Literacy Through Poetry: a 2-week second grade residency

This week I finished the biggest project I’ve yet worked on as a teaching artist: teaching poetry to 80 second-graders at Central School in South Berwick, ME.

The residency spanned 11 days of teaching, plus an evening Showcase event, from the end of March to the middle of April. The aims were two-fold. First, to teach the second graders some important things about how to write poetry. But behind that, the goal was to use the writing of poetry to increase their overall confidence in themselves as writers and users of language.

Over the first 9 days, I helped them to draft 7 different poems using different tools. We started with group poems composed of lines beginning with repeated phrases. At this stage I introduced them to the idea of writing discrete sentences on strips of paper (Sentence Strips) which they then assembled into a poem, not only to make writing easier than starting with a blank page, but also to get them thinking about poetic lines. The Sentence Strips were also perfect for our first lessons in rewriting, when we added words to our Strips to make them more descriptive, thought hard about what order of Strips made the most sense, and looked at where we could insert new Strips to expand our ideas.

Here are some of those Strip poems in process:

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We kept on using the sentence strips for poems built around verbs (an animal performing a mixture of real and impossible actions) and then metaphors (transforming an ordinary classroom object into many different things). Along the way we practiced using rhyme effectively. The last poem was a Personal Poem on a topic special to them, and this they wrote without the Strips. Finally, they chose their favorite poem for sharing, and worked on intensively on revising and editing it. The poems were shared with parents at the Celebration Night, when the students also worked with their parents to write new poems using some of the techniques they’d learned.

Here are just some of the poems and accompanying art, ready for display at the Showcase night.

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As an extra bonus, one of the parents (Deb Cram) made a montage video of almost all the students reading a line or two from their poems, which you can view here. The poems will also be published in a chapbook along with student artwork, and there will soon be an after school Creative Writing group to help keep the writing going! Phew—now I understand why I was exhilarated and exhausted when we finished…

The residency was funded by the Marshwood Education Foundation, which funds projects in the Marshwood School District. We hope that the residency may have demonstrated sufficient value for the District to fund future annual second grade poetry residencies, although with budget issues everywhere, who knows what will happen.

As a teaching artist, this was a huge undertaking, working with a large group of fairly young writers for 12 consecutive days. I was tremendously conscious of how much the second grade teachers were giving me, trusting me with their students for so long, and allowing me to disrupt their well-oiled routines! From my point of view, the residency, while challenging at times (it was my first time managing classes with up to 40 second graders at once), was a great success. Not only did the students write very many wonderful poems, but the majority of them also enthusiastically grasped the idea of revising their writing, which is so important for their school writing careers. I know that several students who had struggled with literacy and writing produced poems that surprised and delighted their teachers and themselves. It’s too soon to say definitively whether the residency will have a significant long-term effect on the cohort’s performance as writers and users of language, but the signs are good. And the poems are great.