Thursday, April 26, 2012

Six Tips for Enjoying Poetry with Your Children

I'm embarking on a new series about poetry. I'll discuss studying poetry in your homeschool, cultivating a life-long enjoyment of poetry (instead of loathing); and finding wonderful sources of poetry.

Homeschoolers, especially those who adhere to a literature-rich philosophy, tend to agree that poetry is an important component of their children's studies. That's progress. I was educated in the public school system and didn't study poetry until high school. Fortunately, I enjoyed it, but many of my peers had an unfavorable opinion. I'm now persuaded to think that poetry appreciation, like many other fine arts, must be cultivated, and it's best to start when children are young.

Here are some tips I've learned:

Make time for poetry. Our days are full and busy; fine art study can fall victim to our schedules. Commit to setting aside a routine time for reading poetry, whether weekly or every day. Some ideas include: at mealtimes; after family devotion and prayer time; right before bed; even in the car!

Select age-appropriate poems. Reverend H. C. Beeching, in his excellent article "An Address on the Teaching of Poetry," says it this way:
The poetry must be suitable to their years. You must not expect little children to enjoy what you enjoy. You can drink claret, perhaps port, perhaps champagne, they cannot; their natural beverage is milk. The sources of joy open to them are the simplest, and to these you must bring them. The grandeur of Milton's blank verse will be as little to them as an organ concerto of Handel's; they must have simple rhythms to begin with, and they must have rhyme; they must have verses that sing themselves. And the subjects, too, must be appropriate to their age.
Strive for joy and charm, especially for younger children. There are many, many wonderful poems for young(er) children, but there's also a world of twaddle. How can you discern the difference? Here's an example Rev. Beeching offers:

. . . I agree with Miss Mason (whom we all delight to honour) in somewhat dreading nonsense verses for children as being a trifle (shall I say) profane. I once heard a mother of the upper classes reciting to her young hopefuls these graceful and spirit-stirring lines:

'Old Mrs. Hubblechin,
Had a little double chin.'

What a criticism of life!
Indeed. You'll find that much verse for children is of this ilk. But that's all they are: verses. They are not poetry. Is there anything inherently wrong with verse? Well, not really. I'll go so far to admit that some of it's quite fun! Just don't call it poetry, and don't teach it as such.

Focus on one poet at a time. There are lots of children's poetry anthologies, and those are lovely. But in the study of poetry, it seems best to select a poet and study his or her work for a bit of time. Call it poetry immersion. Introduce the poet to your children with a brief biographical sketch. For example, my children and I were much better equipped to appreciate the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier because we knew something of his life. Also, when you immerse your children in the work of one poet at a time, you can compare and contrast different poems. Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet, wrote movingly and beautifully about life's difficulties and triumphs; but he also wrote immensely humorous poems in the black dialect of his enslaved forebears.

Read the poem more than once. This year, I've been guilty of slighting poetry. Although we've dutifully read our poems, I've tended to read each aloud once to the children, discuss it briefly, and move on to other things. I'm now seeing the weak and withered fruit such activity produces.

Here's a better method, which we've followed in the past. Read the poem out loud to the children. Read carefully; pause at punctuation marks, inflect where it seems natural to do so. Then let the children take turns reading it aloud. I find they enjoy the poem more after several readings than on its debut.

Talk about the poem, giving it more attention that a mere, "Do you like it?" Here's where true poetical delight comes in. Ask children to consider their personal responses. What feelings does the poem prompt? Could you see the scene in your head? How did you picture it? What ideas did the poem suggest to you? Can you relate to the poem or the poet's experience? How so? What line/phrase/words did you find especially lovely/moving?

Some of these questions are obviously more suited to older children, but you get the idea. Talking about the poem encourages us to connect with it and relate to it.

One more tip: don't kill children's nascent apppreciation for poetry by introducing literary criticism too early. Frankly, that can wait until they are much older. When I read poetry today, I never assess a poem's meter, form, or rhyme scheme. Instead, I read for the beauty of the words, my overall response, a connection to the natural world and often the spirit world. I'm reading for the joy of poetry.

And that's what I want to cultivate in my children.

For further enlightenment, I recommend reading Rev. Beeching's excellent article yourself. Here's a link to it on Ambleside Online. I'm linking up with this week's Hip Homeschool Hop. Check it out for great ideas!


  1. Thanks for writing this. Wonderful and very true tips. Poetry is sometimes a much forgotten aspect of our education, when it gives you soooo much.

    Jasper is grown tons!


  2. Thanks for this, Ellen. I'm needing a bit of a push to get back to giving poetry the time & love it deserves. Shared it on my fb page, too. :)

  3. Poetry is essential to our appreciation of the English language. Great recommendations. Thank you for sharing. I tweeted this out.


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