Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Aimless Reading: The K's, Part 21.1 (Kenneth Koch)

Koch, Kenneth
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?
Teaching Great Poetry to Chldren

I think I bought this online.

This is an incredibly useful resource for anyone teaching poetry to children. I used it for years when I did teaching artist work in the schools. The first few times I performed writing residencies, I failed miserably because I thought that because I was interested in avant-garde writing I had to teach avant-garde techniques to ten-year-olds, lest I violate my precious aesthetic principles. Someone recommended this book, so I bought a copy and decided to apply some of its lessons to my workshops.

I think the thing I like about the book so much is that it does not assume that literary creativity is simply the articulation of feelings in words. The assumption is that poetry exists as something in the world, that there are examples of poetry one can use to show children what a poem might be, and that there are further examples of a what a great poem might be, and that by teaching children to understand these poems one can also begin to show them how to write their own.

The emphasis on reading great poems and understanding their root ideas is essential.

Koch's basic technique is to read a famous poem like Blake's "The Tyger" and then try to find a couple of simple, concrete ideas about the poem that can be communicated to children. In this instance he asks the children to focus on the fact that the poem is about a man asking questions of an animal. They are given the opportunity to choose an animal they'd like to speak with and then to ask that animal several questions. The animal understands them because they know how to speak its secret language. And so on. The ideas are simple, but the results are often incredibly rich and complex. I think the title of the book comes from a poem in which a kid chooses to talk to a rose instead of an animal.

What is so useful is that you don't just leave the kids with a poem to stick on the refrigerator door, but a memory of having read a poem start to finish, and perhaps a more concrete idea about what a poem might be or do. That part lasts regardless of whether or not the kid ever writes a poem again.

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