WITS Voices: A Wish
February 18, 2016
By Jeanine Walker, WITS Writer-in-Residence
My final day of teaching with my 4th & 5th grade students at Leschi Elementary School was last Thursday. I would call it bittersweet, but I’m not sure that’s the right word—there was plenty of sweetness from the students (free hugs! a delightful card! an orchid!)—but saying goodbye to them felt stronger than bitter, almost like some kind of injustice.
As the former WITS Program Director, I understood all of the logistics about how we set up residencies (and in fact, I had set this one up myself). As a teacher, though, it just felt sad—how was it possible that saying goodbye to them was the right thing to do? We’d worked together since late October, and now, four months later, the heights they’d reached in poetry were, truly, remarkable. I knew that, if I could keep working with them, they’d achieve even more, get even deeper into poetry. Their metaphors and similes are strong and original—they have unique writers’ voices that shine more strongly each time they compose a poem—and, a pure pleasure for me, they were always willing to try anything I presented them with. Write an exuberant ode to a favorite item? Sure thing. Explore Claudia Rankine’s Citizen while uncovering moments in which they felt powerless? No problem. From the fun and imaginative to the seriously contemplative, these kids were always ready to write.
Because I couldn’t keep working with these students, though, I did what I felt was the next best thing: we ended strong with several new generative lessons after working through revising in week 10, and I decided to have us finish the residency on a wish. Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, the kids wrote several wishes in their writer’s notebooks. I encouraged them to think both internationally and also of the smaller, personal things they wish for themselves. Answers ranged from putting an end to global warming to buying new KD 8s, from going back in time to stop a dad from leaving to living in a house made out of Skittles. Teaching a poem from Kenneth Koch’s wonderful book, Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, I read out loud to the students and asked them to listen for themes that arose. In the case of this shared poem, the themes were comics, colors, and countries.
I then sat at the document camera and scribed as students shared their wishes—now with the example of the mentor text, they could be even more detailed and more imaginative. The themes differed for each class—one had a poem rife with medieval images, like dungeons and royalty, and another’s contained many ideas around flying, becoming invisible, or in other ways transforming into someone else. Not surprisingly, this exercise reinforced the phenomenon every teacher experiences, that each class has its own personality, and working on this first as a group poem helped the students to see how the ideas played off one another. They took that with them into their individual writing.
Once we’d tried this together, I sent the kids back to their desks to compose their own “I Wish” poems. The only rules were that each line had to start with “I Wish,” and I wanted them to be things they really wished for, whether realistic or entirely fantastical. I also threw in there that I would like them to include one wish that’s a special message for me, something about what they want for their poetry in the coming months or years. This was my own little survey and a way to learn a little bit about the students’ reflections on the residency. Here are some of the wishes that emerged:
I wish I was ten times bigger than my size.
I wish I could become socially famous.
I wish I was a ghost so I can go into the government and make him let you stay.
I wish I had a dog, a medium dog, that played with me.
I wish I could have the world’s biggest t-shirt collection.
I wish to be a poetry author when I grow up.
I wish Bernie Sanders would win the election.
I wish I graduate in every school.
I wish everyone I love was in my heart.
I wish I could jump to the moon.
I wish Donald Trump does not win the election.
I wish this could be in a book, published and all.
I wish my poems to come to life.
I wish to live as a mermaid.
I wish I could go in a black hole and come out and see what’s inside.
After the kids had written, I had everyone star one wish they wanted to read aloud. To close the class, we shared our wishes out loud to make a final group poem. The feeling that the wishes created, when presented one by one, all together—and with the repetition of “I Wish” providing a lightening frame—was that of a giant handful of helium-filled balloons, released. The wishes filled the room, and then we let them lift off into the sky. Put together, these lines of poetry were so sweet and caring, and they reflected the students’ kind and generous hearts.
I was so fortunate with this residency. Kindness and generosity were part of my reception each day I taught at Leschi. I felt entirely welcomed, with wonderful partner teachers who were true collaborators, and kids who said hi to me every time they passed me in the hall, even if they’d just seen me three minutes earlier. There may be no greater joy for a poet than to hear kids cheer when they’re reminded that today’s poetry day and to hear them groan in protest when learning that today’s their last day. No, wait, there is another one: hearing cherished students all wish for things big and small, and expressing some internal, personal wish to continue writing—that may be a greater joy.
I wish for these remarkable students at Leschi Elementary to keep expanding all they have learned about poetry and to continue thinking grandly and metaphorically about the magical possibilities of their lives.
Jeanine Walker is a poet who holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Cimarron Review, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, Narrative, PageBoy, and Web Conjunctions. She has performed at many venues around town and is the host of the popular reading series Cheap Wine & Poetry.