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Essays on Teaching
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Serious Play: Reading Poetry with Children


"Play is what we want to do. Work is what we have to do." said W. H. Auden. Poetry is both of those things. Robert Frost, in fact, defined poetry as "serious play." Poetry is the liveliest use of language, and nobody knows more instinctively how to take delight in that playfulness than children. Surely no parent or educator feels that children must be force-fed Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, or Mother Goose for that matter; children love rhymes, word games, and the magic effects of verse. At the same time, anyone familiar with the techniques pioneered in the 1960s by the poet Kenneth Koch knows that children are equally delighted by more sophisticated poetry when it is presented creatively. It is not an exaggeration to say that all children, at least until adolescence, are natural poets.

The trick is how to translate this energy, once aroused and captured, into the desire to read poetry seriously, to do the intellectual work necessary to gain a basic mastery of the literary art, just as one does, say, with math, biology, or Spanish. There are several crucial components which apply equally to many fields of knowledge: natural affinity, family, school, and community.

It is a simple fact that some children are more drawn to words and literature than others. Sometimes all it takes is the influence of the right person or book at the right moment, to tap something that is set to blossom inside--a love of language, of the sound or meaning of words, of their look on the page. But it is critically important for all children that the right opportunities, the right people, be there when the moment is at hand.

Often the first of these opportunities is the influence of family. How many of us can't remember a song that our parents sung, a book or a poem that was read to us countless times, or a favorite bedtime story? At that intersection of love and language is poetry. Naomi Shihab Nye urges us to "remember the dignity of daily affirmation, whatever one does--the mother speaking to the child is also a poem."

After the home comes the classroom, a frequent stumbling block for poetry. Any subject--even school itself--can be characterized as "liver and onions" by a student who isn't turned on to the excitement of learning. Although many teachers were raised to believe that poetry was an obscure, inaccessible, and unpalatable art, just as many understand its intrinsic value, but want guidance on how to approach it in class: recipes for poetry.

Finally, there is the world around us. Adrienne Rich noted: "Poetry reflects on the quality of life, on us as we are in process on this earth, in our lives, in our relationships, in our communities." It's hard to overestimate the importance of community to poetry. Once a love for poetry has been established, and some understanding has been acquired of the art, we need to have the opportunity to read and share and respond to poetry in new ways.

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