It’s a big leap from a third-grader writing about unicorn slobber to a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Vijay Seshadri writing about time. Or is it?
Arts Without Boundaries is integrating poems by Seshadri, who will be in Billings on March 24, into a Writing in the Schools unit for third- and fifth-grade students. And the students are digging right in, looking for imagery and fun references like Seshadri writing of his character "dreaming of Elvis."
On Tuesday, in Kailey Roberts’ third-grade classroom at Orchard Elementary, students read the Seshadri poem “Light Verse” and then got to work on their own poetry. Student topics ran the gamut from being spoiled to zombies to a talking refrigerator.
Billings poet Anna Paige is leading the class of 23 third-graders at Orchard through the editing process, teaching students about line breaks and stanzas that differentiate poetry from stories written in paragraphs.
The students are squirmy but smiling.
“I like how you use your imagination when you write poems,” third-grader Takeisha Cramer said.
Roberts also teaches writing to students, but she appreciates Tuesdays when Paige supplements her lessons with more focus on creativity.
“This is another fun way to practice literary skills,” Roberts said. “I have a few girls who are rocking the poetry, writing poems on their own at home and bringing them to class. One of my boys is interested in rap, and he sees the connection between rap and poetry.”
The students don’t really understand what a Pulitzer Prize is, but they appreciate the fact that a big-name poet like Seshadri is coming to Billings. Some are making plans to see him when he reads at Montana State University Billings.
“They think it’s so cool that he’s coming,” Roberts said.
Paige said the students have a good handle on something some adults might struggle with — the difference between metaphors and similes. When they read their poems on Tuesday, students pointed out their similes, which compare two things using the words "like" or "as."
“I have four similes in my poem,” said one boy.
And he did. Every line of his poem began with a comparison between the boy and something else, including one that all mothers would love: “I am as soft as a pillow.”
Paige said she encourages students to find the balance between goofy and serious. Third-graders like to laugh, but they have their serious moments, too.
Some days, the biggest challenge to teaching poetry is getting students to sit still and listen. But then they’ll come up with an inspired line that expresses just how they’re feeling that day, bringing on a sigh. Like the day one student said music reminds him of the color yellow because it makes him happy.
“By the time they’re done, they’ll have a great collection of poetry,” Paige said. “At the end of the unit, we publish a book with a poem by each student in it.”
The poetry classes are offered through Arts Without Boundaries at Orchard, Bench and Broadwater elementary schools. The program has expanded this year to include fourth- and fifth-grade students at Orchard after beginning in 2012 with just third-graders.
Ashley Warren, associate director of Arts Without Boundaries, said Montana State University Billings professor Meagan Lehr put together six lesson plans for teachers to use based on work by Pulitzer-Prize-winning poets.
Does it matter to third-graders who won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry? Probably not, but it is exciting to observe 9- and 10-year-olds pick out imagery and rhymes in a poem written by a poet as impressive as Seshadri.