Thursday’s thoughts . . .about Poetry

(here is the final installment in Vida Zuljevic’s interview about how she teaches poetry at her school. On Saturday, come back to have your spirits lifted with poems written by her students!)

Vida, what obstacles did you/do you have to overcome as you began to incorporate poetry teaching into your curriculum? For instance, I know that many adults say they are afraid of poetry; that they don’t understand it. I would imagine many students share those same feelings. If there is a student who’s hesitant, how do you make him/her comfortable? 
I am happy to say that I had no obstacles incorporating poetry in my teaching. When  I got my first job in the United States as a pre-school teacher in Addison, Texas, I knew, literally, a few words of English, but I had 18 years of teaching experience with young children. So, in my first few months, this multicultural group of 2-to-3-year-old children I worked with heard hundreds of poems and children’s songs in Serbo-Croatian (my native tongue), and I heard and learned from them the most popular nursery rhymes in English. Regardless of language in which it was shared, poetry had the ability to sneak in one’s heart as both the children and I learned from each other. I also paired it up with puppetry and music that go very well with poetry reciting, singing, and performing, which adds excitement and motivates children to participate.
When I moved to Washington State and started my schooling here to get my U.S. A. teaching degree, I was introduced to great children’s literature, including incredible poetry for children with which I absolutely fell in love. And who wouldn’t, after reading Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, Janet Wong’s Jake and Min, Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog(all of which are outstanding novels in free verse format. These extraordinary books inspired me to try to write my own book in the same format. I Was Almost Five was published in 2010. Then, I cannot leave out other fantastic poetry books like The Rainbow Hands by Janet Wong, Ordinary Things, Moving Day, and A Writing Kind of Day by Ralph Fletcher, Thanks a Million by Nikki Grimes, Honey I Love by Eloise Greenfield, and many, many more. 
At the first school, where I worked for eight years, only my first principal (who unfortunately left too soon) was very supportive of my puppetry and poetry activities with our students. After he left, I was faced with my administrators’ and most of my colleagues’ unfamiliarity with what I was doing.

 The success with students who were involved and their families’ support was never in question, but my work was perceived by my colleagues as “Vida’s thing,” whether I was teaching poetry, collecting students’ poems to send them to a contest for book publishing or publishing in the local newspaper, organizing Family Poetry Nights, or taking puppeteers to perform poetry in the community, it was always perceived as “Vida’s thing,” but it did not stop me. I knew that “Vida’s thing” was the “right thing” for our students. 
My student’s essay “How a Pasco Teacher Influenced My Life, which won the Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce grant confirmed that. Felichiya, then a 5th grader,  wrote:
“…Mrs. Zuljevic, my writing teacher and librarian, inspired me in writing, reading and of course listening to poetry. And because of that it made my life more spirited and joyful…..
…So, I am really grateful to my wonderful teacher who opened a whole new world of literature to me. Thank you so much! And I will hopefully write, read, and listen to poetry all my life. I am really thankful to you Mrs. Zuljevic for believing in me! And maybe, someday, my poems will inspire somebody!!!…”
The plaque with this essay hangs on the wall above
my desk, and I look at it every day, and it energizes me and inspires me to continue doing what I am doing with the same love and passion.
At the school where I have been working for the fourth year now, I have full support of my colleagues and administrators. Many of them share their love of poetry with students, help me evaluate the Annual Poetry Contest entries, come to Poetry Nights, and provide any support I ask for. I feel truly blessed working with and being part of  the greatest team of educators I’ve ever worked with.
What other resources might you recommend to other teachers and librarians who would like to follow your lead in poetry teaching?
First, I’d truly recommend to all who are interested in teaching poetry to read the book Poetry Matters by Ralph Fletcher. Five years ago when I was teaching  reading and writing to 3rd, 4th and 5th grade combo class of bilingual students, I read this book chapter by chapter and my students enjoyed it tremendously, and most importantly, they understood it and were willing to explore writing poetry and integrating important writing suggestions that Fletcher shared in each particular chapter. 
Another book that I highly recommend is Poetry Friday Anthology by Dr. Sylvia Vardell, professor at Texas Women’s University, and Janet Wong, acclaimed poet. This recently published book is a compilation of poems never before published uniquely like this, aligned with common core standards, sorted by grade level and accompanied by five ready-to-use activities. The extraordinary effort of two poetry bards resulted in an extraordinary book that must find a place on every teacher’s/librarian’s desk. 
Here are also couple of blogs that I visit on a regular basis:

If you were the Queen of Education, what would be your first decree?
I’d immediately shift schools’ focus off of testing and test results and towards the true meaning of education—teaching and learning, and helping every child to love learning regardless of the difficulties they might have along the way. 
What else would you like to say about poetry teaching in the classroom/library? 
I’d like to share this fabulous poem with you and other educators. I think it says it all.
I  Read It Because It’s Beautiful
by Karen Morrow Durica

Somehow a life without poetry seems…
Not much.
So each day in my classroom I read…
Free verse—
And such.

An observer sat in my room one day…
Noted poem’s title
Evaluated delivery
Recorded “lesson” sequence—
Said dryly: “It seems

There’s no connection curricular-wise…
No anticipatory set
No vocabulary drill
No comprehension query—
Do they know what it means?”

I could have contrived a defense or two, but…
Spirits flowed with peaceful joy
Honesty prevailed
Simple truth explained—
“I read it because it’s beautiful,” I said.

She didn’t quite frown but recalled all the same, “We’ve…
Standards to meet
Timelines to keep
Pages to cover—
Important content to be read.”

I looked from her to my students’ gaze; they…
Had relished the words
Danced with the rhythm
Mused with the meaning—
Were richer in spirit than when we began.

I read it because it was beautiful. And beauty is…
Never superfluous
Never irrelevant
Always needed—
Always in my “lesson” plan.

Vida, this time with you has been completely inspiring. You made me stop and renew my awareness of the richness of language, the beauty of words, the power of poetry. My heart is lighter knowing that you, and many many wonderful librarians just like you, are opening literature’s doors to children of all ages. Thank you!

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