In Spring 2019, I had the pleasure of piloting a combined-age writing residency as part of the Poetry Center’s Writing the Community program. The residency was modeled after the Reading Buddies concept, wherein an older student helps a younger student learn to read. If you had Reading Buddies in your elementary school maybe you remember how intimidated you felt—a cool fifth grader sitting next to you and monotone-reading Shel Silverstein aloud. The idea is brilliant—literacy exposure for our younger learners, and leadership skills for older students.
Pueblo Gardens has facilitated Reading Buddies for years. Mrs. Terra Bennett, a long-time kindergarten teacher at Pueblo Gardens, has coordinated several partner learning sessions with other teachers—some third grade, some seventh grade. In fact, this pilot program for Poetry Buddies came about because of Mrs. Bennet. She noticed that written skills, which are still very new to five- and six-year-olds, could be improved upon with the help of older students. Mrs. Bennett discussed the Poetry Buddies idea with Ms. Frankie Maldonado, a seventh-grade teacher at Pueblo Gardens, and then came to the Poetry Center with it. The Poetry Center, of course, was thrilled. During the Fall 2018 semester I worked with Ms. Maldonado’s seventh graders, and then in Spring 2019 we took what we learned in our semester together and brought it to Mrs. Bennett’s kindergarten class.
The collaboration between seventh grade and kindergarten was perfect. I’d worked with kindergarteners before and quickly learned some humbling information: at five-years-old children are still mastering motor skills, verbal language, and written language—I’d even venture to say their ABCs. I recall a student I had a few years back verbalizing a wonderfully rich story, and when I excitedly (naively) asked them to write it down they informed me with sobering honesty: “Miss, I can’t write.” Oh right. The Poetry Buddy program alleviates this dilemma: kindergarteners are honest, energetic, creative, bold, and highly expressive but are simply new to the mechanics of grammar, spelling, and even the physicality of holding a pencil. Meanwhile, the seventh graders learn to scribe the stories our kinder friends tell. And, of course, the seventh graders get some things out of it, too: leadership, compassion, and the chance to practice writing by way of the truism, “The best way to learn is through teaching.”
Due to unforeseen scheduling conflicts, the seventh-grade class participated in three sessions with the kindergarteners while the remaining five sessions turned into a collaboration between a third-grade class and the same kindergarten class. The following reflections, therefore, are a blend of kindergarten-seventh grade collaboration and kindergarten-third grade collaboration (let the first lesson of this how-to guide-of-sorts be known: public school teachers operate under strict testing deadlines and state requirements--scheduling will be your biggest monster):
The value of having a relationship with the older students beforehand:
I was lucky to have worked with Ms. Maldonado’s seventh graders before the Poetry Buddy program. They knew me and we had a rapport. I knew their names, their interests, their personalities, and their relationships to writing. Knowing me gave them added confidence as they rose to their roles as leaders.
In a way, the expectation of leadership can be more daunting than taking on the role of “learner” (though, of course, the idea of this program is that everyone is learning from each other). The first day of our combined class, I noticed the kindergartners were intimidated by the seventh graders, but the seventh graders were nervous. They were self-conscious about how they should interact with their younger friends, and how they should lead. Working with them prior to our combined class allowed us to have a relationship and thus added to the idea that we were learning together and leading one another. And, while they were apprehensive, our prior interaction may have alleviated some of the pressure.
Although this kind of rapport is ideal between you and the older students, scheduling may make it hard. If it isn’t possible to work with the older students beforehand, the next best thing is to coordinate in such a way that they have gone through a writers-in-the-schools program. Because of their prior residency, Ms. Maldonado’s seventh graders were confident. An example: the seventh graders, kindergartners, and I were working on a class poem on the whiteboard. In this exercise both seventh graders and kindergartners shouted out answers and contributed to the poem together. When we were done, I read the collaborative poem aloud, whereupon a seventh grader lifted his chin up in approval and announced: “That’s a pretty good poem.” His comfort with poetry still makes my heart swell but more importantly, what this response demonstrates is familiarity—even confidence—with the genre. Even if he couldn’t identify what about the poem was “good” he assumed a leadership role and demonstrated authority. All this is to say: older students exposed to creative writing beforehand are familiar with it and, because of this, lead with assurance.
So what do you do if you are unable to hold sessions with older students ahead of time or they haven’t gone through a writers-in-the-schools program? The day before our first third grade-kindergarten session, I held a separate session with the third graders, the primary goal of which was to meet one another. We learned names and discussed what mentorship to kindergarteners looks like. We discussed what writing looks like for most kindergartners (an uphill battle). And we discussed ways we could help them “scribe” and generate content. One such way is to ask questions and listen, so we did a exercise where we asked questions as we might in an interview. Students had to record their partner’s answers. This meeting and discussion demonstrated that as Poetry Buddies they were being entrusted with a responsibility. When you remind students that they are leaders, they feel the weight of that role.
Teachers are some of the most organized people ever. They have an absurd ability to plan their lessons way ahead of time and learn to anticipate the delightfully unexpected in the classroom. Undertaking a class that is double in size and a combination of third grade energy plus kindergarten eagerness requires organization on another level. I learned this after failing to supply enough materials for students one session. During the lesson Mrs. Bennett made up for my misstep by rushing to her classroom supply closet and retrieving back-up paints, paper, etc. Because I bought too few watercolors, the classroom devolved into students arguing over tiny discs of blue paint. If Mrs. Bennett hadn’t had extra, I would have been surrounded by disgruntled students. As with Mrs. Bennett’s back-up supplies, always have more than you think you’ll need for a large class. Trust me. Careful planning is especially crucial when it comes to supplies in large classrooms. If you aren’t diligent about how many students there are in the class and the subsequent amount of supplies you’ll need, you will end up with chaos and gray hairs like I did.
The watercolor fiasco surfaced another necessity: plan simple lessons. In the beginning of my residency, in the interest of entertaining both younger and older students, I figured the more to do the better. At first, a single class could include a group activity, charades, a writing portion, an art lesson, a picnic (not really), we would put on an opera (just kidding). As most teachers know, large classes are a time-management black hole. Spanning my time as a teaching artist, I would hear classroom teachers lament, “This class is near thirty kids so beware, I have trouble getting things done with them.” Time dedicated to classroom management increases and there is generally more energy to reign in and more students to pay attention to. Your Poetry Buddy class is a literal smashing together of two regular sized classes, so keep it simple.
Entertaining Mixed Grade Levels & the Importance of Collaborative Poems
While older students scribed for their kinder buddy, I wanted to make space for them as writers, too. I wanted lessons that both levels could get excited over.
Every session started with group, collaborative poems. Collaborative poems had several premises or rules--sometimes they were lists of make-believe animals, sometimes a list of everything in their heads that was orange, or sometimes our collaborative poem was about the tiniest thing in the world. Collaborative poems answer the question of how to engage creatively with writers of different ages and backgrounds. Usually, this is because the prompt for group poems is general enough that everyone can chime in (who doesn’t want to think of animals that should exist but don’t?). Also, group poems have a playful dynamic: students don’t write from a single idea or literary model, but are instead challenged to answer rapid-fire questions on the fly. Not every age group--or student for that matter--will want to write about the same thing, but most will entertain your zany prompts if the objective is to be silly and unfiltered.
Writing collectively also alleviates pressure. Starting the class with a sense of play dissolves the intimidation that kindergarteners sometimes feel toward older students and reminds older students that while they are leaders, they should feel free to have fun as well. If we are writing together and shouting out the first thing that comes into our head, what is there to feel intimidated by? In addition, group poems alleviate the pressure to produce. Students who have never been in a creative writing class tread carefully--wondering what they should write about and if it’s going to be good or long enough or whether they are creative or not (me too, if we’re being honest). Collaborative poems remind us, as well as the classroom teachers, that writing is about play, not production--at least not all of the time.
Importantly, collaborative poems can blossom into a sense of community. No matter their age or experience, the students shouted out ideas. In this way, seventh and third grade writing intermixed with the kindergarteners’ work. No student was “ahead” of the other as their collective lines sparkled beside one another. Eliminating the hierarchy too often associated with age allowed us to remember our goal: to write poems together. Something I hadn’t anticipated was the beauty of seeing different minds and experiences infused into the same poem. Kindergartners were unfiltered and shouted whatever came to mind, while seventh graders considered questions deeply and tended toward the personal.
Your Place in This Bouncing, Blooming Writing Community
I find myself writing the word “our” in this blog post. Particularly, in the context of “our collaborative poem” or “we are writing together.” On a literal level, I did not write with the students or add my own words. The collaborative poems were strictly their ideas and none of mine, save the prompts. But looking back, this Buddy Program had that feel--it was our classroom. We wrote poems together, asked questions, and answered those questions collectively. We laughed, were patient and brave, and even yelled over one another things we’d say to a river. Maybe you’ve noticed my Freire-ian influence but I really believe, especially in a combined-age classroom, that it is fruitful to move away from the teacher-student relationship and instead nurture the classroom as community.
Though the older students acted as leaders when it came to scribing, and though I happened to be in front of the class, it really felt like we were on the same page most sessions. We were all conductors of the classroom. What nurtured this were the collaborative poems we wrote together but also that, for most of the assignments, the older students helped the kindergarteners scribe and then wrote their own responses. We all acted out our creativity. As for my involvement, I intervened less and less. By the sixth, seventh, and eighth sessions I watched more than I gave directions. I watched the third graders get to know their kinder buddy and genuinely praise their work. As I came around they no longer sought my approval (i.e. asking me if what they were doing was “correct”), but instead excitedly told me what they had written.
I used to think that the middle school teachers who, at the end of the year, shared the sentiment, “You all really taught me more than I taught you,” were just trying to make our group of ornery seventh graders feel better about ourselves, but as cheesy as it is I understand it now. In my short time as a teaching artist, I have never felt less like an instructor and more like a student than in the Pueblo Garden’s Poetry Buddies program.
If you want to learn and be at play, I recommend:
1. Sharing poetry with anybody and everybody
2. Sharing it in a large, energetic, noisy, and age-variegated classroom.
Sophie Daws identifies as a femme-nature poet. She is a recent graduate of the University of Arizona, where she received degrees in English Literature and in Creative Writing with a minor in Plant Sciences. Her work revolves around femme imagery, childhood, memory, and architecture--all of which are explored in terms of nature/ecology. She volunteers with Iskashitaa Refugee Network and is concerned with the intersection of global food justice/sustainable agriculture and, of course, writing. She can be caught reading at various bars/femme events around Tucson and was the recipient of the Hattie Lockett Award in 2018.
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