of rhyme – and again, I stressed that it was only the idea that counts, not the word itself – was assonance. I just wanted to show them that it's wonderful to rhyme words all over the place, not just at the ends of lines. Poetry should bounce. I reminded them of "Hank Strange" and then read this little dandy:

The Man with Fat Hands

There is a man with fat hands.
His fingers are so thick,
he can't fit them into mitts.
He stuffs them into gloves,
but the dumb gloves split!
So he can't go anywhere cold.
The man with fat hands has a tan.

This one they liked. In each class I had one student to volunteer to explain the logic of the story, and each volunteer did it well. Then I wrote the last line on the board, and asked people to count how many times one particular sound occurs in the poem. Usually the first guess was three; "man," "fat," and "tan." I said, "But there are more!" We'd finally get to five, and I circled each occurrence, then connected them with lines, which created a giant messy star – a physical representation of the sounds in the line.

We finished the rhyme topic by returning to the question, "But WHY do poets use rhyme?" They answered, "it's funny" or "it just sounds good." I spent about 30 seconds explaining the oral tradition, and that things that rhyme are easier to remember.

The rhyming bee

Originally designed to get their rhyme-motors running, this exercise lasted through only the first two classes, and then I ditched it. I had the kids line up in two lines on the left and right of the front of the room. The rules: the first kid in the left line says a word, the first kid in the right line comes up with a rhyme; if a rhyme can't be made, then the left kid can say a second word, and the right kid can try to rhyme that one. If that ends in failure, then both kids have to sit down! (This put the fear of God into them.) However, I added, everyone else in the room is eligible to help out, if either player should get stuck. The kids loved this exercise, and a lot of good rhymes came out of it. Some of them very creative. But it did not prepare them to sit at their desks and write a poem, which I what I really wanted them to do, so I think next time around, I'll save this for later in the semester.

The first writing exercise

Here is where I think I really stumbled as a new teacher, and where I have a lot to learn about kids. I find it no challenge at all to get them jazzed about poetry, but turning that excitement into individual, self-sustaining creativity is going to be the hard part.

In the first two classes, we only had about 15 minutes left to tackle this, so some of the kids ended the period with nothing at all on their writing page. Also, the instructions I gave in the first two sections were too vague: think of a subject, it could be anything at all; I said, like the lights or the floor, the walls or the door. Like your family, like where you live. Come up with a subject – that means "what the poem's about" – and write the subject at the top of the page. Then write a few words related to that subject. Such as, if your subject is your dog, you might write "bark," "growl," "run," "dig." Then think of rhymes for those words, and begin writing! Oh boy. I knew they were adequate rhymers, in the right context, but thinking of anything at all original outside of the group seemed impossible for most of them. Most of them couldn't even think of a subject. Some had the word "subject" written in their workbook. Perhaps a fourth of them did catch on, and even wrote poems, but that's not good enough. It should have been most of them.

So in the third and fourth classes, I modified my approach. Making use of the ten minutes vacated by the abandoned "rhyming bee," I really worked with the third class to understand the instructions and lead them into the assignment. I wrote on the board a dummy exercise, using "dog". I wrote DOG at the top, then a margin line down the left side of the board. To the left of the margin line, I wrote a list of words the kids thought up related to DOG. Then, I had the kids think up rhymes for each word. Then we wrote a little poem: "My dog does not bark/ He was injured by a shark." I said, "But now 'dog' is off limits." The third class did better at this, but the fourth class I do not know about, because my instruction was cut short by a city-wide tornado drill, so the classroom teacher is going to give them some time between now and next Tuesday to work on it.

In all of the classes, we'll carry on with the first writing assignment next Tuesday, until a majority of the kids feel that they have something under their belts. I don't want them to waste the opportunity.

Hogan Street and thereabouts

The school building itself is remarkable. It was built in 1899, brick with a stone foundation and finished wood trim. Large Corinthian columns flank the entryway, and the stairs’ stone treads show worn welts of a hundred years of parents dragging children to class. At the roof line, above the front door, a large white stone is engraved, "JACKSON SCHOOL." Standing in the bright March morning, it is really a detailed building, an impressive piece of St. Louis history. Inside, 14-foot ceilings add majesty to the learning environment, as do fourteen-foot plain oak benches, moments of stained glass, and large arched windows.

I left my car keys in a locked room during lunch, so I had a long walking tour of the neighborhood. The immediate vicinity of Jackson School consists of either newish community developments or 100-year-old rowhouses, none in very good condition. All around, there are clusters of city blocks with nothing but trash-strewn lots, boarded-up buildings, and the occasional gas station. I walked north about six blocks to a small grocery, Bob's, with large signs advertising, "We accept food stamps" and "We cash checks".

Farther north on Hogan Street, there is a beautiful church building – a huge cathedral, actually. It is a Catholic church built in the 1930's, back when this must have been a swinging part of town. There is a rectory and another building on the property. However, the cathedral itself is missing many windows and looks as if it has not been used for worship in many years.

Southwest of Jackson School is the old Falstaff Brewery, which has been converted into loft-style apartment for students.



3/21/00 – Acrostics

The looks on the kids' faces when I came into the classroom this morning were priceless. Smiles, papers rustling, whispers of it's Mr. Belz. Kids tugging my sleeve volunteering to hand out workbooks. Mr. Bell's third graders even broke out cheering! The fact that it's Springboard day gets them instantly jazzed. So teaching them is not only easy, it is a delight.

We began by recapping last week's topic – I asked them to tell me all about it. They mostly said rhyme and Shel Silverstein, though one said Casey at the Bat? and looked around quizzically. One girl recalled having learned about "slant rhyme" and even defined it. I am glad to see that the lesson was not lost on them, at least for seven days following. Oh, and they all wanted to do the "rhyming bee" again, and I told them maybe another day.

Today's topic was a gimme; the kids learned a lot and had fun in the process. I am indebted to Susan Maynor for recommending acrostics as one of the first exercises. In each class I had several kids come to the front and read aloud the poem of the day:


Cool, delicate ice cream
Half melting in my dish
On a brownie,
Curlicue spirals
Of semisweet on top,
Lingering tastes
As I eat through the dish
To the very end,
Every bite is a treat.

As you can see, it's lame. I found it online somewhere. It does, however, introduce the kids to this poetic device using subject matter that's naturally interesting to them. Readers had trouble with these words: "delicate," "curlicue," "spirals," "semisweet," and "lingering." Most kids said "delicious" in place of delicate, and many had not even heard the words "curlicue" and "lingering." One boy substituted "spearmint" for "semisweet."

The second thing we did was to discuss whether they liked the poem, and what it was about. They liked it, they said, because it made them hungry. Most said it was about "ice cream" or "chocolate." One girl raised her hand to say she couldn't figure out what it was about; I didn't believe her, and neither did her classmates. I told them that in an acrostic the vertical letters are the subject of the poem. We like "Chocolate" because it not only describes a chocolatey dessert, it uses the word "chocolate" to organize the poem. I said it was like a game; they got it.

Then we did a group acrostic. In the first three classes I wrote "MR BELZ" vertically on the board, and let them shout out ideas. I told them that whatever they said had to be about me. A third grade group came up with:

Mark McGwire
Runs faster; he's always

Busy at baseball. He
Eats a lot of Big Macs.
Lots of people like him. The ball
Zooms over the wall.

I was sad to see that they think I'm slower than McGwire. Obviously, they've never seen me run.

We also did a poem of one or more of the kids' names (this exclusively in the last class). Here's an example:

Young lady

They loved this exercise. If you ever teach acrostic to elementary school kids, be sure to have them do group exercises with each others' names.

About thirty minutes to go. Due to last week's time catastrophe, I planned this class to contain less teaching time and more writing time, so the next thing we did was to dive into the day's assignment. I had a plastic bag full of small neon-pink slips of paper with words written vertically on them. Each student had to shut his/her eyes and select one. They included: ICE CREAM, BANANA PIE, TURTLE SOUP and PIG FEET. This was a huge hit, as I have discovered that children love to reach into grab-bags. It fills them with glee. The kids that got TURTLE SOUP and PIG FEET had their worlds come crashing down around them. The kids with ICE CREAM and BANANA PIE leapt from their desks triumphantly. Then, they all plunged into writing.

I was careful and explicit when giving the instructions: write the word you selected down the side of your page; write the title and your name at the top (there are blanks in the workbook). Then think about your subject – is it something you'd like to eat? Something you eat with a spoon or a fork? Put ketchup on it? Picture eating it. Write what comes to mind…

This worked! They spent a lot of time, and needed a lot of help. It was amazing how often some of them got stuck – practically every word. But I nudged them gently forward, sometimes supplying three or four entire lines for their poems. I didn't care too much about originality; I wanted them to be involved in creating finished poems that they could be proud of, written down, and in their books. Here is an example of a poem by a 3rd grader, this one with no help from me:

by I'Neicia M. #212

Pig feet is nasty,
Ice cream is better,
God knows I do not like pig feet,

Forget about eating pig feet,
Eat pig feet? not me,
Eating pig feet is like eating my feet,
Tease me with pig feet, I do not care,
       I would rather pull down my

I love two things about this poem: it's funny, and it riffs. I told them to do both of these things. I said, really let go of yourself when you write; just be true to your feelings. And also, be funny. That's the way to people's hearts. I'Neicia repeats the words "pig feet" throughout the poem, saying exactly what she has to to get her point across, and then just rolls out that last line, convention and embarrassment be damned. What's more, she volunteered to read it aloud and did so with gusto. A vehement denunciation of pig feet as food. One more thing: I refuse to change the title and first line, not only because I think "pig feet" as an entrée is singular, but because this is I'Neicia's accurate expression. This is her word.

I am glad to say that all but maybe two of the kids finished an acrostic poem – one girl wrote five. With five or more minutes to spare, I asked how they had done on the prior week's poem, and most of them had finished that as well. The classroom teachers had given them time to write in their workbooks during the week, and they had done well at it! One of the tiniest fourth-graders ever, Markeith Brown, read the following:


My family fell asleep
And I was ready to eat.
My dad always talk
And my sisters like to walk.
I like to play
I like to play for the rest of the day.
My mom think she can cook
And she think she can look.
My dad can drive
And I always dive.
My friend knock on the door
And I am doing the floor.
My sister likes pots
But everytime she get too hot.
My dad cook in pans
And I ran.
My dad bought a car
And I ran to Mars.
My family has a bed
And my snake always shed.

Markeith had followed my directions to the letter, writing his subject at the top, then in the left margin a list of words related to his topic, then pairing each of those with a rhyme, then creating sensible/insane couplets for these words. I saw his worksheet (in fact, I took it from him and put it in my folio.)

The poem itself needs revising if it hopes to catch the attention of New Yorker, but still it works in a lot of ways. And I don't think I'm being too postmodern here. Markeith gives us a rather oblique view into his family life. There is tension between each of his parents and the rest of the family: "mom think she can cook" and "dad can drive/ And I always dive" – really, very well expressed. Watch out when Dad tries to cook, however. Also, watch out when Dad buys a car. I think this kid has natural talent and that he thinks like a writer, but it's only my third week on the job, so I guess we'll see.

In related news, my fourth class, the one that previously had been interrupted by a tornado drill, had a live egg hatching while I was there. A terrible distraction. All the classes have incubators in them, with six or eight eggs. After the beak emerged, every child descended on the scene in seconds flat. After all, they had been waiting weeks for this to happen. My teacher politely covered the incubator with a piece of velvet cloth, but we could still hear squeaks and scratches throughout the period.

4/4/00 – Questions

Photos from today.

Today the school was crawling with tutors and Haitians. Apparently, it will be that way for a month. (I am as confused as you are.) There was a conflict-resolution class in my first section, and I waited for thirty minutes and then gave up, running the rest of my classes 1/2 hour ahead of schedule.

I began by asking the kids what they remembered from previous weeks. What does a poem do? How does it do it? I wrote the answers on the board. Then I asked, what did I just do? Silence. So I prompted, "I asked …" "Questions!" they shouted. "And what do you do when people ask you questions?" "Answer!" they shouted. "So," I continued, "questions are a way of getting people to think of things on their own, digging into their own minds and memories." They seemed to latch onto this. I explained that questions can be used in poems to accomplish the same thing.

The rest of the class period was straightforward. I read them six or seven question poems, mostly by Silverstein. For the first one, I wrote answers on the board, "I can! I did! I will! I might!", then read each question, "Who can kick a football/ From here out to Afghanistan?" "I CAN!!" they answered. "Who fought tigers in the street/ While all the policemen ran and hid?" "I DID!!" etc., etc. (Where the Sidewalk Ends)

The most popular one I read was Silverstein's "Zebra Question" (A Light in the Attic):

I asked the zebra,
Are you black with white stripes?
Or white with black stripes?
And the zebra asked me,
Are you good with bad habits?
Or are you bad with good habits?
Are you noisy with quiet times?
Or are you quiet with noisy times?
Are you happy with some sad days?
Or are you sad with some happy days?
Are you neat with some sloppy ways?
Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?
And on and on and on and on
And on and on he went.
I'll never ask a zebra
About stripes

One clever girl said she was bad with bad habits — inflected like that. Sassy.

The essential question poem for this age group is Silverstein's "What's in the Sack?" (Where the Sidewalk Ends), which is a series of questions about what a man has in a bag he is carrying. In the accompanying cartoon, the sack is about 4 times as big as the man carrying it. "Is it two years worth of your dirty laundry,/ Or the biggest ol' meatball that's ever been cooked?" Kids like these kinds of questions.

We then read the feature poem of the day, Louis Untermeyer's "Questions at Night." In each class I had three kids come up to the front and read a stanza or so. This poem presented them with reading difficulties. They stumbled on words such as "hungrily" and "pasture". Then I gave them a dramatic reading of the whole thing so they'd have it ringing in their ears as they went into their writing exercise.

The assignment was simple, and I told them so. Start with "Why _______?" and end with the same question. Come up with something to fill in the blank, and in between, ask every question you can think of about that subject. School, the moon, hamburgers, friends, television, sports. You think of a topic and write it in the blank. Then, ask questions about it. If you get stuck, think of the variety of kinds of questions there are: beginning with who, why, which, where, how, is, do, etc. End every line with a question mark. (I really pounded these simple rules.)

Walking around as they worked, I spotted some hilarious things. The first time I walked by William's desk, in Mr. Bell's class, he had written this as his first line: "Why are there girls in this world?" Later I passed by again and noticed he had changed it to, "Why are there ugly girls in this world?" He was giggling. When it came his turn to read aloud at the end of the period, he read the first line and then doubled over with laughter, unable to finish.

Andrea, in Mrs. Jones' class, had written: "Is that leather you're wearing? Why are you Irish, Lisa?" One kid had, "Why do people keep their hair up nine or ten weeks?" Another, "Why do your shoes talk? Is your hair nappy?" And my personal favorite, written and then crossed out: "Why do some girls and some ladies wear hoochie mama shorts?"

There was also some wonderful and more serious work. In Mrs. Jones' class, Terence Blue wrote:

What makes me do the things I do?
What do I do?
Why am I so nice and smart?
How do I think?
Where am I?

Here are two complete poems written by the kids today. I hope you will see why I am thrilled to get this level of creativity and completeness.

by Steven Richardson

Why are my classmates so ugly?
Why is Matthew so lazy?
Why does Ashly look like a big fat rat?
Why does Lisa wear rosey reds?
Why does Lydia sleep in a bed?
Why does me and David wear fake earrings?
Why is Latonya so, so black?
Why are my classmates so ugly, and that is that?

by Lydia Beck

Why do people go to sleep?
Why do they brush their teeth?
Why do some people pee in the bed?
Why don't people take baths at night?
Where do you sleep?
What about the floor?
Is it sticky?
Does it have juice on it?
Why don't you sleep there?
Does it smell like dirty toe jam?
Does it smell like a wet puppy?
Why do people go to sleep?

And here's one from the prior week, which I failed to record. Katisha Branom's acrostic for "turtle soup":

Taste nasty
Ugly looking
Really gross
Taste good to some people
Last a long time
Eat it if you're crazy

Smells bad
Opposite of tasting good
Usually left on plates
People hate to buy it

And finally, here's one from a sweet little fourth-grader who (I think) was trying to be funny — exactly as he printed it:

Why did they build school
Why school is a daster
Why teacher are dad
Why did they build school

Why is school good
Why is school for children
Why is it a school called Jackson is ti Michal Jackson
Why is school good

The last words of lines two and three are "disaster" and "bad."

4/18/00 – List Poetry

Last week I didn't teach, since all the classes were in the midst of testing. Stanford Achievement Tests. Testing is vitally important for Jackson School, as it is for all the City of St. Louis public schools, because they lost their state accreditation last fall. Dot-matrix printed signs around the building say "Destination Accreditation." Faculty and staff are hoping for a drastic improvement in students' test scores, or some of them might lose their jobs.

Today's first class, Mrs. Jones's third graders, couldn't have been more hectic. I truly felt like sitting down and putting my papers away. Some of the kids who are usually very attentive were running around yelling at each other. One boy and girl in the back continued to talk loudly with one another. And whenever I told everyone to be quiet — "Hush! Be Quiet!" — I'm not very good at it — the boy repeated in a nasal voice exactly what I said, while the girl snapped to mock attention. She nodded and smiled in an exaggerated way as we returned to the material. In the third section, Mrs. Compton was receiving cell phone calls during class, talking loudly as I tried to teach. And then she told some of my students to do some cleaning in the back of the room. These experiences caused me to doubt the relevance of my being there. Why poetry and not just a raft of quaaludes? It's wrong to ask such questions.

On the extreme other hand, two Springboard to Learning board members sat in Mr. Bell's class, the second section. The class went very well. At the end, two students presented me with a certificate of appreciation!! They read little notecards they had been given. It almost made me weep.

Today's topic was "list poetry," a concept I hadn't heard of until Martha Stegmeier (of Springboard) lent me Larry Fagin's The List Poem. This genre is also referred to as "catalog verse." One of the prime examples of a list poem is John Ashbery's fantastic "Into the Dusk-Charged Air," a long meditation on every major river in the world. Here's an excerpt:

Far from the Rappahanock, the silent
Danube moves along toward the sea.
The brown and green Nile rolls slowly
Like the Niagara's welling descent.
Tractors stood on the green banks of the Loire
Near where it joined the Cher.
The St. Lawrence prods among black stones
And mud. But the Arno is all stones.

I began by asking the kids, what is a list? One responded, "words in a line on a page like this" (motioning vertically), another "things you are trying not to forget." Great, I said, a list is a way of remembering stuff. General concord. Then I asked them to tell me about specific kinds of lists. They mentioned invitation list, grocery list, and Christmas list. One boy said, "A traveling list?" I said, "You mean, things you want to take with you when you travel?" He nodded. "Okay," I said, and put it on the board.

But I wanted them to focus on Christmas list, and so I wrote it in big letters on the other half of the chalkboard. I asked them to tell me what they wanted for Christmas. Every class said Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo 64, two classes mentioned cellular phones and pagers, and here are some other requests:

Pokemon clothes and shoes
Lincoln Navigator
BB gun
big old bag of money
big screen TV
boom box
Sony Playstation

Gold? I asked. "Just pure gold," the girl said, rather dreamily. Then I said, okay, great. If you got all this would you be happy? They were divided. I said, "Now I want to tell you what I want for Christmas," and wrote "MR BELZ" next to the Christmas list:

supplies (a student suggested this!)

In Mr. Bell's class, as soon as I wrote "things," a couple of kids simultaneously said, "What kind of things?" and as I wrote, more and more chanted, until the whole class was responding, "WHAT KIND OF OBJECTS? WHAT KIND OF MATERIAL?" I asked them what was wrong with my list. They knew but couldn't articulate. I prompted: "It needs to be more spec…" They shouted, "IFIC!!" I told them that the best lists in the world are very, very specific. They supply detail. They are vivid, colorful.

Then we talked about list poetry, about how a list can create a lot of imagery and sound, and also tell people about your life. I read aloud the aforementioned Ashbery poem. I was sure it would fly over their heads, but it had them silent. So many proper names mesmerizes any right-thinking human. Then I read them my own "Abelard Conspiracy," which had them transfixed. I read it walking around like a madman. I am glad to finally find an audience that understands my poetry. I concluded by reading a selection from Fagin's book, written by some of his fourth-graders, called "Grandpa Dynamite." A selection:

Hair like sticks of dynamite
Forehead like a pistachio basketball
Eyebrows like velvet frankfurters
Eyes like corduroy bowling balls
Nose like a bloodshot needle
Ears like silk hamburgers...

They loved it, and were encouraged to hear that other fourth graders, in another part of the country, in another time, appreciated weirdness and humor as much as they do.

About 30 minutes remained in the period, so it was time to switch gears to the day's assignment. "Hector the Collector" by Shel Silverstein. There's not a lot to love in that poem, in my opinion. But it is bouncy and gives the kids a chance to read in front of the class. Seriously though, it's a dumb poem.

The exercise evolved into a kind of matching game, which began as a class-participation event and ended with them working individually. The basic idea was to come up with a list as a class, and write a poem about it. Larry Fagin had his students do the entire exercise as a class, but the kids at Jackson seem to thrive on writing individually, so I let them have at it. My rules were as follows:

The turbulent first section yielded little in the way of good poetry. As Fagin says, the best environment for a writing class is, "an easygoing but orderly ambience — congenial, with a sense of shared fun and excitement." All the other sections produced stunning work, especially the last one, Mrs. Palsenberger's fourth and fifth graders.

With each section, I added some twist to the rules. In the second section, we came up with two categories and wrote sentences that included something from each list. I told them to begin each sentence with "I saw…" The categories they came up with were "clothes" and "animals." I told them to be very, very specific, and they said:

stinky green Nautica socks
ratty Tommy pants
old Old Navy shirt
new Polo dress
clean high-top basketball shoes
old Polo pants

The animals were just as varied. Then they worked individually for awhile and produced wonderful lines such as, "I saw an sharp-toothed lion wearing clean, high-top basketball shoes." One young man ended his poem, "That's my list, and it's ghetto fabulous."

The fourth section chose the categories "singers" and "candy." I added more rules. End each sentence with where you saw this take place. And for the singers, I said, you also have to tell me whether they're ugly or good looking. Here are the lists:


Eve, good looking
Monica, ugly
Whitney Houston, good looking
Drama, unspecified
Michael Jackson, ugly
Shanice, ugly
Sisqo, good looking
Lil Wayne, cute
Ginuwine, good looking


Laffy Taffy
3 Musketeers
Hershey Cookies and Cream
Sweet Tarts
Jolly Ranchers
Cry Baby

So the assignment for this class was to write a poem comprised of sentences structured this way: "I saw (singer) eating (candy) (and then say where)." The kids had a ball, and when they read aloud to each other, there was genuine laughter. I will conclude today's journal entry with some samples of their work. As you can see, they broke the rules wonderfully.

by Asia Martin

I saw good lookin Ginuwine knocking on my door eating dog food.
I saw a beat up Winnie the Pooh asking for some ice in the bee tree.
I saw cute Sisqo singing his thong song eating Cry Babies
I saw ugly Michael Jackson eating his corn and beans at the back of his head.


by Tyrasha Grinds

I saw ugly Monica eating 26 Laffy Taffys in her house because she was mad.
I saw Eve eating Hershey Cookies and Cream.
I saw Michael Jackson bleaching himself in the bathtub and eating Skittles.
I saw Sisqo smacking on some Starburst.
I saw Whitney Houston eating Sweet Tarts in the trash can.


by Markeith Brown

I saw Mr. Belz eating Laffy Taffys in my bathroom.
And I saw good looking Eve eating Skittles in my bedroom bed.
I saw ugly Shanice eating M&Ms in my tub.
I saw Sisqo eating Starburst in my sink.
And Monica was eating 3 Musketeers in my dining room on the table.
I saw Ginuwine eating sweet tarts under my bed.


by Marquita Johnson

I saw Pooh doo-dooing in the tarlet singing doo da diddy diddy dum diddy doo.
I saw Tweety just looking so cute singing doo da diddy diddy dum diddy doo.
I saw Chucky chasing after Mrs. Palsenberger singing doo da diddy diddy dum diddy doo.
I saw Michael Jackson bleaching his self singing doo da diddy diddy dum diddy doo.
I saw Freddy Cougar chasing after Jason singing doo da diddy diddy dum diddy doo.

Marquita won our hearts today, if she hadn't already, by actually singing the "doo da diddy" part of her poem at the end of each line. To the panic-level laughter of her classmates.

4/25/00 – Similes

I had heard from Susan Maynor that elementary school kids have difficulty learning similes and metaphors, but since comparison is so fundamental to writing, I wanted to teach it anyway. I suspected that even elementary-aged people use comparison all the time in conversation, though they aren't necessarily aware of it. I came armed with a couple of very easy exercises to try out on them.

First I went about as far out on a limb as I would go with them theoretically. I led them to a definition of the term of the day: simile. I told them that simile sounds like the word similar, and asked them if any of them knew what it meant to say that two things are similar. Many did, saying, "alike" or "the same." I said, so you're comparing the two things, right? They agreed, and I asked for a sense of what compare means. One of them gave a very accurate definition: "To figure out what's the same and what's different between two things." Kids, man. They are smart.

I told them that comparison is a basic and important part of poetry, and in fact, all kinds of writing, and that we had to learn about it if we wanted to be good poets. We discussed similes as a kind of comparison, in which the writer usually uses the words like or as when comparing the two things, and went through the examples in the workbook ("fresh as a daisy," etc).

Then, about 5 minutes into the class, we plunged into our first exercise. Any longer than that and they begin to lose concentration, I've found. Another thing I've learned is that making lists on the chalkboard is a very effective teaching tool, no matter what the subject. Kids love to contribute to a list that is publicly displayed and then used in an exercise. So the first exercise was me writing a list of adjectives, and them coming up with good similes for them. Like this:

hard as…
soft as…
big as…
small as…
wide as…
skinny as…

With each simile-beginning I wrote, I heard louder and more widespread giggling throughout the class. I am an idiot, because of course kids are all going to see "hard ass," "big ass," "skinny ass," and so on. For all the other sections the list appeared, "Big like, small like," etc. But the exercise worked, in that they came up with great equations. "Big like a dinosaur," "Small as an atom," and "Soft as silk."

Then we did colors. "Red like blood," "white like snow," "green like string beans," and so on. In the third and fourth sections, the kids came up with the typical comparisons of snow and blood, and even "orange like an orange." Seeing that we were reaching the same level of sputtering creativity, I urged the kids to try again and make a second, better list. In the fourth class I even told them that their list was no good, and we had to start again. That got their attention, so I added, "because I know you are more creative than that." Then they really came up with some doozies, like "small like a crumb that falls from the corner of your mouth," and "red like Ashly's shirt." I gave them tons of encouragement at this point, because they were definitely trying harder.

Moving on to the poem of the day, which was one I wrote especially for this class, I had four kids read it aloud. It was called "Smiles and Similes." I guess it went over okay, but they weren't in love with it.

With the final half-hour, I had them write simile poems. As usual, I gave them very specific rules: What you will write is known as a "wacky house" poem. Begin with the line, "My house is like ________" and then write lines such as, "It has a roof like _________" and "It has doors like __________." End the poem with the line, "But the best thing about my house is _____________." I told them to go crazy, have at it, and I'd be walking around to answer any questions.

The initial objection they had was "What if we don't live in a house?" So I wrote, "apartment, condo, tent," and one boy said, "what about a shelter?" and everyone laughed. Another kid chimed in, "What about the PJs?" I took that to stand for the projects, because his teacher reprimanded him for the suggestion. He said, "But it's true, we all live in the PJs!" And she summarily kicked him out into the hall for the rest of the period.

The results were wonderful, and I will conclude this journal entry with an abundance of them, both good and bad (you'll see that they bent the rules like true poets). I was especially entranced by the poems by Lydia Beck and Amanda Harris, but Matt's is great too.

by Ashly Horton

My house is like whoa!
My house is like an expanding house.
My basement is like a whole nother house.
My kitchen is like a dining room.
My attic is like an extra room.
My driveway is like a parking lot.
My upstairs is like an apartment.
Best of all, it keeps me safe.
And a whole lot mo! My house is like whoa!
And a whole lot mo!
(Porsha's house stinks bad.)

by Lisa Hooker

Yo kitchen look like some pig was in it eating all yo food.
Yo attic look like you have never been in it.
When I come in yo house, it look like a tornado.
But the worst part, you don't have a door.
And how do you have a driveway, and you live in a box.

by Leon Henderson

My home is like a dream house.
It has a pool like an ocean.
It has a door like a bookshelf.
It has a window like a fan.
It has a bathroom the size of ten full-grown elephants.
My room is the size of ten Mr. Belzes.
The best thing about my house is that I have a dolphin in my pool.

Tyrasha Grinds

My house is like an empty house.
It has windows like computer screens.
But the best thing about my house is we got our own room.

Lydia Beck

My beautiful mansion is like a gorgeous spring day with sparkling lights everywhere.
It has grass like cat's fur and flowers like warm sunshine.
It is white, a white polar bear.
The inside is warm like a flower-covered fireplace.
But the best thing about my mansion is that it has thirty-two rooms,
     ten bathrooms, two kitchens, a water park in the back yard, a swimming
     pool in the front yard, two basements, and I am the only child.

by Matt Little

My apartment is like a store.
Everybody always wants to use something.
Almost like every five minutes you hear the doorbell.
It be the people upstairs.
You give them something. They want more.
They are like homeless people who always beg.
Our house isn't like a store, we don't have lamb legs.

by Shanice Smith

The wacky mansion is very wacky. It is crazy and tacky. The refrigerator is
filled with chocolate candy and all sorts of junk food. Wherever you go
in the wacky mansion you either get candy or money. There can be no one in
the mansion that does not like to have fun. If you don't have fun, you
better run. Because there is a machine in the mansion that knows if you are
not having fun, and it will throw pop in your face, so you better have fun
or you better run.

by Amanda Harris

My house is like a big old garden.
It has big flowers like a tall house.
That I can water every day of the week.
And if I don't water it my house would die.
But I don't want my house to die.
Then I won't have a place to live.
That is the best thing about my house.

by Markeith Brown

My apartment is like a big forest with nothing in it.
It has a kitchen like a classroom with a lot of stuff other than food.
And it has an attic like a big old four-floor mansion.
The apartment is like a big huge basement shaped like a skating rink.
But the best thing about my apartment is that it is like a big mansion.

by Rory Carter

My apartment is like a wacky hotel that don't have service.
It has wacky people like you do not want to stay there.
You can't get cable there.
And people are not nice and people steal your things.
And I'd like to go somewhere nice.
But the worst thing about my apartment is that people will not stop stealing your things.
So I ask my mom, can I go to Mars for a visit.

by Steven Richardson

My box is like an umbrella.
It has a door like a refrigerator.
It has a bed like a shed.
It has a roof like paper.
It has a floor like a rock.
But the best thing about my box is that I don't have a parent living in it bossing me around.

5/2/00 and 5/9/00– Metaphors

Last week was cut short by testing, so I was able to teach only the first section. This week was interrupted by a sick teacher's absence and yearbook photos, so the first section wasn't able to meet, but the final three were. So, very neatly, over the course of the past two weeks, each section made it through the metaphors lesson. Such is the way of life in the public schools of St. Louis.

We began by rekindling our appreciation for comparison as a tool in writing. I read them several of the simile efforts recorded above. These poems were especially magical when read aloud by me in the presence of their authors. Kids' faces lit up. I said, "See, you guys are good poets! I have a right to expect a lot from you, because you are good at writing."

We dove straight into metaphors. I told them that metaphors are like similes, only more direct. I told them that a metaphor is where you say something IS something else, rather than something IS LIKE something else. I said that we use metaphors in conversation all the time, and yet we're possibly unaware of it. For example, I said, what do you call a cowardly person who's afraid of everything? Some said "scaredy cat," others, "chicken." I wrote "chicken" on the board, and asked them, "But is this scared person really a chicken?" "NO!" they chorused.

"Here's another example. Have you ever heard someone say, 'That person is the bomb." "YES," they said. "That means they're cool, good, likeable, right? But are they actually a bomb?" "NO!!!" they yelled, many laughing. "Just because someone's da bomb doesn't mean he's going to explode!" said one boy, shaking his head. I wrote "Mr. Belz is the bomb" on the board.

"Okay, what about some sports terms. Have you ever heard the word 'rock' used in basketball?" I asked. One third grade girl said, "That means the ball!" I agreed, and wrote it on the board. "What if you said, 'Hey, pass the rock,' and one of your teammates reached into his pocket and got out a real rock and handed it to you?" They knew this was absurd, but they found it very funny.

In this way, I believe they got a certain sense of what "metaphor" means, and even enjoyed themselves in the presence of this difficult concept.

Then we read the poem of the day, the rather lame "Mrs. Moon" by Roger McGough. "Mrs. Moon / Sitting up in the sky / Little old lady / rock-a-bye…" I asked them what this poem was about, they said, "The moon." (Perceptive, actually, since one might say "an old lady.") "And is the moon bright and glaring in this poem?" Most often they responded by saying, "no, it's soft and glowing." We repeated the distinction that the moon is not actually an old lady.

With that we went right into the writing assignment, beginning with an on-the-board warm up. The assignment has three steps:

(1) Think of a place, anywhere
(2) Close your eyes and imagine being in that place. Look around at the objects.
(3) Pick an object and write a poem to it, beginning "Mr. ______" or "Mrs.______"

We went through these steps as a class, actually closing our eyes for step two. This got them eerily quiet. Here's a sample of what we came up with.

Place: Old Country Buffet
Object: a clean fork
Poem (beginning): "Mr. Fork, so clean. / Should I eat my beans with you?"

I told them to do this exercise on their own and that I would be walking around to help them out. I allotted 20 minutes for writing and ten for reading their work to the class. Here are samples, all from third graders. Notice that Tyreese carries out the metaphysical conceit rather satisfactorily, though I have no explanation for the last line; Terence is referring to a ride in the Tomorrowland exhibit at Disney World; and I think Sherrieff has natural talent:

Tyreese Huntley

Mrs. Water Slide, you're so stupid you let people come down your mouth.
You're ugly and people think slobber comes out of your mouth.
You're so cold, when people come out of your mouth, they are cold.
You stink so much, I get real sick.
You smell like nectar.

by Terence Blue

Mr. Disney World, you have so many rides, I can't think of them.
I know Mr. X-S Tech, yeah. You have a monster in you.
But why do you have to spit and lick me.
Mr. X-S Tech, your breath stinks, I mean it stinks!

by Sherrieff Smith

Mr. Baseball Stadium,
sitting so big,
why do many people
stay in you? Why
are you so big?
I see you standing tall,
you and your wall.
Why are you
staring for home runs,
catching every one
of them flying over
the wall, they fly real
high into the sky
going over the wall.
You try to catch
everything when they
sling across the sky.
Pop fly.

5/16/00 – Nonsense Poetry

Today was a bomb. I've had some close calls in the past couple of weeks, but this lesson was mostly a disaster.

The topic bored the students from the get-go. I had thought they would be interested in "nonsense," and the first thing we did was write a list of meanings for the word. They said stupid, ridiculous, dumb, ignorant, retarded, makes no sense -- one boy said, "illiterate." They seemed to think nonsense poetry was childish; perhaps it reminded them of nursery rhymes.

I read them an edited version of my own, "Perry Ferry" (circa 1991). This had them vaguely interested. I read them Edward Lear limericks and passed around printouts of his illustrations, which are hilarious. Then we read "Jabberwocky" and went through the storyline. Most of them understood what was going on, even though they didn't understand the words ("frabjous" and "galumphing"). Students participated in the public reading of this poem.

Towards a theoretical understanding of "nonsense," I asked them if they had ever been to another country. Only one of them had ever been outside of America's borders. I was trying to point out that, to us, foreign languages sound like nonsense, but it is meaningful to the people that speak it. I was trying to get them to see that all words are made up, and nonsense is really just a matter of perspective. Therefore, it helps us gain perspective on words and phrases we use every day, that we might take for granted. The kids just sat there looking at me.

The writing assignment was the lamest part of all. I found the idea in Fagin's List Poetry book; it was something concocted by Koch and Ashbery in a poem called "Crone Variations." In it, they use an almost baroquely complex set of rules, which I can't remember off the top of my head. Each line must contain something like: the name of a famous lady, a kind of fruit, a piece of bedroom furniture, the word "bathtub," and a French phrase. The result, coming from Koch and Ashbery, is enchanting.

Even under reduced rules -- I told them to use a piece of furniture, the name of a friend, and a kind of fruit -- the kids didn't love this exercise. I believe this is because they already think in an expanding, absurd way, and do not need encouragement to do so. They thrive when they have more challenging objectives that are not necessarily silly. They are silly enough on their own. I felt their imaginations spinning out of control in this assignment.

I will not teach "nonsense poetry" to this age group again, but the day was not without reward. Mrs. Palsenberger's class (fourth section) was delightful as usual. And Mr. Bell's class was cooperative. I was surprised that the following poem came out of Mrs. Jones' class of third graders, who were bouncing off the walls:

by Abreya Reese

One day there was a peach who ate someone.
She was a very good friend of mine.
Her name was Porcha.
And yes, a peach did eat her.
I know that is not what you expect.
But anyway it did eat her, it ate her under a bed.
I went in my room, I saw my bed eating my little brother.
I saw a couch eating the refrigerator.
I ran out of the house, but by the time I walked through the door,
a giant apple was chasing me down the street.
It ate me when I got to the corner.
And that was the end of me.

5/23/00 — Poetry that brags: The Kalevala, Rakim, and L.L. Cool J

Today we did the lesson that the kids had been talking about from the time they first perused their books: "Braggin' Rites." Next week is my last week with them, so I had to choose one of the remaining lessons, and this was the one that cried out to be tried.

First I asked them, "What does bragging mean?" Here's an example of what they said:

Then I asked, "What kinds of things do you brag about?" To which they responded:

I said, "teeth, really?" Tyreese nodded his head. Then he smiled, and I saw that he does have amazing teeth.

I told the class that bragging is a tradition in poetry, and has been for centuries. I pulled a big book out of my bag and said, "This book is one long poem that was written about a thousand years ago. It contains some wonderful bragging." This was The Kalevala, the Finnish epic first translated into English in the 19th century. I read them the beginning of Poem 3, in which a young upstart Joukahainen challenges an elder, master songsmith Vainamoinen, to a duel:

Young Joukahainen said: "Good indeed is my father's knowledge,
my mother's even better, but my own knowledge is supreme.
If I wish to rival, to be the equal of men,
I will sing down my rival singers, enchant my enchanters.
I will sing the best singer into the worst singer,
sing shoes of stone onto his feet, wooden pants onto his hips,
a stone weight onto his chest, a chunk of rock onto his shoulders,
stone mittens onto his hands, onto his head a high-peaked hat of rock."

I told them that this young whippersnapper was threatening to put Vainamoinen in his grave, covered in stone and rock. I asked the kids who they predicted would win this duel, and they all said "Vainamoinen!" I am surprised at how well they intuit literary themes. Several lessons ago, in Seuss's "Solla Sollew" story, they knew from the start that his troubles would not end with assaults from "in front and behind;" now, they correctly predicted that the elder poet would win the contest. As the story goes on, Vainamoinen sings so well that Joukahainen sinks into a bog, "up to his beard in a bad place," and begs Vainamoinen to stop. I asked them why this happened, and they said, "Because the young one is too proud." Perhaps I should have asked how many of them knew the term hubris.

At this point we turned our attention to a red boombox I had brought in. I have to send props out to my good friend Jon Varner, who recommended that we listen to Rakim as an example of bragging rap. It is actually hard to find rap that is not explicit or vulgar, and this particular Rakim track, "Follow the Leader," is clean. I passed out copies of the lyrics, which I had printed on neon lime green paper. I told them to read along as they listened, and look for times when Rakim bragged. They must have read along very well, because they all flipped their papers simultaneously.
At one point in that song, Rakim says, "Pull out my weapon and start to squeeze/ A magnum as a microphone murderin' MC's." With all the deftness of Socrates himself, I lead them into a recognition that this was essentially the same death-threat issued by Joukahainen hundreds of years earlier, and declared that bragging is an important tradition in poetry. (Of course, they loved this part of the lesson.)
We moved on to the poem of the day, L.L. Cool J's "I'm Bad" (cleaned up version). In each section, I had six kids come up to read, one for each verse. In the third and fourth sections, I made sure to assign the sixth verse to a good reader:

My vulture's exact like rack and pinion in a Jag
You try to brag you get your rhymes from a grab-bag
No good scavenger catfish vulture
My tongue's a chisel in this competition sculpture.

Now about 30 minutes into the class, we moved into the writing assignment, which I tried to leave fairly unspecific: (1) Think about specific things you are proud of about yourself, where you live, your family, and (2) Brag about them. The only thing I stressed in this was the need to be specific, and invited them to try any form they wanted. Here are some examples:

by Marquita Johnson

Hey you, Sara, that's why you got your pants from the Goodwill.
You got YOURS from the Goodwill.
No hunny, I got mine from Marshalls.
Hey Sara, you got them shoes from Payless Shoestore.
No, you got YOUR shoes from Payless.
No hunny baby child, I got mines from Foot Locker.
Hey Sara, you got your socks from off the corner.
You got YOUR socks from off the corner.

by Shanice Smith

I think I can sing,
as a matter of fact I know I can.
People in this school think
they can do stuff better,
but let me tell you in this letter.
What I want to say is not that nice,
but I am hot, like spice.
I don't like many people
that are stuck on themselves.
I am sometimes stuck on myself,
but hey, if I can sing,
I'm going to let my bell ring.
Some people think I can't sing,
but they never heard me sing.
I will make them go ding bling.
They would tell me themselves, "She can sing,"
I need to make my bell ring.
Don't hate you need to participate,
because baby honey child, I can get wild.
So don't get on my side,
'cause I can make you go cabloo.

by LaTonya Bonner

My teeth are cleaner than yours.
My hair is longer than your mom's.
My shoes are cleaner than yours,
cause your mom's teeth been on them.
My mom look cleaner than your mom.
My house is cleaner than your house.
My dog look better than your mom and dad.
(to: Leon)

by Terence Blue

I sting like a bee,
I fly like a butterfly,
and I know I'm the black superman.
You're nothing but a pile of dirt,
and I'm neat, but you're weak.
I'll break the American flag,
and I'm God.

by Andrea Harris

I'm so bad, I will bust the kickball, believe me.
This is not a sickball.
That's not all,
I'll break a glass in my class,
or I will catch a bass at the lake
if the lake is not fake.
I'm not sagging,
I'm just bragging!!!

by ???

I rule the Abreya and Porcha because I can run faster.
I drink cherry soda faster than Porcha.
I come to school before Abreya.
I can jump off the roof better
without breaking a muscle
or my eyeballs getting squooshed.
I can cook on the ceiling without getting burnt.

by Jasmine Roy

I look so good, just thinking about it makes me finer.
Just thinking about how fine I am, I might even blow my mind.
Just thinking about how fine I am I might even take your man
and stump him to the ground.

5/30/00 – The Last Day

I walked in with a box under my arm and brightly announced that this was our last day. "So," I continued, "We'll take it easy with a reading from Dr. Seuss, and then you'll get a chance to read your best stuff for the class. At the end, I have some presents to hand out."

The kids did not seem too moved, and one girl even whispered "YES!" and pumped her fist. Well you can't take 10-year-olds too seriously when it comes to how they express themselves socially. But when it comes to their creative development, I've learned that they should be taken very seriously.

I began by reading "Cat in the Hat," with which most of them were familiar. Someone in each class knew every detail of the story. What a great story, and really wonderful commentary, I think. "Thing 1 and Thing 2" made me realize how conscious Geisel was of his late modern philosophical environment. When we finished the reading, I stressed to them that this was serious poetry, because of its humor and music. I told them it was unpredictable end edgy enough to be good for adults and kids as well, and that they shouldn't think of it as childish.

By way of summary, I asked them to define poetry. They said, "funny, silly, rhymes, might not rhyme, serious, lets you show people things they haven't seen." That was what they'd been saying the whole time, and it's good enough for ten weeks, I think. Especially encouraging was the last one, the idea of taking people to places they've never been. All art offers transport, imagination. The real beauty of this experience for me was the luxury of being transported into the worlds of 75 individual kids from downtown St. Louis – the privilege of seeing their world through their eyes. I believe that they too realized the power of being transported into other worlds, of being temporarily released from the hum-drum daily drill, through Silverstein, Seuss, the Kalevala, LL Cool J, Edward Lear, et al.

Then I had them read their poetry. They loved to do this. All but three kids – one in each class – read at least two of their own poems. They bounced up to the front, their peers clapped for them. Here are a couple of student poems I had not recorded before:

by Abreya Reese

Mrs. Beautiful, your body is the shape of a Coca Cola bottle.
You remind me of the drink.
I just feel like drinking you sometimes.
You even smell like Coca Cola,
So please kill yourself before I drink you.

by Desmond Hawthorne

The golden apple was on the couch,
And it made Joe say, "Ouch."
And then it got red
And went to bed
And woke up talkin'
About my boy Jay,
And Jay would say, "Hey,
What is today?"
The apple would laugh
And take a bath.
And Joe, do you know,
I got a really big toe,
So will you go?

In this journal I have tried not to get gooey or sentimental about this experience, but one thing happened today that I will probably will never forget. Sherrieff did not want to read. No one could convince him. Mr. Bell got on his case in a friendly way, and Sherrieff curled up his workbook and buried his face in it. This is the boy who wrote "Mr. Baseball Stadium" (see 5/2/00 entry), the best single poem from anyone in any class. I went back to encourage him, and he wouldn't talk to me, but I could see that he was crying. Late in the class period, he finally went up to the front of the room, but kept his book curled around his face. The room of fifteen 3rd graders was silent and motionless. Sherrieff lowered the book slowly, wiped his cheek with his fist, and read the poem, ending " You try to catch / everything when they / sling across the sky. / Pop fly." Everybody stood up and cheered with hoots and stomps, especially Mr. Bell, who pounded his desk with his palms. "You see, Sherrieff has talent," he said. "We all know that. I don't know what's wrong with him today."

I handed out pencils and stickers before I left, and read them a poem by Shel Silverstein, this the last poem in A Light in the Attic:


This bridge will only take you halfway there
To those mysterious lands you long to see:
Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fairs
And moonlit woods where unicorns run free.
So come and walk awhile with me and share
The twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known.
But this bridge will only take you halfway there–
The last few steps you'll have to take alone.


Not surprisingly, they understood this. I handed out a brightly colored novelty pencil and small square of hologram stickers to each student. They were very appreciative and sweet; one girl had written on her book "Mr. Belz, I will never forget you," though she turned it over when I approached her desk. Each teacher shook my hand as I left, thanked me … and that was it!

Thank you, Martha Stegmaier and Springboard to Learning, for making this experience possible. And thanks, Becca, Susan, Kim, and Mom, for holding my hand along the way.

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