Writing the Community: Teaching Creative Writing to K-12 Youth

Writing the Community is a regular column which features student writing and performances, working lesson plans, interviews with poets and teachers, and other resources related to teaching creative writing to K-12 youth.

A Warbler is an Oreo that Sings: 4th Graders Craft Metaphors Using Personification
by Saraiya Kanning, Poetry Center Education Intern

When I heard Alberto Álvaro Ríos read from his “Desert Bestiary Sonnets” at the UA Poetry Center in fall 2015, I found myself tickled by the surprisingly apt comparisons he draws between animal and human appearances and behaviors. “Tarantulas are awkward left hands in search of a piano,” he writes. “Scorpions are lobsters sent west by the witness protection program.” When I first embarked on planning my nine-day residency in a 4th grade classroom at Mission View Elementary, I knew right away I wanted to share this poem with my class and began crafting a lesson plan around “Desert Bestiary Sonnet, One from A Small Story About the Sky.

Children love animals (I distinctly remember enacting a blind mole on the playground), and they very naturally practice personification in their speech and play. With a bit of structure and simple instruction, these natural abilities can be captured in metaphors that are humorous, striking, and surprising. The Bestiary Poems lesson plan can further be tailored to local wildlife and used to heighten curiosity about local environments.

The lesson at Mission View began with with four pictures: a jackrabbit racing across the screen, a close-up of a wasp with glistening striped abdomen, a ring-tailed cat, and a gila monster. These creatures are found in the Sonoran Desert, and many of the children were already familiar with one or two of the creatures from some other class activity. The minute the first picture appeared on the overhead, the classroom breathed a collective gasp at the site of a cuddly, bulge-eyed rabbit. I then asked a series of questions as they looked at each picture. If this animal had a job, what would it be? If this animal played an instrument, what would it play? After we had a long list for each creature, we collectively crafted our ideas into metaphors. The jackrabbit became a violinist that sounded like cats dying. The ring-tailed cat became a basketball player making slam dunks with its tail. We were on a roll and laughing at all the ways we could imagine these animals walking in the human world (Zootopia was on to something).

Teaching this particular lesson has sent me on a series of reflections. What topics do children gravitate towards? How can a writer in residence tap into these natural interests and capture them in student writing? How can humor be a device for opening creativity? I have no doubt the laughter in the room generated eagerness and enthusiasm for thinking about metaphors and setting pen to paper.

We wrapped up the session by writing individual bestiary poems. Each table was given several handouts with groupings of animals: pets, rainforest animals, marine animals, or woodland animals. They were each sent loose to write on their own.

Here are a few lines from their work:

Beta fish play archery.

Finches have flying races and they are colorful rainbows.

A warbler is an Oreo that sings.

A raven is the night with wings.

Ferrets are soccer players.

Terriers are tennis players.

Cats are mailmen.

A wolf is like a fluffy pillow with his soft fur.

A warbler is like a stress ball because he is small.