by Carol Berner May, 2015
Capricious weather captivated the attention of middle school students writing poetry at Paradise Pond. “The scent of a storm brewing caught me by surprise,” wrote a 7th grade girl in batman leggings. The Green Monsters Team from John F. Kennedy Middle School spent a morning in early May touring Smith College’s Museum and Botanic Garden and writing poetry in the midst of rain clouds, sudden sprinkles and bright sun.
No walls, no bells
“This is your classroom. No walls, no bells.”
Margaret Babbott and Nancy Allen, co-facilitators of the poetry workshop, welcomed students to the waterfront. They guided students to write sensory observations, directing them first to observe nature, then to imagine something in nature observing them. Students in bright sneakers sprawled across the boathouse docks and settled quietly along the grassy shores, gathering detailed images that would morph into collaborative poems.
Five Senses Shout Out
Gathering the group onto blue tarps with a snack of pretzel sticks, Margaret Babbott asked for volunteers to “shout out” a line of poetry. “One for each of the five senses.” Five volunteers stood up in front of the group holding their line written in big letters on a sheet of paper. A sixth volunteer read aloud the five lines, then rearranged the “poetry holders” to create a stronger poem. The audience called out ideas for which lines should go first and last, watching intently as poems were revised and replayed before their eyes.
Opening lines highlighted immediacy, action and surprise: “Me—tumbling down the hill” and “Rising bubble in the lake – maybe a turtle?” Closing lines featured lingering seasonal images: “The cherry blossom tree danced in the wind.” A theatrical reader in sunglasses declared his group poem “the best poem in the world” as a round of applause echoed across the pond:
Me – tumbling down the hill
Surprised by ducks
Bright green head
Storm of white petals
A really, really, fast bird and a triangular island
Writing from the point of view of something in nature evoked images immersed in taste and touch sensations:
I am a tortoise / I taste the murky water around me
I am the wind / I cool down the earth with my cool rippling powers
I am the fog and I can taste the people who walk around
Students compared the shift to an ecological perspective with the creative process of writing a poem: “It’s like a metaphor for when you’re sitting there and everything’s chaotic before it settles.”
Creating the Poetry Mural
Rising to the challenge of creating a mural from the field trip, two confident groups of 7th grade poets and artists volunteered to meet after school. While artists painted a huge banner of a riverscape on canvas, poets figured out how to create a coherent composition from a hundred lines of poetry contributed by each 7th grader. “It looks like a river!” exclaimed one student as they spread out all the handwritten lines of poetry across the floor.
Sorting the lines into themes and images was the first step in what began to look like a dance improvisation. Students moved their bodies carefully among the words, lifting lines into different piles, accompanied by dialogue that suggested patterns of classification. “We’re looking for water here.” “I’m collecting ‘peace, beauty and stuff like that.’” After sorting the lines into categories like smells and sounds, water, sun and sky, they broke into pairs to arrange each cluster into a stanza. The “left-over” pile turned out to be a perfect place to gather lines for the opening and closing stanzas of the composition.
In the final stage of creation, poets circled around the clusters of stanzas with intense concentration. They discussed the craft of poetry with insights as vivid as their fluorescent shoelaces. “Let’s go for something really peaceful and ramp it up at the end,” suggested a boy in a reflective lime green t-shirt. A girl who was listening attentively to the exchange of ideas suggested a structure that “flows while retaining its randomness.” Everyone agreed this was the perfect design principle for a poem created by a hundred seventh graders startled into their senses by a stormy spring day at Paradise Pond.
“Peace of Mind” Mural on Display in JFK Media Center
“I want to thank you all again for helping to provide such a fabulous experience for our students. Your expertise in poetry writing activities, gentle guidance of the kids, and generous contribution of time is so appreciated!”