Ideas for Parents & Teachers

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Our spring theme is inspired by the poem, “In Just-” by e. e. cummings and by our guest poet-judge, Matthew Burgess and his work with students in the New York elementary schools.

This is meant to provide context if you are inspired to create a poem related to this theme. Whether you are a parent or a teacher or a student, we hope these ideas might inspire new ways of looking at writing poetry. Submissions do not have to be made from this lesson – all submissions will be accepted.

An overview of & excerpts from Matthew’s lesson follows (or follow link to full):

“The following lesson plan works well with Enormous Smallness as an accompanying text, and I use these two pages as a lead-in to the writing exercise. It is easily adaptable for any grade level, from kindergarten to college.

  1. I start by reading “[in Just-]” with the class. I like to read it once aloud, and then ask for student volunteers. It’s not the easiest poem to read, but hesitations and pauses can be helpful in highlighting some of the unusual moves that the poem makes. If possible, project the poem onto the wall or board so that students can see and discuss the spatial arrangement of words on the page.
  1. As necessary, I pose questions about the poem to stimulate conversation: How does the speaker of the poem feel about springtime? Can you remember a time when you liked to play in mud puddles? Where does Cummings play with words or break rules? What do you notice about how the poet puts the words on the page?
  1. Allowing the discussion to follow its course, I intermittently identify the literary devices that I want to highlight and write them on the board. These can be easily adapted to suit age level or unit. For example, when a student points out Cummings’ use of “mud-luscious” or “puddle-wonderful,” I might say he is “squishing words together,” or I could use the term “kenning.” For the purposes of the writing activity that follows, I generally emphasize:

1. Wordplay (squishing words together, kenning, parataxis, etc.)

2. Onomatopoeia (“wee”)

3. Play of form (free verse, composition by field, “projective verse”)

  1. Without becoming too bogged down in technicalities, I shift into a collaborative lead-in activity. Using a large sheet of paper or a SMART Board, I make two columns. I ask students to brainstorm “things” they associate with spring, and then, in the first column, I write their suggestions in the singular form. (For example, flowers become flower, umbrellas become umbrella.)

Note: you can use fall, winter, or summer as well, depending on the season, the mood, or student choice.

  1. Then we brainstorm a list of adjectives that convey enthusiasm or excitement, and I write these in the second column. When working with second-graders, I ask for words that are similar to “wonderful” or “really great.”
  1. Once both columns are full, I write (or project) the following sentence: “It’s spring / when the world is ____-____!” I ask for volunteers to take a word from the first column and “squish it together” with a word from the second column. Students immediately sense the spark as you write things like “grass-fantastic,” “sunshine-spectacular,” “rain-amazing,” or “coconut-preposterous.”
  1. When the energy shifts and the “making impulse” kicks in, I keep the directions as simple as possible and try to float a feeling of “permission” in the air. Some students need more clarification or guidance, while others need to be set free immediately. The basic instructions are:

a. Write a poem about spring (or summer, fall, winter) inspired by E. E. Cummings’ example. Using the brainstormed lists—or inventing your own—squish some words together and play with the placement of the words on the page. See if you can include an example of onomatopoeia like E. E.’s “wee.”

b. Think about what you see, smell, hear, touch, and taste in this season. If you’re not sure how to get started, or if you like this opening line, begin with: “It’s spring / when the world is _____-_____” and then keep going! You don’t need to decide what you are going to write about—just jump in and let your pencil find it.

If you are working with very young writers or writers with special needs, the poem can be simplified to a short list of hyphenated words. I have collaborated with the illustrator of Enormous Smallness, Kris Di Giacomo, on versions of this lesson that incorporate a visual element.”

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