Celebrating Poetry Month with a Poet!

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There’s no better way to celebrate poetry at a school than to let the students meet a “real” poet – so we did just that. Yesterday, Paul Janeczko visited Inly and spent the day with our students talking about the importance of playing with words. He told them about poetry anthologies, encouraged them to keep a journal, and of course, signed his name on pieces of paper that had been ripped from their notebooks. As I watched one child walk away with her prize, I thought maybe it would be some kind of talisman, something to pin up on her bulletin board to look at and be reminded of the poet who told her that her words matter.

When Paul and I sat down to eat lunch, I was ready with my first question. “What,” I asked the creator of A Poke in the I and many other wonderful books, is your connection to Ohio?”  I don’t think he expected that one, but prior to his visit, I read that he had been a teacher in Ohio. As a person who loves Massachusetts, but is loyal to Ohio, I had to know more. As it turns out, Paul taught in a school in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland.  That’s different. Growing up in southern Ohio, Cleveland didn’t really seem like Ohio to me. It’s almost in Pennsylvania! 

The other thing I asked Paul was the “desert island” question. I know that asking some version of “what books/music would you take to a desert island?” is hardly original, but when I meet someone who reads a lot, I want to know what they like. Of course, I suppose these days you could bring an e-reader to the island, but that ruins the game. Anyway…if you land on a desert island and see Paul Janeczko sitting under the one tree that always appears in the cartoons, here’s what he’ll be reading:

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls

You might be thinking the same thing. The first three I expected. No surprises there. But the other two – wonderful books – but just not what I expected. I loved Paul’s reason for choosing them. Desert island days are probably long. You would experience different moods. You need to be prepared for them. 

While Paul was talking with kids in the library, it was pouring outside. Thunder, lightening, dark and gloomy. At first, it kind of bummed me out. But, as I sat there and listened to the rain and heard Paul talking with our students, I wouldn’t have traded the moment for a beautiful sunny day. It was poetic.

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April Showers Bring – Poetry!

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National Poetry Month is only fifteen-years-old. For some reason, I thought it had been around much longer, but that’s a sign of a successful program. Focusing attention on the art of poetry during April is firmly is “institutionalized” in my mind which, I imagine, is just what the Academy of American Poets would want. And this year I get to celebrate Poetry Month by meeting one of my favorite poets in the whole world – Naomi Shihab Nye. She’s speaking at a conference I’m attending on Thursday, and this morning I put her books by the door (just a few days early) so I won’t forget to bring them for her to sign. Others might line up to meet Bono or Tom Brady, but I would wait patiently for hours to say hello to Naomi.

And it gets better – this month-long celebration.  On April 13, Paul Janeczko is visiting Inly. As I’ve written before, Paul is the editor of many wonderful poetry books for children.  Like many literature teachers, I rely on his books to help me introduce poetry to kids.  A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, Paul’s 2005 collaboration with illustrator Chris Raschka, is the best resource for teaching poetry – the illustrations are fun and the explanations of various forms are excellent.  Janeczko’s introduction to concrete poetry, A Poke in the I, is one of my all-time favorites. 

This past winter, I taught a poetry unit in our middle school. Among other poems we read by Naomi Shihab Nye, was this one from her book, 19 Varieties of Gazelle. Of course, I brought figs in for the students to taste – real figs, not the kind inside of a Newton!

My Father and the Fig Tree

For other fruits, my father was indifferent.
He’d point at the cherry trees and say,
“See those? I wish they were figs.”
In the evening he sat by my beds
weaving folktales like vivid little scarves.
They always involved a figtree.
Even when it didn’t fit, he’d stick it in.
Once Joha1 was walking down the road and he saw a fig tree.
Or, he tied his camel to a fig tree and went to sleep.
Or, later when they caught and arrested him, his pockets were full of figs.

At age six I ate a dried fig and shrugged.
“That’s not what I’m talking about! he said,
“I’m talking about a fig straight from the earth — gift of Allah! — on a branch so heavy it touches the ground.
I’m talking about picking the largest, fattest,
 sweetest fig
in the world and putting it in my mouth.”
(Here he’d stop and close his eyes.)

Years passed, we lived in many houses,
none had figtrees.
We had lima beans, zucchini, parsley, beets.
“Plant one!” my mother said.
but my father never did.
He tended garden half-heartedly, forgot to water,
let the okra get too big.
“What a dreamer he is. Look how many things he starts and doesn’t finish.”

The last time he moved, I got a phone call,
My father, in Arabic, chanting a song
I’d never heard. “What’s that?”
He took me out back to the new yard.
There, in the middle of Dallas, Texas,
a tree with the largest, fattest,
sweetest fig in the world.
“It’s a fig tree song!” he said,
plucking his fruits like ripe tokens,
emblems, assurance
of a world that was always his own.

Paul Janeczko

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For obvious reasons, our school library has very few duplicate books.  We have two of some books, but that is rare.  Holes comes to mind.  I think we have a hardback and a paperback of that one.  And maybe Frindle.  Anyway, there are two books that don’t have to play that game.  One is D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.  Kids love it.  Teachers love it.  We have five copies and they stay in circulation.  The other one is Paul Janeczko’s A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms. If I had to list the ten most essential books for a school library,  A Kick in the Head would be one of them.

This is why: if a teacher wants to introduce different forms of poetry, Janecko’s book is the one I hand them.  If a child wants to know what a limerick (or ode or sonnet or Double Dactyl) is, this is the book.  If I need a quick definition of one form of poetry, I take a look at the end of the book where there is an excellent list of poetic forms with short definitions.  This book is essential, and I don’t use the term lightly.  What makes it even better are the very cool illustrations.  Chris Raschka’s brightly colored cut paper and collage illustrations on the bright white background make this guide to poetic forms far more accessible and enjoyable.

A Kick in the Head was the second collaboration between Janeczko and Raschka following another of my favorite poetry books for  children, A Poke in the I.  Here’s the best part – I think Paul Janeczko is visiting our school next spring.  If this works out, it will be far easier to endure another cold winter knowing that our students will have a chance to meet this creative and  generous writer.