The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

For the Fun of It (And the Learning Just Happens!)

on September 15, 2016

Today’s post was written by teacher David Harrison and sent to me by a friend, Sam Bommarito, a retired teacher who has contributed pieces before and now is serving as the Co-Editor of Missouri Reader.  The piece is very long, but well worth reading and passing on. Enjoy!


 When I made up my first poem, I was hungry and tired of waiting. My mother was frying fish in the kitchen and I was sent to the living room to wait for dinner. The words I thought of expressed my need. I liked the way they sounded. “Sometimes I wish/I had a fish/Upon a little dish.” No one told me I had to make up a poem. I was six-years-old. It was just a fun thing to do. My mother taped the poem into my scrapbook. High praise!

Seven decades later I’m still making up poems. Kids ask why I climb out of bed at 6:00 a.m. to settle into my daily writing routine. The reason hasn’t changed. It’s a fun thing to do. Writing poems makes me feel good. Writing well is neither simple nor easy, but it provides me with a sense of gratification that drives my desire to do it again.

I tend to have paper and pen close by. I stash them in my bedroom, my car, and my pockets. If there’s anything I’m better at than recognizing million dollar ideas at unexpected times and places, it’s forgetting them if I don’t quickly scratch out a note. I would never admit to an officer of the law that I’ve made notes in my car. I’m just saying that I have a good many notes that I can’t read the next day.

One of my favorite ways to dive into a poem is by association. I pick a word or phrase and follow where it leads me. “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” I don’t remember who said that. By association I realized that the proper addendum for that advice would be, “But mice will hate you.” Mice led to cheese. Cheese led to the moon. If you’re not old enough to know that the moon is made of green cheese, indulge me. The moon led to the Man in the Moon, which led to a poem.

 

THE MAN IN THE MOON

From Using the Power of Poetry

The man in the moon

Eats nothing but cheese.

There’s nothing but cheese to eat.

Often he cries

To the cheddar skies,

“I’m dying for some little treat!”

He dreams of chicken salad, he says,

On slices of fresh whole wheat.

“I yearn for yams,

Sugar-cured hams,

Or anything gooey or sweet!”

The man in the moon

Eats nothing but cheese —

There’s nothing but cheese to eat —

But oh how he wishes

For tastier dishes,

Like salads!

And veggies!

And meat!

 

Learning takes place when we add something new to our base of knowledge and prior experiences. When we ask students to choose writing from the long list of possibilities that vie for their attention, we’re expecting too much if, for them, writing does not bring pleasure. Readers who stumble at making sense of words strung together into sentences and paragraphs often find the shorter, more inviting lines of a poem easier to “get.” Other senses become involved. They hear the beat, feel the rhythm, and see the pictures.

Poetry teaches while it entertains. A letter from a little boy who was a struggling reader expresses what it feels like when words work their magic. “The words (in your poem) have a rhythm to them,” he wrote. “I can hear the beat in my head. Then when I get it down I read it out loud to myself.”

A six-year-old girl was given one of my books called Farmer’s Garden in which a dog interviews various inhabitants of his master’s garden. The girl sat on her mother’s lap and listened to the poetic interviews over and over. She read them silently to herself. She read them aloud. She asked an adult friend to sit down and listen to her read her new poems. She asked the adult to take turns reading with her. The little girl loved the words so much that she began acting out some of the parts, leaping and waving her arms and dancing in exuberant interpretations of what she heard and felt and saw in her imagination.

The following morning she took the book to school. There she organized her classmates into teams. As the book was read aloud, the children performed the girl’s choreographed movements. Was this youngster a struggling reader? I doubt it, but I’m willing to bet that some of her dancing classmates were, and her rambunctious joy in turning words into dance must surely have been good for every reader in the class, wherever they were along the reading scale.

Poems can convey moods, messages, and voices as broad and deep as the experience of being human. Sometimes the most serious among us feel like being silly. The most rambunctious have quiet moments; the classroom comic, his reflective times. We may feel certain emotions so deeply that we find them difficult to talk about. Being embarrassed, abused, poor, homeless, hungry, frightened, degraded, alone, are hard to discuss. Sometimes a poem can express what the tongue cannot.

I remember being mortified as a middle school student when I fell off the back of the bandstand at a school party, still clutching my trombone. I could barely stand the thought of climbing back up and facing the crowd.

 

FROM THE BACK ROW

From Connecting Dots

Tonight our band performed at school,

on risers in the cafeteria,

music folders on black stands,

our first gig, professional.

 

My solo came, I stood tall,

pushed back my chair,

played flawlessly,

acknowledged applause,

nonchalantly took my seat,

 

Fell off backward, chair and all,

off the back of the top riser,

somersaulted through the air,

crash-landed behind the band.

 

Huge applause when I reappeared,

climbed the risers carrying my chair.

 

I wish I’d broken both legs.

A little sympathy is my only chance

for tomorrow.

 

Young people in school have almost unlimited opportunities to be embarrassed. Maybe that’s why they can be so sensitive to the plight of others. This student knew exactly what I was talking about.

“Dear Mr. Harrison, My favorite poem was the one with you falling off the risers. When you fell off the risers I bet you were embarrassed. I have embarrassing moments too.”

Another common experience is being the new kid. Whether in church, neighborhood, class, school, or community, nearly every child knows what it’s like to be on the outside feeling alone and excluded. If you’re a new kid and you’re shy, you can spend a lot of time staring at your desk or looking out the window — anywhere to avoid making direct eye contact.

 

NEW SCHOOL

From Connecting Dots

What did you do

in school today?

 

I saw a boy

looking at me.

I waved,

but he looked away.

 

His friends ran up,

yelling and laughing.

I laughed, too,

but they looked away.

 

I answered wrong

in class today.

The boy laughed,

I looked away.

 

I know I’m reaching my audience when I receive notes like this one.“Mr. Harrison, I’m new so I relate. That’s exactly what happened to me.”

A poet’s job is to write so that readers want to read what he has to say. I like nature. One day on a walk I stooped to examine a single hoof print pressed into a soft spot in the path. Alone in the forest silence, I felt somehow connected to the wild creature that had walked where I now stood, perhaps moments earlier. I didn’t think, “Aha! A poem!” But I carried the memory away with me, and the act itself became part of the poem that I eventually wrote.

 

CROSSING PATHS

From Wild Country

A single hoof mark

in the moist trail,

small

probably a deer.

 

We’ll never meet

yet our paths cross

here.

 

In these woods

our separate ways

are clear

 

but standing briefly

where this deer stood

 

is a memory

worth taking

beyond the wood

 

The deer poem seemed as inevitable as the fish poem of my youth. They both sprang from sudden urges to record a moment that felt important. I’ve developed a lot of tricks over the years to help me find my way into poems, but most of my favorites take their voices from something as simple and personal and compelling as wanting to eat or crossing paths with a deer. I am my first and most important audience. If I don’t like it, I take for granted that my readers won’t either.

Serious times in our lives often generate serious writing to describe them, but not always. As I look around at the size of a lot of us these days, I want to write about the enormity of the problem. But to write a poem about being overweight that might be read aloud in a class would risk embarrassing some of the students. Poets have a responsibility to consider such possibilities before choosing how to present a subject. My solution in this case was to keep it light and silly.

 

THE PERFECT DIET

From The Boy Who Counted Stars

 

Mrs. LaPlump weighed 300 pounds,

Her husband weighed 202.

“I’ve got to lose some weight,” she said,

I’ll give up potatoes and pizza and bread.”

Mr. LaPlump said, “I will, too.

My darling, I’ll do it for you.”

 

When each of them lost 100 pounds,

He only weighed 102.

“I’ve got to lose more weight,” she said.

“This next 100,” said he, “I dread,

For when we are finished I’ll only weigh 2,

But darling, I’ll do it for you.”

 

When they lost another 100 pounds,

Her figure was perfect and trim,

But there is a lesson here I think,

Mr. LaPlump continued to shrink

Till one day he disappeared down the sink,

And you may find this grim, my dears,

But it was the end for him.

 

If we expect to draw in readers and entice writers, we need to learn what kids like. School visits help authors remember the differences from one grade to another. Sometimes this can be a challenge! If I spot some boys in the back, slouching at their seats, ankles crossed, determined to be unreachable, I play my trump card: one of my nonfiction books called Cave Detectives. One passage describes the discovery of ancient claw marks high on a cavern wall.

 

“Those deep gouges in the clay were put there by a bear,” I tell them.

The boys, still motionless, peer out through their eyelashes.

“Fourteen feet up the wall.”

Feet uncross.

“Four feet higher than a basketball goal.”

They lean forward.

“That bad boy could weigh 2,000 pounds, run 45 miles per hour, and was always hungry for meat.”

 

They’re mine. Sometimes so much so that I have a hard time moving on to the next topic. Think those boys would read a poem about a bear? Would they try their hand at making up their own bear poems? I’d bet on both.

When I was developing Connecting Dots, 54 memory-based poems that covered the arc of my life from 3 through my age at the time (early 60s), I visited P.S. 86 in the Bronx. With the wonderful support of the principal, reading coach, and teachers from third through sixth grades, every poem was read aloud in classes and rated on a grid by every student in those grades.

At the time more than 1,700 students attended P.S. 86. Weeks later I received 12,000 ratings that ranged from yuck to amazing. I learned a lot about what those kids liked and didn’t like. I removed some poems, expanded others at their request, and added others that they suggested.

But stimulating kids to read poetry is only half the battle. They also need to write their own poems. On my blog, I post a new word each month and challenge poets of all ages to write poems inspired by that word. A teacher in Florida began submitting student poems. The poems were often weak, but the students soon became fully engaged in the effort. The teacher told me that her students came from a low socioeconomic area and were in a Level 1 ninth grade class. No one ever asked them to write poetry although Level 1 students were given Intensive Reading courses to help them with the FCAT (Florida’s standardized test).

She said, “I truly believe that by shoving reading lessons down their throats without the benefit of creative writing lessons served only to bore them to tears and caused them to shut down.”  Who wants to read boring, nonfiction passages about a spider or a country they never heard of before? Now, when I introduced poetry, they were interested.  At first, they tried to act cool and aloof, but I knew them… When I showed them poetry, they were a little interested.  When I taught them to read poetry, they were more interested.  When I told them to write poetry, they thought I was crazy.

When they wrote poetry, they came alive.

Were the poems good?  No, not technically.  But they poured their hearts into them and they loved seeing their names on your blog.

And that is when their reading scores went up.”

And that seems like a good place for me to end.

 

HAVE IT YOUR OWN WAY

(Two Voices)

From The Mouse was Out at Recess

(Isabelle)                                                                   (Teacher)

Me and Sally are pals!

Sally and I are pals.

I didn’t know you knew her!

I don’t.

Then why did you say,

“Me and Sally are pals?”

Sally and I are pals.

You said it again!

You said,

“Me and Sally are pals!”

Sally and I are pals!

Have it your own way.

You and her are pals.

But I don’t believe it,

And Sally won’t neither!

 

You know what? This is just a fun thing to do.

 

David Harrison, one of Missouri’s favorite authors, has written over seventy books and numerous articles. His writing has been translated, anthologized, and presented on stage, television, radio, cassette, and CD-ROM. David has been a musician, scientist, editor, and businessman. He holds degrees from the following universities: Drury, Emory, and Missouri State. David is Poet Laureate of Drury University.

 

 

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