When I tell my students that we’re starting a poetry unit, I give them thirty seconds to groan and complain and make disgusted faces. I actually tell them to get ready to complain, and boy do they!

I understand why most people have a hard time with poetry. The language that writers used a hundred years ago, or more can be difficult to understand. It makes sense that we could be feeling the same things about love, or sadness, or death. We just don’t use the same words and metaphors to communicate those feelings and ideas.

The funny thing is, that when we understand the words, we understand the poetry and we like it. If we take the time to get into Shakespeare, we understand the insults, even if we don’t understand some of the words. We become accustomed to the language.

That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time on older poetry. Kids don’t have the attention span to spend days filtering meaning out of those dusty pages.

Don’t get me wrong, we still read Shakespeare. But only as much as we watch. His plays were meant to be watched.

Back to poetry. Introducing, Slam Poetry!

Kids seem to get Slam Poetry. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s emotional, it’s performed. It can be sad, thought provoking, or funny, and it doesn’t have to rhyme. Some still feel like they have to make it rhyme. That’s okay with me, it’s their creation.

I give my students themes. I try to guide their thinking so they can naturally start writing about the thing they love, or the thing that they’re good at. They struggle for a while, but eventually they dig deep enough that they start to write about how they really feel.

The thing I’ve discovered about poetry is that not everyone has had the same experiences. When a 16 year old guy reads a poem that describes being in love as being bathed in the warmth of sunlight, he shrugs and has solidified his belief that poetry is stupid.

However, when that same 16 year old watches a slam poem about love and OCD, the performance, emotion, word choice, and delivery show him how it feels to be in love, and how it feels to have that feeling shattered. He gets it. And that makes reading more intriguing. Reading to understand, not just reading because someone told them to.

Expressing emotion, being vulnerable, and daring to just write can produce amazing poetry. It takes encouragement. Anyone can do it. It also demands trust and respect. The students have to know that you’re on their side, and that what they write, and who they are is important.

So if your kiddo is struggling with reading, maybe take a break and try to write some poetry. Don’t make it rhyme. Don’t force it. Just write. Express feelings, use metaphors, similes, describe the details as if in slow motion. I think you’ll be surprised and amazed at what they write.

I know I am. Sometimes it gives me chills.

Until next week,

Write on, Read on.

-Dave

I’ve listed some slam poems that I love. Some I show in class. Some I can’t because of language. Some have cleaner versions that I do show in class.

Let me know what you think of poetry.

Neil Hilborn – “OCD” One *F* word. Makes me cry every time.

Neil Hilborn – Ted Talk – Agents of Changeand “OCD” Clean

Adam Gottlieb – “Poet Breathe Now” Inspiring

Miriam & Rhiannon – “Cat Poem” Hilarious 🙂

I love to read. It used to bother me when people would say that they didn’t like to read. I didn’t understand their reasons for why they didn’t like to read. But I think I get it now. At least a little.

I’ve learned a few things about how our brains work when we communicate with people. I’ve spent some time with family therapists and psychologists. I’ve read articles about how our brains process information from reading words, decoding images, and listening to others speak. Even though we’re not making things up, we use our imagination to picture things.

To put it down simply, we visualize things in our minds. Some have illustrated this process by describing our mind and imagination as a movie screen. When someone tells us a story we can visualize the details in our minds. The more information that we are given, the image we create is clearer, more precise.

Have you ever noticed when you ask someone a question they pause? They obviously know the answer to the question, but are trying to remember details, or maybe someones name. Often, the person will look up and shift their eyes side to side as if they’re scanning a visual screen for information. There isn’t anything there physically, but we visualize things as if they are.

Let’s try it out. I’m going to try to communicate to you an image by describing it to you.

Picture a spider.
Got it? Are you imagining the same spider that I am picturing in my mind? I doubt it. You don’t have enough information for us to be thinking about the same type of spider.  Let me give you more details.
The spider I’m picturing is black.
The spider is also shiny, almost like it’s wet.
The spider is the size of a nail head, and it’s on the wall.
Now the spider is the size of a golf ball.
Now the spider is as big as a dog.
It has dagger-sharp legs.

Are you still with me? Sorry if you have a fear of spiders. Did your spider change with every detail added?

So what does this exercise show? I think that some people have a more active imagination than others. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think that’s why some people don’t like reading. Their imagination isn’t as active, so visualizing details in a story is boring.

Can it be fixed? I think so. That’s why I’m addressing the issue. When reading with someone who doesn’t like to read, ask what they see when reading a story with them. If there isn’t a lot of detail in the story, almost anything visualized works. But if there are specifics like brick houses or red cars, ask them what they see. How tall is the house? How many doors does the car have? Is it a convertible? Or a race car?

Now, this doesn’t work with picture books. This exercise can be done with text only stories. The more that you read and imagine, the easier it becomes.

I hope this helps you with your resistant reader.
If you find these articles helpful, please share them with people who could use the help. Thanks!

Read on,

-Dave