Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Children's Hour

Passing a field of gloriously splashed black and white cows, I yelled out the open car window,
"Glory be to God for dappled things!"
In the rearview mirror, I could almost see my kids' ears stand out from their heads, eyes round.
"What did you say??"
I earned two degrees in poetry before giving up in defeat, being that poetry is dead in this prosaic age. Like a departed loved one, I rarely speak of it.
But recently I noticed that, when it does escape me, my early reader and my pre-reader are electrified. Even my sixth grader, who's a super fluent reader, stops to listen.
That's why the children's hour, the hour of reading before bed, now includes one or two poems at the end, right before I light the candle and sing the goodnight song. The kids sleep on poetry. I'm amazed at what they are able to retain.
5,6,7,8 are the years of powerful auditory learning. That means kids learn best through the ear at this stage. In Waldorf schools, there is emphasis during these years on storytelling, singing, languages. (Was it Plato who advised not putting a book into a child's hand before the age of 9?)
I don't intend to become an apologist for the Waldorf pedagogy; what works for your kid is the place where they thrive. But I do see evidence that a million years of stories and songs by the fireside is richly embedded in human DNA, based on how young kids respond - more to a story told first person, with eye contact, than a story from a book, and more to poetry than prose.
At Back to School night this week, the second grade teacher made an offhand remark that speech is the basis of learning to read, so he recites and has the kids learn from memory a lot of POETRY.
In my experience, poetry forms the ideal bridge between learning by ear and sight reading. The rhythm and rhyme of traditional poetry support a new reader - particularly a struggling one - to "fill in the gaps" of words that she or he might not recognize on sight. That is to say, rhyme and rhythm provide useful contextual clues to help a reader anticipate what type of word might be likely to come next. As an added bonus, the framework or pattern of rhythm/rhyme provides a mnemonic device that helps lock the experience of the poem into muscular memory.
A poem is human. It contains memory, breath and a heartbeat. Children relate to it. And they revel in the flexibility of language, the sense of play and action. Think of jump rope rhymes - no better way to practice times tables: the beat and the rhyme save to the hard drive through joy.
This was brought home to me by Monsieur Badila, son of an African chief, who visited my children's French class (run by Madame Badila) and taught the kids to count in French with an indelible tool - a drum.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty

P.S. Our favorite kids poetry anthology, Piping Down the Valleys Wild, though out of print, is readily available on Amazon. Other good places to start are When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne, and all the savage and hilarious poems of Roald Dahl.



Anonymous Kate Kaiser said...

I am a poet because my mother read poetry (animatedly) to me and her father read it and nifty song verses to her. Nice, nice article Miss Robyn and I love that you light a candle too.

Keep On!

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Bonnie Tanaka said...

As I read your quote, the words sparked visual pictures in my mind and stirred emotions calling; find your colored pencils, pick up your pastels! So thank you Robyn for reminding me how important poetry is to children of all ages. As my twelve-year-old daughter branches far out into the world of academics I hope that she will continue to rely on the peaceful place that drawing and reading poetry and short stories has so far provided her. I know you have a fast knowledge of literature…. can you provide any suggestions on poetry books that we may not be familiar with?

5:23 PM  
Blogger robyn perry said...

Yes, I can! I'll add to my PS with a few ideas and a new poem in my next post. Poetry is a sacred place of life and death, and initiation by fire in a still protected circle. So it has immense value for transitions, adolescence or the many transformations beyond. Thanks for your reactions.

5:44 PM  
Blogger robyn perry said...

Here's a working list of poetry for adolescence:

Stories and Poems for Intelligent Children of All Ages (Bloom)

A Journey Through Time in Verse and Rhyme (Heather Thomas)

Poetry for Young People (Frost)

Immortal Poems of the English Language (Oscar Williams)

Out of the Earth I Sing (Lewis)

Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, Falling Up (Silverstein)

Complete Nonsense (Lear)

4:14 AM  

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