In the years that I have been practicing my skills in K-12 education, I have developed an ever-growing base of resources for poems that have a multicultural foundation so I can present students and teachers with poems that reflect the cultural experiences they know. In the world of poetry according to the dead white guys, this has been a valuable endeavor and many teachers have appreciated the resources. Students enjoy seeing their own image in the poems, recognizing their own language at times, feeling that they can relate to the message and experience in the work.
This is vitally important, I believe, in middle and high school, where the conversations can take on levels of critical thinking and empathy that are very profound.
However, in elementary schools, I find that I am searching for a different kind of poem to teach. I strive to find the poem that is so universal that every child, no matter what their heritage, lineage, socio-economic class, or geographical location, can relate to the words and draw a conclusion, develop an image to reflect back in their own words or drawings. I am also always looking for poems that have a little bit of ambiguity to debate and that are not based on rhyming couplets.
This is not an easy endeavor. I teach a wide demographic throughout the school year. I stand before very diverse classrooms. I am not always in front of a class that is predominantly White or Black. I may be teaching a class with as many as 10 nationalities and ethnicities represented. I am not alone with this. So where are the poems that are not too simplistic but not over the heads of my students, that employ language that invites the students to stretch and ponder, that either base a rhyme scheme in a more complex form or that do not rhyme at all?
I have a few that I rely upon: my beloved “Knoxville, Tennessee” by Nikki Giovanni is probably number one. In fact, after teaching this poem for nearly 4 years, only a handful of students have come to the conclusion that the poem was written by an African American poet (no matter where I am teaching or what the skin tone of my classes). Kay Ryan’s “Bear Song” is probably second on the list for all the reasons I outlined above. William Carlos Williams’ “To an Poor Old Woman” is a wonderful opportunity for conversation.
This week I added another poem to my list of favorite tried-and-trues, discovered in Poetry Speaks to Children. The poem is called “Skating in the Wind,” by Kristin O’Connell George. This poem is so clear and concise yet it permits many perspectives, all valid. It is perfect for illustrating that we can have many interpretations of a poem and it mirrors experiences that most children can relate to either by their own actual experience or experiences they have witnessed. And still we can discuss the poem for 3 days and not be bored, we can discover answers to the mystery.
If you know of other examples of poems with universal themes and fascinating language and image, I would appreciate the recommendations. I will certainly have more kids to share the magic of poetry with and more reason to read.