Unleashing Young Poets

by Glen Grunberger

Glen GrunbergerGlen Grunberger worked for many years as a somewhat sane, relatively stable attorney in Austin, Texas before committing the decidely un-sane, entirely destabilizing act of moving to Tucson last summer to enroll in the University of Arizona's MFA program in Creative Writing.  He has just completed his first year as a fiction writer in the program, and while he's quite certain he's no longer certain of anything, he loves being able to say he hangs out with poets.  Glen is accompanied by his fearless wife Sara, who teaches biology at Cholla High School in Tucson, and their dog, Maya, who teaches them both how to be human.

Of all the lessons I taught this past spring in my residency at Corbett Elementary, one of the easiest and most fun was writing poems "by" the children's pets.  I introduced poems from the book Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs[1] as a springboard for the children to channel their favorite animals' voices.  The goal was to tap into the ready enthusiasm and imaginative connections kids have for their pets and write poems from the first-person perspective of the animals.    The lesson turned out to be a great way to exercise the young writers' skills with personification and dialogue and to develop that most essential of writerly muscles, empathy.

I began the lesson by reading a couple of samples from Unleashed: "Stalker," by Jeanne Schinto and "Buddy" by Andrew Hudgins.  These two worked well for my fourth- and fifth-graders because they were understandable without pandering or rhyming.  In fact, the mystery of who "The Stalker" referred to was just hard enough to solve but not over their heads.  And the mildly scatological "Buddy" appealed greatly to the nine- and ten-year old senses of humor.

The pre-writing focused at first on simply allowing the children to tell stories about their pets.  My experience is that the only danger here is not having enough time to let all the children talk.  Even the very few kids who said they had never had a pet had known a pet they wanted to talk about.  And almost everyone had imagined speaking for or imagining their pets' thoughts at some point.

The one difficulty I ran into with this lesson was in my first class where a significant minority of kids did not initially grasp the concept of writing in first-person from the animal's voice. With my next class, I stressed and repeated this instruction more forcefully and not a single child missed it.  Another possible pothole could be if a child has experienced a recent pet death.  One little girl said this was the case.  I told her I'd lost a pet that I still missed and this assignment could be a good opportunity to connect with her pet -- we could recall a time when her dog was alive and made her smile or maybe write an imaginary letter from her dog.  This girl let a smile sneak through, and I realized she had just been trying to avoid the work; but, still, it could be a more significant issue for some kids and it's good to anticipate a response if it comes up.

Finally, it's good to make clear that the lesson applies to all kinds of animals; I got poems by dogs, cats, fish, and even a reptile or two.  The main thing is that we want animals that the kids already have a connection with and therefore have likely personified.  In fact, I think one of the reasons I like this lesson so much is that it makes use of the tendency, especially in children, to anthropomorphize our animals.  And for some of us adults who still shamelessly personify their pets, it's nice to be able to say: it's good for my writing!

Note:  I highly recommend Unleashed -- there are poems by Edward Albee, John Irving, and Anne Lamott, among many -- but most of the poems are written for adults.  My favorite piece, for example, "I love my master I love my master," by the cartoonist Lynda Barry, is side-splittingly funny but definitely not kid appropriate.  Still, there are several poems accessible to children verbatim or with minor editing. For a complete lesson plan, try this: Unleashed Lesson Plan.

In the meantime, here are a couple of my kids' poems:

Hungry Annoyed Fish
Hey! Little one.  Over here.  You! Come here.  Feed
me, the flippy one.  Yeah, that's right.  Feed the fish, feed the fish.  Whoo mmmm yeah.
We goin' somewhere?  'Cause I'm still hungry.
Hey how 'bout that restaurant down the street? Ha?  Ha?  Wait ... the PET store?
Never mind.   Just bring food.

by Tommy the Goldfish
(by Teresa Pham, 4th grade)

Get out, sir. I'm warning you. Me and my friend here are going to hurt you.
Get out now.  1, 2, 3 ... attack  hay hay hay
we warned you.  I said get out you ungrateful fool. I'm going to bite you if you don't get out now.  I said now!
You did it. Now you're a goner.

by Patches the Dog
(by Matthew Bol, 4th grade)

[1] edited by Amy Hempel and Jim Shepard, Three Rivers Press, 1995

Created on: 
Monday, June 7, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents