Nature as Teacher Student as Observer
(This is only the first segment of this article. It will follow in stages as the article presents several different lessons used for gathering writing ideas outside.)
Imagine thirty students each on their individually chosen small but complete pieces of ground. The silence deepens so that bird song sounds loud. Cars murmur in the background. Asked to be alone and silent, to see, to hear, to smell, to touch, to study the nature that is available to them, they travel into a newly discovered place to find metaphors, similes and to wait for that one new idea to be born into poem. True, there are those who resist the silence and want to chatter together. With encouragement, they soon relax into the moment. These quiet studies of nature are the arrival point. If a poem is born, that gift is welcome. But suppose that for the first time nature is seen to be a world of surprises tiny, minute and always new, then that is enough.
Since students are used to expository writing, I’m constantly looking for first day lessons that lead students into the freedom of imagination and poetry. I assure them that there is no right or wrong way to do poetry there is only your way. All the poem asks of you is that you enter a world where words paint a scene and that from that painting a new idea is born. I also want to introduce them to the concept that a poet is an observer. If you don’t look closely, you can’t get images for word pictures. Whenever possible I take the students outside because going inside the natural world helps us to understand more about ourselves in relationship to the earth. In some settings, it is impossible to go outside. In that case, I bring in photographs of nature.
I always begin with metaphor and simile—the math of poetry. In poetry-math, the equation is: one thing = another totally different thing. Metaphors and similes use words for the equal sign: like, as, is and of. Unlike math, however, this equal sign lets the mind hop like a kangaroo from one unusual connection to the other using free association. To show how free association works, we play ball with words. I look around the room and say the first noun that pops into my mind. That word becomes the ball. It is tossed to the students who raise their hands to answer with the first word that pops into their minds regardless of logic. That word is now the ball and the game continues. Clock, window, frame, paper, overhead, couch, border between these balls I choose one to start a metaphor. Using frame, one student suggests that the frame equals a border. How? I ask. As I draw them out with questions, a classroom map provides the answer. We end up with: The window frame is like a border between countries. I’ve used this exercise with students ranging from second grade to high school.
I tell them to get a piece of paper, a pencil and something firm to write on. After the confusion settles down, I choose students to read the model poem. I ask them to share with each other their favorite lines, to find the metaphors or similes in the poem, to point out the word pictures, to discover the new reality the poem creates and then to tell me what they think the poet is trying to convey to the reader. The assignment varies depending on the model poem, but how students find images for their poems remains the same. We go outside. I ask each student to sit by themselves and observe all the sights, sounds and smells around them. I give them the choice of just writing down details or of jumping into writing the poem. Sometimes we do all of our writing outside but sometimes I give them time to observe and then we come into the classroom to write while listening to music with nature sounds in it. Two of my favorites are Song of the Ocean from NORTHSOUND and Fresh Aire VI by Mannheim Steamroller.
The following are model poems I’ve used. Since I always hand out photocopies of the model poems, I often put the assignment right on the poem. I always ask a student to tell me what they think the assignment is in their own words so that I’m sure they understand.
Before students read Wendell Berry’s “Another Descent,” I introduce the students to him and at least share with them that he now lives on a farm in Kentucky, that he loves the earth and that much of his writing is concerned with helping people understand the need to save the planet’s resources. When using this poem, I tell each class that the comparisons are buried. What is the first hidden metaphor? How does it point the reader’s mind towards a new way of looking? Usually someone comes up with the ground looking like fallen sky, like clouds that have drifted down and become ground. We talk through his different views of home. How does Berry show the contrast between seasons? I lead them into the meaning of ‘rivulets’ by asking if they have seen the small streams that run off the hills after a season of rain.
After finding the rest of the comparisons, I give the writing assignment. I ask students to keep in mind their reader. I tell students not to use, “I see or I hear” since it isn’t always clear where they are. The first line of a poem needs to grab the reader’s attention and put them immediately into the world of the poem using word pictures and not explanations. The word pictures speak for themselves. To help them get started on their poems, I ask students to create word pictures of weather using description and comparisons. They can let the seasons change or use the weather they’re experiencing at the moment. I encourage them to find comparisons for how the weather makes their body feel. To free them up, I tell them to just let word pictures pop into their minds. Trying too hard to be clever can tie your imagination up in knots. If we write in the classroom, I put up large pictures showing different kinds of weather.
Through the weeks of deep snow
we walked above the ground
on fallen sky, as though we did
not come of root and leaf, as though
we had only air and weather
for our difficult home.
as March warms, and the rivulets
run like birdsong on the slopes,
and the branches of light sing in the hills,
slowly we return to earth.
The student poems from this lesson are among the best I’ve received on a first day. The two below show how well the students understood using word pictures created with metaphor and simile. The day these poems were written the weather cooperated beautifully. It was extremely cold and windy—California style, that is.
Outside the wind nips at me like wolves.
Bare trees are like porcupines.
The chatter of students sounds
Like typewriters typing away.
The clouds hover like melted marshmallows above.
Birds fly like hang gliders in the frozen air.
The world is frozen like a photograph.
The cold all around me is like that of a freezer,
Frozen and alone in a frozen world.
Danny , Fifth Grade
See, Feel, Hear
See the leaves
blow in the wind
like a painting
of many colors.
See the snow fall
and the snowflakes dance
in the breezes of the wind.
Feel the rain drops splash
Hear the dark roar
of the clouds
as they let the rain fall
and watch the trees let
their leaves fall
and join the hard
gust of the chilling air.
See the icicles hang
down from the cabin’s roof.
They sparkle and glimmer
as the leaves in the wind toss
and turn like they are asleep in bed.
Skye , Fifth Grade
1. Berry, Wendell. Collected Poems 1957-1982. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985.