Sunday, February 22, 2009

Poetry Break - poetry in an unusual form: Acrostic

Introduction: Middle School can be a pretty intimidating place, and it's hard to judge who to make friends with. Students this age tend to form cliques fast and ostracize those who don't fit into those cliques. But are they really snobs or are they just shy?

by Kristine O'Connell George

       Scanning the crowd,
       Only the other

       Staring right through me
       Never thinking
Body else.

       Stuck up

       No one
       Ought to
       Bother knowing.

(From SWIMMING UPSTREAM: MIDDLE SCHOOL POEMS by Kristine O'Connell George. Clarion Books 2002)

Starting middle school puts most students on their guard. During the first week of school, language arts teachers can read this poem to their middle school classes and then hold an icebreaker designed to let students meet other students they didn’t know before. For example, stand in a circle in the classroom and go around the circle, having each person tell what were the first words they read this morning, whether it was a side of a cereal box, a billboard seen from the school bus window, or the math assignment they didn’t get done last night. Once the students seem all comfortable with each other, discuss how people shouldn’t make snap judgments on people by their external appearance, but instead on what they truly know about that person. Be sure to mention that what looks like a student not bothering to see another student might not be snobbishness, but actually shyness. That other student is probably just as wary of middle school as any other student.

Graphic from: accessed 3/6/2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

Poetry Break: NCTE Award Winning Poet Karla Kuskin

Introduction: Children and music are naturals together. Since poetry has its own rhythm just like music, why not combine the two?

Lewis Has a Trumpet
By Karla Kuskin

A trumpet
A trumpet
Lewis has a trumpet
A bright one that’s yellow
A loud proud horn.
He blows it in the evening
When the moon is newly rising
He blows it when it’s raining
In the cold and misty morn
It honks and it whistles
It roars like a lion
It rumbles like a lion
With a wheeze huffing hum
His parents say it’s awful
Oh really simply awful
Lewis says he loves it
It’s such a handsome trumpet
And when he’s through with trumpets
He’s going to buy a drum.

(From A JAR OF TINY STARS edited by Bernice E Cullinan. Boyds Mill Press 1999)

Every class has a poem that’s appropriate for that subject, and this is true for music class, too. When elementary school students are introduced to musical instruments, sometimes they are hesitant because they’re afraid of making the wrong kind of sound. Reading this poem out loud at the beginning of a music class can help the students to realize that music isn’t made to be played with caution; it’s made to be played with joy. If a student can’t play an instrument with skill, encourage that student to play with enthusiasm, just like Lewis. And if the students give it a try and decide that instrument’s not right for them, point out that they can always pick another instrument. After all, that’s what Lewis did!

Graphic from: accessed 2/20/2009

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Poetry Book Review: Multicultural Poetry

A THOUSAND PEAKS: POEMS FROM CHINA. Liu, Siyu, and Orel Protopopescu, translators and editors, 2002. Illustrated by Siyu Liu. China: Global Interprint, Inc, and Berkely, CA: Pacific View Press. ISBN 1-881896-24-2.

Ancient China is a land and time that, for most of us, lies hidden in the mists of long-dead centuries past. But authors Liu and Protopopescu perform magic and roll back time to a land of both romance and bloody history. Poetry in China goes back over five thousand years. It was and continues to be an integral part of Chinese culture. This book gives an excellent overview of Ancient Chinese history, the many dynasties and revolutions, and the many poets as well, on an upper elementary or middle school grade level.

Liu and Protopopescu introduce the reader to the classic Chinese poetry form known as shi, which is very similar in format to the Japanese haiku. Unlike Japanese haiku, though, shi deals not only with nature, but with political unrest, the social climate, and emotions. Shi can be traced back to the Han dynasty, which ended in 206 BCE, but is still a major form of Chinese poetry today. Chinese children are taught to memorize shi before they can even read to instill proper respect for farmers, parents, and authorities. Even Mao Zedong wrote shi, and one of his shi is included in this collection.

The word shi means “poetry” in Chinese, and according to the authors, shi consists of four or eight lines per poem, with five or seven characters per line. The second and fourth lines usually rhyme, and the first line might also rhyme. The first and second lines portray an image, the third offers a different perspective on the image and the last line reflects the poet’s thoughts. All the poems in this collection have been translated from their Chinese originals, and all are shi. The wonderful thing about this poetry collection is that we are given the English translation, the poem in its original Chinese characters, and then the translation of those characters into the Chinese words. This lets us hear the sound of the poem in its original language and see how closely the poems follow the shi structure. The authors thoughtfully included a helpful pronunciation guide.

The book is divided into different chapters, each chapter named after an important part of Chinese culture. We learn about Ancient Chinese social culture, the world’s first civil service exam (called the Jinshi), and how the Ancient Chinese embraced nature. There are poems about respecting those who work the land, mourning the loss of an overthrown leader, political unrest, and even how the grass grows from year to year. Each poem is also accompanied by text which tells us about the poet, the reason the poem was written, and what was happening in Ancient China at the time to motivate the poem’s creation.

My favorite poem in this book is Poem of My Lost Country, written by a Tang dynasty concubine. The accompanying text tells how people placed the blame on Lady Huarui for distracting her emperor while the kingdom was being attacked. She was ultimately blamed for the downfall of the kingdom, and wrote this poem to redeem her reputation. She was taken captive by the new emperor and became his concubine in turn. When the emperor’s brother read this poem, he became suspicious that Lady Huarui was planning to murder her new husband in revenge for her first husband’s murder. Legend says that he arranged a hunting accident that resulted in her death.

Poem of My Lost Country

My lord raised a flag of surrender over his walled town.
Buried deep in his palace, what could I know of it then?
A hundred and forty thousand men put their weapons down.
How shocking to find not one man among them!

shù guó wáng shi

jün wáng chéng shàng shù xiáng qí
qiè zài shēn gōng nâ dé zhī
shí sì wàn rén qí xiè jiâ
nìng wύ yí gè shì nán ér

By Lady Huarui (Tang dynasty)

In the afterword, the two authors discuss the reasons, challenges, and technical difficulties in writing this book. What I found extremely interesting was where Siyu Liu tells us how, at the age of 10 in the midst of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, she discovered her parents’ hidden stash of forbidden books. When Mao Zedong died, Siyu Liu and her friends rejoiced in their newfound ancient heritage. This book is her attempt to preserve that heritage so it won’t be lost again.

Ancient China and other ancient civilizations are usually studied somewhere between 4th and 6th grades. This book would be an excellent accompaniment to the Ancient China unit. It brings the Ancient Chinese people to life, showing their doubts and fears, their struggles and joys, and in doing so, shows us that the Ancient Chinese weren’t so very different from you or me.

Graphics from:

Friday, February 13, 2009

Poetry Break: Douglas Florian

Introduction: Children love choral reading, especially when it’s silly. This poem just begs to be shared out loud during a storytime.

Hello, My Name is Dracula
By Douglas Florian

Hello, my name is Dracula.
My clothing is all blackula.
I drive a Cadillacula.
I am a maniacula.
I drink blood for a snackula.
Your neck I will attackula
With teeth sharp as a tackula.
At dawn I hit the sackula.
Tomorrow I’ll be backula!

(From LAUGH-ETERIA written and illustrated by Douglas Florian. Harcourt Brace & Company 1999)

1. A preschool storytime is the perfect setting for this poem, especially around Halloween. Read the poem out loud one time in a spooky voice, allowing the children to join in if they want. Then read the poem again, this time pausing before the last 3 syllables of each line (ack-u-la). By the time you reach the end of the poem, every child will most likely be shouting out the syllables in unison, accompanied by frequent giggle attacks.
2. Children in grades 1-4 will enjoy this poem also. After the teacher reads the poem out loud once, let the students who want to, take turns reading the lines to the rest of their class. Let them pause to allow the other students to join in. Discuss how Florian makes his own nonsense rhymes for this poem, and have the class come up with lists of silly nonsense rhymes – the sillier, the better! If the class is interested in writing their own silly poems, these lists can either be laminated and posted in the classroom or handed out as individual copies for the students to use in their writing portfolios.

Graphic from :

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Poetry Break: African American poet Langston Hughes

Introduction: According to the editors, Langston Hughes wrote this poem for a class assignment at City College of the City University of New York.

Theme for English B
By Langston Hughes

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down , and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
Hear you, hear me—we two—you, me talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.)—Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be I love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
Although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

(From POETRY FOR YOUNG PEOPLE: LANGSTON HUGHES edited by David Roessel & Arnold Rampersad, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 2006)

1) How many English teachers have never had students groan about writing an essay? Even poets sometimes question that assignment, just as in this poem. Have your students write a one page essay about themselves without talking about themselves directly. They can put it into free verse or prose, but the point is to flex their creative writing muscles.
2) Langston Hughes' birthday is February 1st. What a great way to kick off Black History Month! Stock your classroom with as many Langston Hughes collections as you can find. Give each student 20 minutes to find a poem to share, and then spend the rest of the class time reading the poems out loud.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Poetry Book Review

DAYS TO CELEBRATE. Hopkins, Lee Bennett, ed. 2005. Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-000765-6.

This anthology from Lee Bennett Hopkins includes poems for every single month of the year. Hopkins divides this book into twelve chapters, one for each month of the year. On the first page of each chapter, he provides his readers with a calendar of that month. Every single day contains at least one notable event that occured on that date. Hopkins lists birthdates, holidays, important inventions, and miscellaneous fun trivia facts such as on August 2nd, 1858, the first US mailboxes were installed in Boston and New York City. In April, to commemorate National Poetry Month and Young People's Poetry Week, he has a page of quotes from poets on poetry.

The poems included in this anthology range from 2 line snippets to full page poems. Even though the cover's illustrations are cartoons, the inside illustrations are done in Folk Art style. I think this switch from cartoon to folk art makes this book primarily for middle school or young adult readers.

My favorite poem in the entire collection is for February 2nd (today, actually!), to commemorate Groundhog's Day:

by Maria Fleming

People shoo me
from their lawn,
scold me,
chase me,
want me gone,
treat me like
some kind of pest,
a most unwelcome
garden guest.

Then one day,
for mysterious reasons,
they crown me--


King of Seasons.

Will spring come soon?
Will winter flee?
The world awaits
my royal decree.