“I liked poetry since 2nd grade when Ms. Stili had us memorize ‘Honey I Love,’ but it wasn’t until 5th grade and this project that I realize I’m a poet too,” wrote Juanita as she reflected on the bilingual poetry book that she made in my 5th-grade classroom.
I weave poetry into my classroom from the first day through our end-of-year ceremony when we tearfully send our students off to middle school.
I can’t imagine an elementary classroom without poetry. It stirs children’s imaginations and encourages wordplay. It brings dull topics alive and provokes thinking and talk about concepts like prejudice, segregation, and friendship. It’s a pathway to writing for my most reluctant students. And it can work wonders in helping students improve their confidence and skills in speaking to an audience.
Poetry has made my three decades of teaching more powerful and joyful.
Over the years, I’ve collected dozens of books of poetry for children, stuffed into crates and bins in my classroom. Students demand to “borrow” them and take them home. Despite my pleading and best attempts at record-keeping, each year my pocketbook takes a hit as I resupply my collection of books. But it’s worth it.
One model that I return to again and again is Kiowa poet and author Scott N. Momaday’s “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee.” I use the poem for several reasons: its simple yet powerful images, the sense of wonder about nature it engenders, and its format, which lends it to being a useful model. It’s also a beautiful and accessible example of what Momaday calls “Pan-Indian” cultural values.
I introduce Momaday and his poem during our class study of Native Americans by writing the author and title on the board for my students to copy into their Poems We Studied log. I tell the students that Momaday was born in 1934, during the Great Depression. Although he is Kiowa, he lived on Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo reservations in the Southwest when he was a child. His father was a great storyteller and told him many stories from the Kiowa oral tradition. His mother was a writer. Tsoai-talee is his Indian name; it means rock tree boy. In addition to writing beautiful poetry, Momaday is a novelist. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel House Made of Dawn.
I then challenge my students to see if they have enough willpower to close their eyes and listen for about a minute while I read Momaday’s poem (sometimes difficult for 10-year-olds): “As you listen to each line try to imagine it as a photo in your mind.” The poem begins:
I am a feather in the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
After the first reading, I ask students what they remember. I write down a few phrases they call out and then pass out the poem and a yellow highlighter, but insist they keep the cap on. I read the poem again asking them to read along silently.
Then I say: “Now I want you to read it to yourself and highlight your three favorite lines. When you have highlighted the lines, turn to a partner, share the lines you’ve chosen, and tell them why you like those lines.”