Originally published in Class Act, September 1995.

by Ronda Hinrichsen

Something simple. Something fun. Something they will remember.

These are the guidelines I try to follow when I teach children. So when the local PTA asked me to teach a poetry writing workshop. I immediately panicked. What is simple, fun, or memorable about trying to write poetry?

Shortly after our conversation, I went to work thinking about something simple. First, I listed the elements of poetry I felt the students could understand with very little discussion (the workshop would only last a half an hour). They were rhyme, rhythm (meter), brainstorming methods, and individuality. Then I set my list aside for a few days and concentrated on "something fun," and "something they would remember." The result was the following slightly-out-of-the-ordinary exercises.

To begin the discussion of rhyme, I read two poems to the students. The first was a simple rhyming verse about rainbows which I found in a children's magazine. As I read it, the students listened for the rhyming words and their placement within the sentences.

The second was "A Lady in Waiting," a non-rhyming poem I had written. It is about a young girl who wants to grow up. (See the end of this article for a copy of this poem.) After reading this poem, the students and I discussed its meaning, and I suggested that "if I can do it, then you can do it." I then said, "Poetry can describe anything from feelings to stories. Sometimes it uses end rhymes; sometimes it does not."

Next, we discussed rhythm. Because students must feel the physical beat of rhythm to understand it, I asked them to stand. We then repeated the words to the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill" while bending our knees in relation to the rhythm. For example:

Jack (up) and (down) Jill (up) went (down) up (up) the (down) hill (up)

When we finished, we tried a different pattern with "Little Boy Blue." This exercise, of course, seemed silly to the students, but I knew they would remember it better because it was silly. It was also an entertaining way to introduce them to meter.

Next, we talked about brainstorming methods. I began by writing the word HAPPINESS on board. I then asked the students to name things that made them happy. They responded with words such as candy, pizza and recess.

After a few minutes, we went on to another method: clustering. This time I circled HAPPINESS.I drew five outward lines and then circled each of these words at the end of the five lines: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. . . I used this clustering example for two reasons. One, sensory descriptions add depth and beauty to writing. Two, I wanted the students to stretch their imaginations. 

We then brainstormed again. Most answers were similar to those previously mentioned, but when something original popped up, we discussed it. For instance, one girl said happiness looked like "a monster under the bed," and sounded like "lots of noise." Another said it looked like "darkness" and sounded like "quiet." I pointed out that the girl who liked quiet and darkness would probably be uncomfortable with the monster and noise, whereas the girl who liked the monster and noise would probably be nervous in the quiet darkness. I then stressed this point: When writing poetry, you must tell the truth. If the girl who liked being alone wrote a poem that said she was happy in a world of noise, her images would be inconsistent, and she would be untrue to herself.

This led me to my final point: individuality. Students who write simply to please others will never be effective writers. They have to write from who they are and how they feel. To illustrate this, I took one of the suggestions from "smell." It was the word "manure." I then asked, "Does happiness smell like manure?"

"What about a farmer who has been living in the city for a long time and has finally returned to his hometown? Would happiness smell like manure to him?"
They then understood the value of "differentness."

Weeks later, I asked the PTA board member about the poetry turnout, and she quickly replied the local organization had more entries than ever before for "Reflections," the national PTA sutdents' arts contest. She thought the workshop must have really helped. She also read to me a poem by one of the school's winning entrants. 

As I put down the phone, I thought again about my goals--something simple, something fun, something they would remember--and felt the sweet warmth of making a difference. Perhaps these slightly-out-of-the-ordinary exercises were just the right fuel to feed the students' creative fires.

by Ronda Hinrichsen

An old scarf of Mom's
hangs in the back of her closet.
While I am young
I take it out,
wrap it around my head,
drape it on my shoulders, 
and dangle it in my fingers  
like a lady in waiting.
I put on her shoes, too,
and begin to dance.

When Mom sees me,
she wraps me in her arms
and twirls.
Then she puts me down and 
skips across the floor.
I tiptoe behind her,
making sure I get each step