Among School Children

Last September I had the chance to teach some children how to write poetry on Cleveland's East Side and to test out some of Kenneth Koch's theories about how it should be done. I first came across Koch a couple of years ago in his book, Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, a collection of kids' poems prefaced by some lengthy remarks on teaching. I was intrigued with Koch's central idea: people's imaginations are more readily available to them when they are young; it's important to tap that flow before it is turned off. A teacher of writing and performance of poetry at Radcliffe, Ruth Whitman, once wrote--and Koch would agree--that children "are still close to the elemental sources, they are naturally honest, their mythmaking and imagemaking apparatus is close at hand." These seemed incontrovertible truths when I left with my brother-in-law from an idyllic farm west of Cleveland for the alternative school in the inner city where he teaches fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. But by the end of a single day in class I was certain that the title to Koch's book was actually meant to describe its preface and not the poems.

What caused my immediate skepticism, why did the whole thing turn out so differently from what Koch's book says or suggests about teaching children poetry? I think that Koch works under certain assumptions about poetry, education, and perhaps even children that ignore many of the problems one encounters every day in schools of all kinds--problems that keep his book from being very useful.

One of Koch's most convincing arguments is that he didn't teach in some exclusive private school, where most children go home every day to an environment of encouragement, where literate, college-educated parents could react to poems, and where children could benefit from "acquired tastes." Instead, Koch taught at P.S.61 on Manhattan's lower East Side, where more than half the kids are black or Puerto Rican. And his results--at least those that were published--are impressive. For example, Koch asked a fourth grader to translate one sense into another and she wrote:

Snow is as white as the sun shines.

The sky is as blue as a waterfall.


A rose is as red as a beating of drums.

The clouds are as white as the busting of a firecracker.

A tree is as green as a roaring lion.

Of course the students didn't start out writing poems as evocative as this right away. Koch began with collaborative poems, all beginning with the idea, "I wish..." He de-emphasized spelling, grammar and punctuation because he saw them as barriers. He emphasized poem-ideas that were easy and natural for children to use, and that encouraged immediate responses. Often the children would make rules for the poem (i.e. it must include a color and a comic-strip character, or a city and a country, with "I wish" at the beginning). After the group poems his students went on to describing noises, dreams, colors, music, lies, then to even more sophisticated poems using comparisons and themes like "I used to be... But now I am," and even metaphors.

Koch found an interesting approach to the metaphor poems. He taught several different grades ranging from first through sixth. At first he inspired the kids by reading an adult poem--including D.H. Lawrence, Theodore Roethke, John Ashberry, and Dyland Thomas--but as his collection of kids' poems increased he would read in one class poems written in another. He noticed that P.S.61 was establishing its own literary tradition--an institutional salon of sorts. Thus a misspelled word triggered Koch's introduction to a metaphor. A child wrote "A swam of bees," instead of a "swarm." A first grader's poem: "I used to be a fish/But now I am a nurse," inspired a whole series of poems describing physical transformation like this one:

I used to be a nurse

But now I am a decade person.

I always was Mr. Coke.

But now I am Mrs. Seven Up.

Koch's theories of teaching seem sound enough. He believes in taking children seriously as poets, yet removing some of the aura of difficulty and remoteness surrounding poetry. He wants the atmosphere to be fun, would never assign 'homework.' From his experience at PS 61 he concluded that children enjoy writing poetry "because it provides welcome relief from required subjects." Because it is a group-activity it "belies self-consciousness or self-doubt." And he believes it to be "competitive in a mild and exhilarating way." Koch thinks that a teacher can overcome a child's fear of writing a bad poem or being criticized or ridiculed by reading poems aloud stressing their intrinsic value, and withholding the writer's name. Never change a line, says Koch, just ask the writer what he meant. He suggest going around the classroom "encouraging good lines and discouraging wayward ideas." In his second book on teaching children great poetry called Rose, where Did You Get That Red, he has this to say for the class atmosphere: