Three Days With Fourth Graders: The Good

Back in April, my first trip was a three-day poetry residency with fourth graders. Four classes, an hour per day with each class. Most of my school visits are large-group presentations, so I hadn’t worked with classroom-sized groups on multi-day projects in ages.

I had a great time with the kids, but afterward, I wondered whether my approach was “poetic” enough. Was it thoughtful enough? But then I chatted with an illustrator at a luncheon Sunday and realized (again) that I can only share my approach to poetry, not anybody else’s.

Here’s what I think worked really well in my poetry residency, and I think these are things that could be incorporated into any kind of writing workshop–IF the approach fits your own personality and writing style.

1. My goal was to make poetry fun, accessible, and not scary at all! That was mostly for the kids, but for the teachers as well, to try to lessen the “poetry intimidation factor.” I worked on this goal mostly by being fun and casual and not putting a lot of pressure on them. We were working mainly on first drafts, and the idea was to start writing and see what comes out. Find out what’s in your brain by checking out what you just put down on paper. I tried to create a really encouraging, supportive, risk-taking atmosphere. I talked a little about the bad poems I write. I gave them numbers (like 9 out of every 10 first drafts I write totally stink–but that’s ok!). I gave them time to share their work, but sharing was always optional, and I told them that up front.

2. We did a ton of short, varied exercises. We did book spine poems, 15 Words or Less poems, paint chip poems, and more. I used little timers and we wrote FAST! That also helped take the pressure off. If you have 15 minutes to write 15 words, the pressure is on to produce something good. If you have 3 minutes, you have to just dive in and see what happens. They were SO good at this. I would say, “Ready, go!” and start the timer, and by the third exercise, the only sound you could instantly hear was pencils scratching on paper.

3. I made the project physically interesting. Dominoes Pizza donated pizza boxes, and we taped all our poems in there. We wrote on different kinds of paper: scrapbook paper, post-it notes, colored index cards, die-cut shapes, all sorts of stuff. When all the paper didn’t match, I would hold a Silent Switch, where the kids had 30 seconds to trade papers if they wanted, but all without talking. They loved that, and they also loved having a nifty poetry/pizza box display of their work at the end of the three days.

So those were the things that I liked and that worked, I think! Tomorrow: things that I’ll need to rethink for next time…

I’m off to a school visit today, and I can’t do more photos right now, but here are three 30-second videos I created from my 4th-grade residency. Check them out!

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