Teaching Great Poetry to Children: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins is pretty much my favorite poet. That’s kind of a silly thing to say, since having a favorite poet is like having a favorite food, and how could I choose between ice-cream and fresh blueberries and the perfect hamburger and my boyfriend’s tom kha soup? Poetry is delicious in at least as many ways. But anyhow, I really, really like Gerard Manley Hopkins and I want to share him with my students.

Hopkins as a boy.

The thing is, his poems aren’t necessarily that easy for them — there is dense language, religious language, archaic language. However, there is also wonder and despair and an exulting love of nature, all of which children understand.  Also, there is so much word play and music, so that even if you don’t understand every word, it still sounds cool. Hopkins doesn’t hold back, and kids respect that.

Still, I’ve had hits and misses introducing his work to my class. The first time, I think I read too much of it, and their eyes glazed over. This year, it worked better. I began by telling them about Hopkin’s life — how he’d been a gifted poet as a young man at Oxford, how he loved another man and didn’t know what to do about because of the time when he lived, then had joined the Jesuit priesthood and burned his early poems, how he had been sent to Dublin, where he was sad and homesick, how he loved nature, how he died young of typhoid. They felt a lot of sympathy for him by then.

Then I read a couple of his poems, starting with “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” and suggested everyone just listen to the sounds. We’d already talked about alliteration and rhyme, and I told them he was a master at it. I pointed out some particularly musical phrases: wimple-water-dimpled; too too apt to, ah!, to fleet. The class particularly loved how many times he repeated the word “despair” in the lines Be beginning to despair, to despair/Despair, despair, despair, despair. You’ve got to hand it to the Victorians — they don’t beat around the melodramatic bush.

Then we moved on to the classic “Pied Beauty,” and we talked about how he joined words to make particular meanings: rose-moles, fresh-firecoal. We talked about how much he loved nature and how carefully he observed it, and how because of the way he was religious, just taking a walk outside was like having a vision. This is something that many of the children, of many religious backgrounds, seem to understand.

Then, because they were still listening and I couldn’t help myself, we read “God’s Grandeur,” which is one of the most deeply-felt poems I know about people messing up the earth and the earth’s continuing resiliency, which again is a beauty and pain that many of the kids feel deeply.

By then it was high time to write, so we wrote poems about lists of things we liked, the way Hopkins does in “Pied Beauty.” I encouraged specificity, music, particular and fresh words. They wrote some beautiful poems, and a long story about Thanksgiving. Several weeks later, when we were talking about what to make a crankie of, one of the Seattle students suggested Hopkin’s poems. We’re making a crankie of “Pied Beauty,” and it’s bursting with the same exuberant wonder for nature that the poem is. I’ll try to post it when it’s done.

By the way, to give credit where it’s due, I drew my Hopkin’s prompt from Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s excellent book SLEEPING ON THE WING, which is a great anthology for teaching poetry to kids, and which has all the Hopkins poems we read in it as well.

Want to hear more ideas about teaching poetry to children? Come to one of Becca’s upcoming free talks.

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Epic Runes

Did you know that English wasn’t always written in the Roman alphabet? It was originally written in runes, like other old Germanic languages. Then for a long time it could be written in either script. Manuscripts were usually written in the Roman alphabet, while inscriptions were done in runes, which are a type of writing made to be carved. That’s why there aren’t curves in runic letters. That’s also why there aren’t horizontal lines, which are hard to carve across the grain. Unlike Roman letters, runes each have their own meaning as a letter, as well as being able to form words phonetically.

I shared all this with my students when we were learning about the history of English at the beginning of the year. Later on, I asked them what some of their writing goals for the year were, and in one class several of the kids wanted to become fluent in runes. Yep. Fluent in runes.

So we’re learning our runes.  I introduce a rune at the beginning of the day, and students are welcome to substitute it for its equivalent letter. They are also welcome to translate their poetry into runes. I don’t expect everyone to end up fluent in runes, but the kids who are excited about them will have a chance to run with it.

I’m excited about this not only because the kids are excited, but because I think runes are fascinating. They are a form of writing in which the written word is that much closer to the real world. Letters named after real things, letters that look like real things, letters meant to be carved physically into things — as a believer in the meaningfulness of language, I think this is really cool. So wish us luck with the project!

Want to hear more of Becca’s thoughts about teaching writing? Come to one of her upcoming free talks in the greater Seattle area.

 

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Writing to Music

Once or twice a year, I bring my mp3 player into class, and we write to music. We write to things like Tchaikovsky, Bach, Buena Vista Social Club, Edith Piaf, fiddle tunes, Tuvan throat singing, and a seven year old’s piano compositions. I avoid English lyrics, just to let everyone’s imaginations be free of a pre-made story. I usually let each song run for three minutes or so, and then shift to something different. Sometimes at the end I’ll leave on a good, emotional classical piece for fifteen or twenty minutes. The music makes it fun, and we can write for a long time.

I ask the children just to write down whatever words, ideas, feelings, or images come to mind when they listen to each song. If a whole story comes to life, they can write that. If it feels like a poem, they can write it like a poem. If they like a piece and want to keep writing it later, they can.

What is wonderful about this exercise, beyond watching everyone’s responses to all the weird/cool music, is how dramatically music stirs our emotions, and how many interesting, specific images it can generate. A sad woman folding socks for money, writes a student. A family standing on an island scared of sharks. A man at a beauty store playing a banjo. A mime pretending to die.  A man in a boat, singing to a swordfish. A cheetah is lost in a dark jungle. Slow yoga. The sky is singing to the people. How utterly strange and beautiful and particular! This is good stuff.

And once, this lesson ended with an impromptu disco sing-along to Woody Guthrie. Does it get more fun than that?

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Ancestor Interviews

Every family has stories. Every fall, with a nod to Halloween and Day of the Dead, we go out and learn some of them. I ask my students to go home and talk to one of their relatives — preferably some one old, maybe someone they don’t see all the time, but even a parent works — and ask that person to tell them a story.  Then the students bring those stories into class, where they have a chance to both tell them and write them down.

Otto Mears — an ancestor of mine. Photo credit: Wolf Creek Ski.

This year, I asked them to learn a story about how their family ended up in Washington. We got stories about orphans and runaways and war brides. There were relatives who had come by flying in early trans-oceanic passenger planes and modern jet planes, by crossing the Isthmus of Panama pre-canal, by riding in jam-packed cars over dirt roads across the Rockies, and by sailing on the Mayflower. There were wars and tragedies. There was talent and fame. There was love and disappointment. There were mysteries.

I asked the students to draw a family tree connecting them to the ancestor they were writing about. They could put more information on it if they knew more, or it could just be a sort of family stick showing them, their mother, and their grandmother whose story they told.

Last year, I asked them to talk to their oldest living relative and ask that person to tell them a story about their oldest relative. There are so many other possible prompts: wars, work, love stories, mischief, childhood, land — so many more. Whatever the prompt, the project seems to give the children a sense of pride in their family and respect for their relatives’ struggles. Learning family stories gives their own stories a context and a larger meaning, and makes history and geography personal. It builds intergenerational ties. It’s also just fun, especially when older relatives tell crazy stories about their younger selves.  Who knows, maybe your grandmother smoked and ate a bear — but you’ll never know unless you get her to tell the story.

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