Did you know that The Children's School (TCS) is becoming a notable youth poetry outpost in the state of Illinois?
Each year, Illinois Humanities, supported by the National Endowment for Humanities and the Illinois Arts Council, sponsors the statewide Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards. Only two students from each grade are selected from across the state for special recognition and two per grade receive honorable mentions.
TCS Librarian, Polly Smith, first encouraged students to submit poems to the contest in 2019. That year, two TCS poems received awards. In 2020, three TCS students were recognized. This year, TCS students took home a total of nine awards, a remarkable percentage for a small private school in such a large pool of submissions. A related organization representative asked Smith “What are you folks doing over there? This is just amazing!”
Awards to TCS Students
"I Like to Play With My Brother" by Michael Wiley (Kindergarten)
"My Favorite Tree" by Lucy Orr (Kindergarten)
"Yesterday I Saw a Neighbor" by Finn McGuire (1st Grade)
"Far, Far Away" by Zeus Zimm Lyons (4th Grade)
"A Talking Clock" by Grant Hodges (Kindergarten)
"Dragons Have Different Powers" by Harlan Cox (1st Grade)
"Nature" by Amelia Richards (3rd Grade)
"Cookies" by Leo Quest (3rd Grade)
"I Am From" by Liana Smith (7th Grade)
A Culture of Poetry at TCS
“Kids at TCS love to write poetry,” says Polly Smith. “One reason is that it’s part of the culture of the school. Poetry is in the classrooms, teachers talk about it, the teachers themselves sometimes write poetry and share it with their students. There are books of poetry in every classroom: not in a special section, but mixed in with the picture books where they’ll come across them. Poetry is all over the place here!
“Our older students have been writing poems for years and are enthusiastic and serious about it. Some of them are prolific, they write in school, they write at home, they write collaboratively with classmates. Their love of poetry is pretty contagious, so that even the less enthusiastic kids and our younger students see it and they start to like it too.”
Poetry Requires Time and Space
“At TCS we have the flexibility to devote plenty of time and space to poetry. I have the luxury of spending many weeks exploring it – reading it, writing it and learning about it,” says Smith, pointing to the school’s progressive education philosophy and emergent curriculum. The philosophy allows teachers to spontaneously adapt classroom time in ways that engage the children’s current curiosity while addressing their academic or socio-emotional needs.
“It’s an open, low-pressure process here and it’s fun--for them and for me! I’m blown away by the poems my students write and I tell them so. I think over time they come to believe that their thoughts, their natural ‘voice’ is beautiful and meaningful. They start to see themselves as proper poets, which of course they are.”
Facilitating Learning Through Poetry
TCS classrooms make time and space for poetry too. This year, one group raised chicks in the classroom, and their teacher, had students spend a block of time just observing the chicks: what they looked like, what they did, and how they interacted. Then she had the kids sit down and write a poem about them. Poetry comes naturally when it’s connected to things kids love and care about. The poems were compiled in a booklet called Chick Poems, so the students could enjoy everyone’s work.
Some kids feel they can’t write poetry or that they aren’t good writers. “That’s where our flexibility of working one on one with a student helps,” says Smith.
“If they’re stuck, I assure them that a poem can be about anything – something simple like their favorite animal or what happened at recess to things much deeper like how much they love their little brother or their experience of the pandemic.”
“With younger students sometimes their obstacle to writing is physically getting words on the page,” explains Smith. “That’s when I’m able to act as a scribe – they say it and I scribble it down as fast as I can. I don’t make suggestions, I don’t correct them, I just write it down word for word and then read it back to them.”
my favorite part about playing baseball is a home run
because i’ve never hit a homerun in my whole life!
all i ever did was strike out.
i wanted to score a point or a base hit.
that could work!
and here’s the deal, i’ve never been hit by a ball in a baseball game,
i’ve never been hit!
i kept missing because every time i hit
i felt pain in my hands,
on my way to the dugout i’d have to shake out my hands.
so i had to stop baseball but maybe someday
i’ll go back to playing it because i love baseball.
i would love it if i hit a big home run.
i would point to the crowd and clap to myself
because it would be my first one.
There was a flower
and it wasn’t devoured
But if it does get devoured
It will take hours.
Exposure to Great Poems
“When I came to TCS, our poetry collection was small and had a lot of books by white male poets. I’ve slowly expanded and updated it into something I’m pretty proud of. We still read and enjoy Poe and E.E Cummings of course, but it’s so important to celebrate all kinds of writers – women, people of color, LGBTQ+ and poets outside the European tradition. There are many incredible books of poetry for young people being published every year and I love finding them and sharing them with the kids. Now we have more contemporary work, by lesser well-known authors, sometimes, that represent a wide variety of life experiences,” explains Smith.
Ahh, the world is burning,
People are dead and dying.
Chaos is king
And disharmony is at its side.
The flame engulfs all senses of unity,
Putting down any hope to stop its rampage.
Oh, how I enjoy this.
For it is I...you.
“But when the faculty and I read poems to children, we don’t just read ‘kiddie poems.’ Writers like Shel Silverstein are great and very popular, but we also expose our students to appropriate grown-up poems that they can appreciate.
A Harsh Landing
I look into the sky so blue that you could get lost in it.
Well at least that’s what I think.
Then I look down into the pool that seems like miles under my feet.
I feel a shove as my friend pushes me off the diving board.
I feel myself going through the air in slow motion.
The water slaps me as if it doesn’t want me to go in
And I feel myself getting sucked toward the bottom.
“For example, I love to read The Tyger by William Blake to fourth graders. I ask them to just listen first, rather than try to understand it,” she explains. “We open their ears to how lovely the words sound and the interesting way they work together. There’s no pressure to analyze it or decipher the meaning. It’s really ok to love the musicality of it.”
Smith, a former classical musician, once asked young students, “What is a poem?”
“The first answer I got was ‘words that make music.’ I told them I couldn’t add a thing to that definition.”
When asked by a student why people write and love poetry, Smith says the best answer she could come up with is that it’s a way that people communicate what’s in their heart. “As a kid, I don’t remember any teacher ever asking me, ‘What’s going on in your world right now? I’m interested to know.’ I think that must be empowering for kids, in part because they’re the only ones who can answer that question.”
I like to play with my brother
We like to jump off the top bunk
Onto pillows and blankets
You get to make funny sounds
and funny movements
When I do a ninja jump from the top bunk
I hit my head on the ceiling
but it doesn’t hurt
Poems in Your Pocket
Polly Smith also collects student submissions for the annual school poetry zine, Poems in Your Pocket. The students themselves chose and voted on the name, and contribute cover and interior art in addition to the poems. Poems in Your Pocket is in its sixth year and features dozens of poems by students from Kindergarten through middle school.
The school zine is part of a tradition at TCS of publishing each student’s best written work, whether it's poetry, short stories or reflections, to show that their writing is significant and valued, and to foster their self-identification as writers.
Catalyzing Creativity, Found Poems and External Sparks
Another method of helping kids get started with poetry if they seem stuck or think they just can’t be poets, is creating found poems. Found poetry uses a pre-existing source as inspiration, everything from song lyrics to road signs. Students often find this liberating because they don’t have to come up with the words, they simply enjoy rearranging and expanding on them. Smith says, “We’ve made poems out of book titles we find on the shelves and then work to combine them into a poem.”
“The kids also like paint-chip poetry,” she laughs. “I tell them, next time you’re in Home Depot, help yourself to some of those free, take-home paint sample cards. Then they can play around with those crazy paint names to make really cool found poems.” One of the winning poems by TCS students this year was in fact, a found poem, crediting the original source and submitted as “paint chip found poetry.”
You hear the rustling of leaves
light and airy, grass green.
Jagged trunks, so strong and bold.
Squirrels with bushy tails, a dark hazel,
hide their nuts for the winter
and scuttle along branches.
You may not know this
but they also like to eat birdseed.
Birds chirp so vigorously:
chip chip chip chip chip chip chip
High pitched but calming to the mind.
It feels so familiar, like the wind.
If we don’t take care of this
there will be no such thing as us.
Far far away,
there is rich soil.
Mountain peaks and caves.
There's a mountain town.
There's tea leaves galore,
the shadows of skyscrapers,
open meadows with dandelions,
mist on the volcanoes.
There are smoking ash red flags bursting out.
There are tree houses,
waffles and wild mushrooms.
On the snow days there are snow angels
and on the happy days there are yellow-brick roads
and nuts and bolts.
[paint-chip “found” poetry]
So yummy, doughy and crumby
yet so chocolate-chippy.
Mix the dough with a whisk,
it flows around the steely surface.
Drop in the chocolate chips.
They ping off the metal bowl
as the wind stealthily lurks
across the cinnamon ocean.
It whisks itself away.
Another exceptional poem from this year’s collection is about making chocolate chip cookies. Teachers had just received chocolate chip cookies that a third-grader and his parents made for Teacher Appreciation Day. So when that student said he didn’t know what to write about, Smith advised him, “Write about that!”
Ms. Smith also keeps a jar of idea sticks on her desk. Each stick has a word or phrase that gets kids’ imagination going so they can start a poem. There’s a media cart in the library just for arranging magnetic refrigerator poetry and a stack of damaged or discarded paperbacks ready to be ripped or cut up for poetry activities. “They’re great for getting the kids loosened up and ready to write,” says Smith.
While methods of playing with poetry, like found poems or idea sticks are helpful as a structure to get kids writing, Ms. Smith and all the TCS teachers also work to keep the children’s experience of poetry free and uncontrived.
“It takes trust. I don’t ‘teach’ poetry, I merely act as facilitator and sometimes total fan-girl,” laughs Smith, “because I know it’s within them. They just need to be in the right space for it to come out. And it’s beautiful as is. They will learn to hone and edit themselves soon enough. In my classroom it’s more about building confidence and learning to enjoy the process. If I can help them love poetry, then I feel I’ve done my job.”
So, what brings the most joy to Polly Smith during her day at The Children’s School?
“When I go into a classroom and ask, ‘Who wants to come to the library and write poetry?’ and all the hands go up.”