Since the primary school where I teach closed in March, I’ve only returned to my classroom once, months ago, to gather material for remote learning. Stepping into my classroom felt like entering a time capsule. The shelves were stacked with vocab quizzes I needed to hand back to my 4th graders. My door was decorated with dozens of yellow, paper bees celebrating the recent Spell-a-Thon winners. And on my desk: one hundred and sixty poetry packets. Crisp, uniformly stapled. Full of prompts for haiku and limericks and ballads. The last time I’d seen my students, I’d promised we’d start poetry in April.
Ever since I started teaching primary school Humanities five years ago, I’ve always saved my poetry unit for April. It’s fun to align it with National Poetry Month, and it’s also such a joyful way to end the school year. After months of teaching my students how to write an academically correct sentence, I love being able to tell them, “Okay, forget all that. Now you can break the rules.”
When I saw those untouched poetry packets on my desk, I briefly mourned this specific way my students and I would be missing out by learning at home. I mourned those magical classroom moments when a nine-year-old writes a line that makes her classmates spontaneously applaud. Or when that quiet student who’s been struggling with five-paragraph essays all year turns out to write brilliantly funny haiku.
However, my grief was only temporary. Over the next several weeks, I became grateful to have poetry connecting my students. When a person writes a poem, they determine the rules of that poem. In a time when kids have so many new rules to learn and so little control over their circumstances, I believe poetry can be a savior. A poem is a world where the author reigns. A poem is a world where a nine-year-old gets to choose.
When teachers learned we’d be home for the rest of the spring, I decided to extend my poetry unit to last into May. I took advantage of the online format by inviting four poet-friends to participate in a virtual “Visiting Poet” series. These poets spanned the country (and the world, actually, as one of these poets was overseas). They very generously agreed to film short videos of themselves talking about why they loved poetry, reading some of their own work, and offering a prompt. Every week for a month, my students would “meet” a new, real-life poet.
I am grateful for poetry for bringing us solace and power. I am grateful for my students, for their endurance, their strength, and their talent for finding delight when the world feels dark.
The following prompts were made for fourth graders, but I hope they also bring you joy and inspiration. These prompts ask us to connect with our environments, each other, and our communities during our pandemic times.
A prompt by Jacqueline Balderrama:
Choose a place in your home or backyard (or maybe a work of art!). Create a spy-finder with your hand or a piece of paper. Use your spy-finder to explore your chosen place, one small bit at a time. Look for the tiny details you might not normally notice. Make a list of what you see and experience. Use your five senses. Write a poem that describes the place you observed.
A prompt by Reese Conner:
Write a poem about a relationship you have with an animal. Choose an animal you have either strong positive or negative feelings about. Use these five words in your poem: SKIM, DANGLE, HUNGER, SQUINT, PROCESSION.
A prompt by Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes:
Find a word you’ve never heard of before or don’t know the meaning of. Learn everything you can about that word. What does it mean? Where does the word come from? Write a poem around that word. The poem could be about the word, or it could just use the word in an important way.
A prompt by Ernesto L. Abeytia:
Think of a small, funny memory you have. Write a poem that tells the story of that memory. In your poem, exaggerate what actually happened to make it bigger. In your poem, the memory can be funnier, or more serious, or more interesting than it was in real life.
Dana Diehl is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (Splice UK, 2018) and the collaborative collection, The Classroom (Gold Wake Press, 2019). Her chapbook, TV Girls, won the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest, judged by Chen Chen. Diehl earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in North American Review, Passages North, Necessary Fiction, Juked, and elsewhere. She has taught fiction workshops at the National University of Singapore, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Arizona State University, and the Arizona State Prison in Florence. She is currently a 4th grade English Instructor in Tucson.