When I was 10 years old, my grandfather passed away. I blamed myself for his death at the time. Back then, I thought he died because I kicked him in my sleep. You see, I was dreadfully afraid of the dark, and could never sleep by myself. So, when I spent the night at my grandparent’s house, I almost always wound up sleeping between the two of them. I guess I kicked a lot in my sleep, as my grandmother recalled on a few occasions. A few days after I had slept at my grandparent’s house one weekend, my grandfather went into the Veteran’s Administration (VA) Hospital, never to come out. He died there. I thought it was because I kicked him while I slept. My parents had told me that he had to have his foot and part of his leg removed due to something. Again, as I was young, I couldn’t fully comprehend what was going on. My prefrontal cortex was far from fully formed. I thought he died because of me. Well, years later, when I was able to process everything, I learned that he had diabetes and lost part of his leg as the result. He ended up having a heart attack a few days later, which is what finally took his life. For the longest time, I carried a huge burden of guilt upon my figurative shoulders. Perhaps that led to the depression that I felt for a few years after that incident. My early teen years were very difficult. It was a dark time in my life. I remember planning out how I was going to take my own life at one point. Life felt hopeless. I had no friends, my family seemed focused on my sister, and school was really challenging for me. However, the biggest mistake I made during that time in my life was keeping it inside. I didn’t share how I was feeling with anyone. I bottled my sadness, regret, anger, and shame deep within me.
Eventually, the fog and dark clouds dissipated and blue sky and sun returned to my life once again. Things got better. I started doing better in school during my sixth grade year. I owe that success to my amazing teachers. They inspired me to read and do things that I never thought I could or wanted to do. I helped to plant a school garden during recess time. What was wrong with me? I gave up precious play time to plant a garden, but it was so much fun. I even wrote a letter to the editor of my local newspaper, explaining what my class had done. It was so cool to see my name in print. I was famous. This taste of something special led me to write more. I started by writing creative fiction stories, which eventually led me to poetry. I began to write about my feelings. I was letting those feelings that I had kept buried inside for so long, out. Writing became my emotional outlet, my therapy of sorts. Writing helped me process my experiences and feelings in a real and therapeutic way. While the writing I did back then was by no means phenomenal or publishable, it was raw and filled with emotion. I wrote from a place of true feeling, and it showed in the pieces I crafted. I unbottled my emotions and poured them onto the lined pages of numerous notebooks. I dealt with my grandfather’s death, the anger I kept inside, and the immense sadness that I felt. I wrote and wrote until the feelings were out. Sometimes when I wrote, tears would trickle down my cheeks, as I was finally releasing those demons that I had caged away within me for too long. After I began writing in this authentic manner, I began to feel much better. I was finally happy again. Writing was the metaphorical sunshine I needed to help clear away my storms of sadness.
When teaching poetry in the classroom, I am mindful of the poetic baggage that many students carry with them:
- Poetry is boring.
- All poetry has to rhyme.
- Poetry is all about flowers and love.
- I hate poetry.
- Poetry has restrictive rules.
When introducing my unit on poetry this year, I spent almost two weeks talking about the magic of words without ever once using the term poetry. I talked about the concept of using words to convey images and new ideas. I helped students to see that playing with words in new and interesting ways can be fun and engaging. I let the students explore the stream of consciousness form of writing, which they loved. They liked being able to write whatever came to their mind. However, a few of the students were clearly a bit hesitant at first. “So, we can just write every thought that comes into our mind? Like, what if I’m thinking about my cat and then I look around and start thinking about desks or sun. Can I write about all that? Don’t I need to stick to paragraphs?” some students asked. They were so used to previous teachers placing great restrictions and parameters on writing tasks. They couldn’t possibly believe that I wanted them to just write anything and everything that popped into their brilliant minds. They had so much fun with this task. Laughter filled the classroom throughout that writing activity. Slowly, they began to see that writing can be super fun.
Then, I had them start to make the leap into a more lyrical verse style of writing. I provided each student with an envelope filled with various words. I still did not once utter the word poetry during this activity. I continued to focus on the idea that playing with words holds special power. They had to create lines, sentences, or phrases that conjured up new and interesting ideas within their minds. They could add words to make their concoctions work grammatically, but I wanted them to use the words in the envelope for inspiration. Once they found a line or two they liked, I had them let the words take them on a journey. “Add to what you have with or without new words from your envelope. Just allow the line you create to take you where it will. Follow it like a pebble on the bottom of a swiftly moving stream. Just write,” I told them. This was by far their favorite activity. They loved creating interesting, strange, and deep sentences or lines of verse. As the students worked, I meandered throughout the classroom, glancing over shoulders and reading the beautiful pieces my students were creating. Some were deeply personal, some were sad, some were philosophical, some were angry, and some were funny. Every student found what worked for them. Sounds of “Ughhh” and “No” reverberated around the room when I informed them that it was time to stop writing. At the beginning of the year, I could barely get my students to write for five minutes, and now they don’t want to stop writing. Ahh yes, the magic of words has cast its hypnotic spell on them, I thought. I love it! After school that day, I had many students beg to share their pieces with me. They were so proud of what they had created, and proud they should be, as their pieces were amazing. They were full of raw emotion. One girl wrote about the death of her dog while another student wrote a powerful piece on how the world is slowly killing Mother Nature. Wow, was just about all I could say. My students all seemed to pour their heart and soul into the pieces they crafted. They felt the words on an emotional level.
The next day in Language Arts class, we talked about this idea of writing from a place of emotion and feeling. I reminded them of the wonderful pieces they had crafted the day before because they tapped into their emotions. They seemed to really understand the power in writing while entranced by their feelings. I provided the students with more time in class to play with words and try writing with feeling and emotion. They were so engaged in this activity. It was phenomenal. They couldn’t wait to share the awesome writing they had created. I closed this lesson with a brief discussion. I took my piece of word play writing that I had crafted and began to read it with rhythm. I told the students, “Now, I want you to find the rhythm in your piece and then break it into lines or sections.” After I modeled this skill for the class, I asked them, “What do you notice about my piece?” A student commented, “It looks like a poem.” Brilliant! They got it, I thought. I then let the cat out of the bag, so to speak; not an actual cat though as I am severely allergic to cats. I shared with them how I had purposefully not used the word poetry when introducing our new unit on poetry. I talked about the magic of words instead. I explained to them my rationale behind doing so. They all seemed a bit shocked, but excited when I shared with them that next week we will be digging into poetry and what it’s really all about. “I want you to see that poetry can be so many things, without many rules. I want to help you change your perspective on poetry,” I told my class. I then gave them time to change their word play pieces into poems. They were really engaged in this activity. I could see them tapping out their words to find a rhythm or talking out loud to help determine where they should have a line or stanza break. It was so truly wonderful to experience them finding the joy in writing. I can’t wait for our next class so that we can continue our deep dive into poetry and the magic of words.
I want my students to see that writing, and especially poetry, can be something very magical and fun if they look at it from the right perspective. I want to broaden their minds and help them see writing as something more than just an assignment or requirement. I want them to find the fun and value in it for themselves. Perhaps some of my students will use writing or poetry as a way to share their feelings and emotions like I did. Or, maybe some of my students who came into my class this year dreading writing will leave my fifth grade class liking or loving the process of writing. Whatever will be, will happen because of the unique approach I utilize to teach and talk about creative writing and poetry. Writing, like life, is a special and wonderful process that involves much trial and error, risk taking, and emotion. We can’t live life afraid of the outcomes, just as we can’t write if we are afraid of messing up.