This, my friends, is a Sharktopus: TC Tolbert on teaching poetry to 4th graders


This, my friends, is a Sharktopus:

The Sharktopus was a creature that only Anayissa Romero knew about until I asked her to show me a favorite living thing in her mind. This was only our second class but Anayissa, like so many in Ms. Mikesell’s 4th grade class at Safford Elementary School, was spilling with imagination and delight. 

This is what I love about teaching poetry to 4th graders. All I had to say was, “Are there any questions you want to ask this roller-skating, burger-loving queen of a sea beast? If so, write them down for me.” And so, she did. Simple as that. 

When I
first saw you I thought
you were a normal shark. How
can you breathe out of water?
Why do you play tennis?
Why do you go to the casino?
You have a crown of gold…Your
eyes are full of weirdness.
My tentacles tickle people and
make them laugh. 

I love how the speaker suddenly becomes the Sharktopus at the end. And I can’t get over her instinct to enjamb the first 3 lines. 

I don’t have pictures of the creatures Vanessa Nicole and Jessica Suarez (both members of Ms. Mikesell’s class) wrote about, but here are their poems: 

I am colorful.
Why are there foxes
on the sea? Why
do I have a horn?
My hearts mean
I love everyone. 
Do you go to school?
I live in a love cave
under the sea. 
Do you like the foxes
above you? Are you sure
you love everyone?
I thought you were
a normal dolphin. 
I can make presents.
Can you make people love
each other again?
- Vanessa Nicole

and you have legs and feet
to feel the happiness of grass.
and a horn to bless 
the beauty of everything in your heart.
And a heart to love and to
forgive. And a stomach to eat
candy. And ears to hear
- Jessica Suarez

No shade against teaching poetry at other levels but give me a classroom full of 4th graders any day. These poets are real masters of delight.  

TC Tolbert, Tucson's Poet Laureate, often identifies as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, dancer, and poet but really s/he’s just a human in love with humans doing human things. The author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press 2014) and 3 chapbooks, TC is also co-editor (along with Trace Peterson) of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books 2013). His favorite thing in the world is Compositional Improvisation (which is another way of saying being alive).