Lessons in Poetry and in Life

April 11, 2014

Is this metaphorically true, literally true or ambiguous? That was the question of the day as a group of young poets met in a small conference room at Oak Park Elementary School to discuss and analyze classical poetry. The sixth graders, most of who are enrolled in the school’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) class, participate in a special poetry class that meets each week to study and write poetry.

“I truly approach this as an advanced level poetry course,” said Dr. James Hainlen, a retired orchestra teacher turned poetry-teacher volunteer. “I wanted to share my love of poetry with young students. The class is structured around writing original poetry and analyzing great poems.  Our motto is: ‘The right word in the right place.’" 

The students applied to be part of the special poetry class. They each submitted an original poem, which was critiqued by their writing teacher, Mrs. Molin, and Hainlen. The students who showed the best understanding of poetic elements such as metaphor and rhyme were invited to join the class, which meets for 40 minutes each week.

“Our poems are different than what adults write,” said Joseph Young, a sixth grade poet. “Our minds are not as developed and we pick up on smaller things than grown-ups might. We have less things to remember. We probably can have more crisp memories to share.”

In its third year, the class has grown from a review of poetry to a more involved creative writing, critical thinking, and peer review process. Students study the structure of poetry, read poetry from Frost to Stillwater graduate, Patrick Hicks (1987), and write their own poems in response to specific assignments. Throughout the year they have the opportunity to share their work with the classmates and open it up for thoughtful analysis and critique. They will be taking their original poems to a larger audience during a public poetry reading later this month.

“Adults don’t give young writers enough credit,” Hainlen said. “People will be surprised by the level of thinking that has gone into these poems.”

The poetry class provides students with a creative outlet and allows them to explore their passion for poetry. The students learn to respect great writing and the hard work it takes to write poetry. They learn to offer and accept thoughtful comments about their writing without getting defensive, and how to overcome the fear of sharing creative work. And while the kids will tell you they’re having a lot of fun, they are also savvy enough to realize the educational value of the class.

“We’re learning to see things differently and consider different perspectives,” said Eleanor Sand, a sixth grade poet. “It makes you see yourself in a different way when you compare yourself to the things around you. We take things for granted. Now we’re paying more attention.”

Check It Out! Oak Park Elementary students’ Poetry Reading will begin at 6:30 p.m. on April 17 at the Valley Bookseller on Main Street in Stillwater. During this special event, students will read their original poetry and share their inspiration and meaning behind the poems they’ve created.