How a Poet Teaches Her Children Poetry

From a Washington Post column by Maggie Smith headlined “What if the sun could make a sound? How a poet teaches her children poetry.”:

It’s National Poetry Month, so in schools across the country, teachers will be sharing poems with kids. Maybe some Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky or Joyce Sidman. Maybe even some William Carlos Williams or Emily Dickinson.

In my house, we won’t do anything much differently this month. I’ve always talked about poetry with my kids the way chefs probably talk to their kids about food. It’s just part of life. Instilling a love of poetry in my children started before they could read. It started with play and imagination — low stakes, no pressure. Even when my kids were toddlers, I would encourage them to play with figurative language. What does that cloud look like to you? What sound would the sun make if it could make a sound? What does that orchid remind you of?

When I talk about poetry with young children now, I focus on what they notice in the poem. I ask them: What does your ear like? What parts are fun to say? What parts can you picture in your mind? What can you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste? We don’t talk about what poems mean, we talk about what they do. As readers, we’re primarily noticers.

As a single mother, as a poet, and as a teacher, I’m a noticer. My work at home, on the page, and in the classroom is paying attention — and, if I’m doing that work well, inspiring others to pay attention.

Maybe you’re thinking, Sure, she’s a poet, so of course her kids must be into poetry. But I’m also a mom, and as a mom I know this to be true: If you want a kid to hate something, make it really important to you that they like it.

So, no, I was not someone who read a lot of poetry to her kids, or who expected them to want to write it. I began by celebrating the poetry in everyday life — sound, metaphor and image — because I wanted to instill in them a love of language and its possibilities. I wanted to encourage them to use their imaginations and express themselves. I wanted them to think like poets, and to see the world around them in a poetic way. It didn’t — and doesn’t — matter to me if they love to read poems or want to write them.

Violet, my 14-year-old daughter, loves to read, but her creative impulse is to draw, not write. I’m in awe of her talent with a pencil and sketchpad. Rhett, my 10-year-old son, has dabbled in writing songs with his guitar, but more often he likes to make things in 3-D — sculpt with clay, build with LEGO, construct things out of cardboard.

But one night recently, Rhett brought home a poem to read to me as his fluency homework. When kids practice fluency, it’s about reading aloud — their pacing, their articulation of each word, and their ability to use appropriate expression (rather than read in a monotone).

Rhett’s fluency homework to that point had consisted of paragraphs of informational text — one about glaciers, another about arteries, as I recall. I’d coached him to slow down, enunciate his words rather than run them together, and pay attention to end punctuation — the force of an exclamation point, the lift in your voice required by a question mark. But now he held in his hand Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” typed up on a sheet of paper. He had to read it aloud to me two or three times, and I had to initial boxes for expression, articulation and pacing.

I was especially appreciative that his teacher had assigned the poem as part of the class’s fluency work, as in this context the children were encouraged to spend time with the language and rhythm, not to analyze the poem or try to extract “meaning.”

I listened as Rhett read the familiar opening lines — “Whose woods these are I think I know./ His house is in the village though” — and eventually I closed my eyes so I could focus on the sound of his voice, the language of the poem. He read it beautifully the first time through, and though it wasn’t part of the assignment, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pull back the curtain and let him see the poem as a made thing. How did the poet make the poem? What choices did he make, and what effects did those choices have on us as readers? (Rhett loves building things, so I thought this approach might appeal to him.)

I read the first stanza back to him, tapping my hand on my thigh like a metronome and emphasizing the slight bounce in the stressed beats — woods, are, think, know. I talked to him a bit about meter, and he said, “Oh yeah, I can hear it!” He noticed the rhyming words, too, and we marked the rhyme scheme of the poem with letters on his paper: AABA, BBCB, CCDC, DDDD.

Then I asked: “Why do you think Robert Frost chose dark instead of another adjective? Why do you think he chose the word deep?” We talked about choosing words to fit the rhyme scheme and the meter, and we tried out some different options that didn’t sound good at all. We talked about the alliteration of dark and deep, and I invited him to look for other examples in the poem.

Finally, we talked about the repetition at the end of the poem. The last two lines are the same, repeated: “And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.” I asked Rhett, “Why do you think he chose to say that twice at the end?” I joked with him: “It can’t be because he couldn’t think of another rhyme for sleep!”

He got it: “It’s for emphasis. He wants to really focus on how far he still had to go to get home.” This boy has been on long road trips before — to the beach, to Chicago, to visit his father out of state — so he knows something about how long a journey feels when you’re tired.

For the next few nights, we did his fluency homework together. I noticed in his subsequent readings of the poem, he leaned into the meter more, emphasizing the slight bounciness of the lines. I suggested he keep it smooth — the meter should feel like slight rolling hills, not mountains and valleys.

Then the day came when each child recited the poem aloud to the whole class. Rhett came home, eager to tell me how well it went. He said his teacher complimented his reading, and I could see the pride in his face.

A few days later, he came into the kitchen and said, “At school we’re talking about what we want to be when we grow up. Guess what I said? I picked two options.”

I had no idea. LEGO set designer? Nature photographer? Veterinarian?

“One is a kind of writer,” he hinted, a mischievous look in his eyes. “Can you guess?”

“Writing adventure books for kids? Writing spooky thrillers or big fantasies?” He loves the “Wildwood” series by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis. He loves “Hatchet” and anything about kids overcoming obstacles, especially in the wilderness.

“No, a poet!” he laughed.

I was surprised. “A poet! Nice. What’s the other one?”

“Engineer,” he said.

“Very cool! I think you’d be great at both of those things. And buddy, you can write poetry no matter what you do — you can be an engineer and a poet if you want.”

I told him, poets and engineers have some skills in common, too. Both are planners and designers. Both have a mind for structure and form. Both seek the most efficient and effective way to make something functional and durable, but also beautiful and inspiring.

As William Carlos Williams famously wrote, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words.” Building the machine is a kind of engineering. Reading Frost with my son and helping him understand some of the engineering behind the poem empowered him to receive the pleasures of the poem. And it allowed me to combine, in one simple activity, the two things I love most about my life: being a mother and being a poet.

Rhett doesn’t have fluency homework anymore, but I noticed when he opened his take-home folder recently, a clean copy of Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” was tucked inside.

“Aren’t you done with that one, bud?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “but I liked it so much, Mrs. Ayers gave me a copy to keep.”

No surprise, his teacher was a noticer, too. She had paid attention.

Maggie Smith is the author of several books of poems and prose, including a memoir, “You Could Make This Place Beautiful” (One Signal/Atria, 2023). Smith’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Nation, and elsewhere.

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