When I retired after 36 years of teaching in the Tam District, I was ready for a change and thought I might like to volunteer at my local elementary school. I was welcomed by the principal who set up a schedule for me in the Montessori, Waldorf and Open Classroom programs. I was especially drawn to Open, since I’d taught in the SWAS program at Drake for thirteen years and had maintained contact with many Valley SWASies, all of whom sent their kids there. I established a once or twice a week poetry class, and was pleased with how receptive the kids were. I decided I would not give the classes “baby“ poems, but rather short and accessible poems by established poets whom I truly loved. Roethke, Stafford, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickenson, Shakespeare, Mary Oliver and many others have made their appearance over the years. We would read the poems aloud several times, talk about them, and then the kids would write, not modeling their work on the poems we’d read but rather using them as a jumping off place for their own ideas and interests.
Once when my sister-in-law was visiting and had gotten lost in the back streets of San Geronimo Valley, she asked a group of kids if they knew where I lived. They brightened up immediately and responded, “Does she really love poetry?“ That and kids introducing me to their parents in the grocery store really made my day!
One last story: I taught a poetry class to kindergarten for the first time last spring, and was unsure about how to handle a class where most of the kids couldn’t either read or write. I introduced a short two line poem by Robert Frost:
“Old dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.”
This led to a spirited discussion of pets and then I asked them to write or draw for me. Several wrote short, quite good poems, one boy labored with amazing focus on writing out the name of his dog, and others drew wonderful pictures of their pets. Two little girls, however, filled their papers with meticulously neat scribbles, and then when I asked them to share their work with the class happily volunteered to “read” their poems. Each in turn stood in front of the class with a page of scribbles and recited long poems about their many cats. I think they taught me more about what poetry really is than I’d ever taught them!
I’ve been teaching poetry in Open now for twelve years. It brings me great joy, and I consider myself a lucky woman to have had this opportunity.