When the concrete mind meets the abstract concept

Teaching Poetry to 7 year olds.

Akin to speaking a little-known foreign language to a deaf person.

The mind of a 7 year old resides primarily in the concrete. The child has worked hard throughout the entirety of their lives to make sense of the indiscernible. Within the space of a few short years, many unknown sites and sounds are compartmentalised in the mind and made sense of. Whereas a child of 6 months will be confused by most aspects of daily life, a 7 year old has steadily progressed along the path of understanding.

They get stuff. Stuff they don’t get, they either ignore, adapt past knowledge to fit or create a new knowledge bank. Children of this age thrive on the concrete. Gaining and sharing knowledge is a highlight. This is not to say that imagination has no place, far from it. Often, imagination is where the child can put forward their knowledge in an area completely controlled by their own mind. They learn something new, it makes little sense at the time. The child puts it into practice in a controlled setting and this helps to bring light to the subject matter.

Poetry doesn’t quite fit this process.

Poetry relies, to a degree at least, on wording the unwordable or describing the easily describable in a beautiful, abstract way.

Today, when writing Cinquain poetry, I challenged the children to describe an athlete at the Olympics in an event…poetically.

To put into words the grace of Sally Pearson cascading over hurdles on her way to gold, to capture the might of Usain Bolt’s presence.

“He ran fast,” “She jumped” seemed to be the extent of the offerings.

Trying my best, I attempted to draw out what I knew was inside of them. Each child. Reaching their potential and all that.

“But what did it look like? When Bolt streaked away from the field, leaving the competitor’s far behind?”

“Good.”

I needed more. I would push and push for their minds trapped in concrete definitions to exaggerate the events they had witnessed.

And they would look at me with their big, beautiful, sparking, eager-to-please eyes which barely guarded me from the utterly blinding light, signalling that, in fact, that hadn’t a clue what I was on about.

Essentially, I learnt a few things through the exercise.

1) I need to get better at teaching poetry

2) I need to change up the processes in the classroom. Too often, children complete the pattern of being set a task, completing the task, checking how they went. Such a structure emphasises being “right” – suitable for certain circumstances, but not for higher-order thinking. Not for poetry!

3) Occasionally, children need less modeling. Often, I find myself almost patently pointing out to the children step by step what needs to be done. Whilst this is occasionally necessary, when it comes to writing this, by and large, serves to censor the inherent creativity of a 7 year old. Leading them to fixate incessantly on formula, spelling, handwriting rather than sentence structure, rich description and flare.

At the end of the day, whenever I reflect on teaching, I’m drawn to the conclusion that for every argument I make toward one path of teaching, I can make an equally pertinent yet perpendicular argument.

That’s the joy of teaching. That’s the frustration of teaching. I guess, like poetry, teaching is not about right or wrong.

9 responses

  1. My favorite teacher asked me questions I’d never considered, in red pen, all over my pages. I wish I could thank her now.

    Teachers are like gardeners, except they don’t always have the opportunity to appreciate the blooms. Great post.

    08/14/2012 at 14:50

    • That’s a great way to look at it, thanks for that.

      It’s a funny profession. You have quite a bit of self-doubt about the way you go about it, probably for that reason you allude to.

      08/14/2012 at 20:54

  2. Well first, thanks for the follow…second, this is a great post and lastly, I can relate very easily to this as I am going into my 34 year of teaching 1st graders… 🙂

    08/18/2012 at 11:33

    • Thanks Mike! 34 years wowee, I’m halfway through my second. Though I’m sure that, even after that time, they still find ways to surprise you!

      08/18/2012 at 15:41

  3. This is a wonderful post. I appreciate the way you have gone into such depth to analyse and describe your poetry lesson. It sounds like you are very talented in the field of psychology and I have no doubt that you are a very successful school teacher. Keep up the good work!

    09/07/2012 at 08:34

    • Thank you very much, although I’m not 100% sure of how accurate your assertions are!

      09/09/2012 at 13:08

  4. I think you are off to a wonderful start! Teaching poetry to tenth graders isn’t any easier. Most people think in concrete terms. Have you read Kenneth Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Most of the poems ansd ideas are for older children but the book is a good reference.

    09/27/2012 at 23:13

    • Thank you very much – I haven’t read it but will be sure to search it out now. I suppose you’re right, many people have been spending much of their life trying to write to the “formula” so much so, that when it comes time to writing in a more expressive way they find it difficult.

      09/28/2012 at 14:30

      • I once taught at a high school that insisted on a formula essay–frustrating for those students who could write well and for me who had to read the same essay over and over. But sometimes formula isn’t a bad thing. Writing a group poem based on Judith Viorst’s “If I were King of the World . . .” with second graders could be hilarious.

        09/28/2012 at 22:45

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