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By Wendy Burk
Wendy is the Poetry Center's Library Specialist, who works with Rodney Phillips to maintain the library and assist patrons in accessing the collection. She is a poet with an MFA from The University of Arizona, and is also a translator of Spanish.
During this past academic year, 1,100 people visited the Poetry Center for field trips and tours. Students of all ages, from preschool to university, come to the Poetry Center and it is our job to make poetry come alive for them with time to read, write, and explore the Helen S. Schaefer Building.
Molly Reed's first- and second-grade class from Borton Magnet Primary School was the first student group to try out a new curriculum designed and led by Poetry Center docent Sandy Szelag. Inspired by a visit to the Desert Museum and poet Pablo Neruda's "Odes to Common Things," Sandy developed a field trip that introduces the Ode/Praise Poem form to elementary school students with the help of a Pack Rat puppet named Pablo Neruda. A week after the Borton class visit, Rosalie Perales's first- and second-grade students from Miles Exploratory Learning Center experienced the same curriculum.
Both Molly and Rosalie had worked with their students on poetry and poetic forms all year long, and it really showed. When's the last time you heard a first grader discussing literary terms like onomatopoeia and metaphor? What I like about introducing the ode or praise poem is that it is easy to explain to students of all ages and levels of experience. For students well versed in poetic forms like Molly's and Rosalie's, we went beyond "let's write a list of things that we really like about..." to "let's include a simile" and "that's a great example of alliteration," incorporating the techniques they had learned in class.
So, where does the pack rat puppet come in? We explained to students that not only is our pack rat named for Pablo Neruda, but he also--like Pablo Neruda and like pack rats everywhere--loves ordinary, common objects that he collects in his "midden" (in this case, his cloth backpack). A student volunteer pulled an object out of Pablo's pack: a bar of soap! Then we read excerpts from Neruda's poem "Ode to a Bar of Soap":
When I pick up
to take a closer look, its powerful aroma
I don't know
where you come from,
is your home town?
Two more student volunteers pulled out two more objects, also subjects of Neruda's odes: a pair of colorful socks and a bag of French fries (really 'Veggie Sticks' from the supermarket, but they looked the part). Then groups of students worked together to write collaborative odes about the objects, with parents and teachers gamely contributing lines of poetry, too.
Ode to Socks
by Students from Borton Magnet Primary School
Oh socks, in your own way,
You are a knitted masterpiece
A decoration, an ornament for our feet
You are elastic, puffy and stretchy
Made of cottony yarn, you are soft as hair
So comfy, you help us fall asleep
Oh socks, you keep our toes warm
Like a jacket or a sweater for our feet
You look like a black shark on our feet
You give us polka dots and a green frog
And with your stripes of purple and white
Of orange and violet and pink
Oh, socks, you're a rainbow on our feet
Ode to French Fries
by Students (and Parents) from Miles Exploratory Learning Center
Oh French fry, I'd like to tuck you in at night
I wonder how it feels to only get a life for a little bit
Will you be curly or straight?
Oh French fry, what do you think it's like to be tasted?
Oh French fries, how cool is it to be as floppy as a worm?
How does it feel to get gobbled?
Oh French fry, how does it feel to not be able to move at all?
Oh French fry, I'm so happy you're blind and you can't see the inside of my mouth
Fantastic French fry, salty and tender,
Oh French fry, how does it look inside our stomachs?
Oh French fry, how does it feel to die?
What does it feel like inside our tummies?
Oh French fry, can I take a bite out of you?
I wonder, what's your favorite thing?
Oh French fry, how does it feel to sleep in our stomach?
You make my mouth water and widen my hips.
Oh French fry, do we make you feel queasy when we make you all greasy?
Oh French fry, would you please come home with me?
I found it delightful that the sock poems lent themselves more to metaphor and simile (one group wrote, "My socks are like antennas on an alien and two ponytails/ My socks are like a dog in a cave") and also tended toward the light-hearted and fanciful. In the example above, students compared the socks to a shark on their feet--unbeknownst to them, a comparison that Neruda used in his own "Ode to a Pair of Socks." In contrast, the French fry poems took on darker themes of life and death, as students personified the French fry and contemplated its eventual fate inside someone's stomach. These are poignant questions: "I wonder how it feels to only get a life for a little bit," wrote one student, who initially said that she knew what her idea was but didn't think she could express it in words. I thought she did so beautifully. Words don't always need to be dressed up to be right on.
At the end of the field trip, Pablo the Pack Rat had a treat for the students: they all got to choose objects from Pablo's pack with the understanding that this was a "poem in their pocket" for future writing. The objects that Sandy collected included pebbles, pop can tabs, ribbons, pennies, and dried flowers. A surprise for me was hearing students say "Cool!" upon receiving a twist tie or a pebble.
My biggest surprise in these field trips was the effectiveness of objects. I sometimes forget how important objects are to my own poetry. And I am not a pack rat: I shy away from introducing many objects or props during field trips, let alone collecting individual objects for students to take home. Thanks to Sandy, who is also a poet, I realized how important tangible 'stuff' can be to spark our imaginations. We really see that in the Borton students' "Ode to Socks," as they directly describe the colors and patterns on the rainbow-colored socks that were their object. What I also learned is that objects don't have to be elaborate or costly to have a big impact. A pebble that is given as a gift is an especially significant pebble. Thank you, Sandy, teachers, students, and parents for reminding me of that.