WITS Voices: A Place for Song in the Poetry Classroom
May 30, 2019
By Jeanine Walker, WITS Writer-in-Residence
The recording is slightly muffled, but I still find its magic moments audible: during the first full practice of a new song, 6- and 7-year-olds recite lyrics right before the guitar starts, and one child exclaims, “We’re recording!” I’d gone to Ms. Gilbert’s class at ten a.m., as I always did—my third-in-a-row of three 1st grade classes at Alki Elementary—and was introducing the kids to the surprise song they didn’t yet know they’d written. At the end, you can hear my favorite moment of this 1:28 minute recording, the rustling of the lyrics sheets. “And then I’ll shake the guitar!” I’d joked with the kids after playing through the song the first time. “And then we’ll shake our paper!” yelled one of the children. So they did.
In a few past summer writing camps, I led campers in developing a class song, a beautiful and immersive process that required extra time to practice the performance. I’d stayed away from this genre in in-school residencies, fearing we’d start to make a song and not be able to finish. I was reminded recently from writing lyrics with my 6-year-old niece, though, that young children love making songs, and that the melodies are delightful even when they’re very simple. Having made quick songs with her about everyday events (the proper way to do a piggyback, accidentally slipping off a kitchen chair, washing fruit before eating it, feeling tired but not wanting to go to sleep), I understood that in school, we could keep it easy and still engage a song to help create a meaningful celebration of our poetry.
I’ve taught through WITS at Alki Elementary for four years, and this was the first time I taught children as young as first grade. I wanted to be sure to engage these kids with writing that was exciting for them and to leave a lasting, good impression of poetry. Part of our ritual was to begin each lesson together on the rug where, after reading a poem or a book, we’d write a class poem together to practice and find inspiration before returning to desks to write individual poems. I squirreled these class poems away and planned to use the lines to create the song. Students were writing lyrics, but they didn’t know it yet.
My first day with a new group, I always ask who likes poetry and what they like about it. Inevitably, a child says, “Poems are like songs.” As someone who writes both, I generally have a lot to say about the ways I have found these writing experiences to be different, but for the purposes of teaching, and insofar as lyrics matter (and I always will argue they do!), this is a useful connection to draw. I wanted to do a final song not only because it would be a great way to celebrate the work we’d done together, but also because it might help the strong lines of poetry the students wrote stick in their heads, as melodies tend to do. With the generous practice time led by the three wonderful classroom teachers—Davina Dilley, Alia Delacour, and Angela Gilbert—when I wasn’t at school, we succeeded in creating class songs we could perform well.
We used our “What is a Poem?” lesson as the basis for the song, so that, with families present, we could share through song how we see poetry. I love the metaphor-rich lyrics that made these class songs, lines like:
“A poem is a book read somewhere quiet.”
“A poem is a super-fast skateboard.”
“A poem is a cat meowing for food.”
“A poem is a dragon not in the mood!”
“A poem is the wind blowing your hair in the air.”
“A poem is a unicorn jumping a rainbow.”
“A poem is as juicy as a peach.”
“A poem is a rocket ship.”
“A poem is the snap-snap-hiss.”
“A poem is building a backpack with Legos.”
“A poem is a happy feeling in your mind.”
The day of the reading was one of high anticipation. I think we were all excited, and the kids performed with joy and dignity. I like to think the families loved the song and the reading as much as I did. True professionals, we moved on from the singing performance, smiling, right into the poetry reading, where each student shared a strong poem in a space of listening that had been well-earned.
Near the end of the practice recording, after the guitar is finished and the paper-shaking is done, one child yells out, “We did it!” That’s how I feel after every WITS celebration: it’s been so good, and I feel so proud. We did it.
Jeanine Walker is a poet who holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. A 2018 GAP Award recipient, Jeanine has poems published in Chattahoochee Review, Prairie Schooner, Third Coast, and other journals. In addition to teaching with Writers in the Schools, Jeanine works as a writing coach for adults and leads a drop-in monthly writing circle at the West Seattle Branch of The Seattle Public Library through Seattle Writes. Jeanine is the co-producer and host of Mixed Bag, a variety show with a literary bent, held quarterly at Hugo House.