By Amy Ludwig Van Derwater, 2023 CCIRA Conference Speaker
Many years ago, my friend Tim bought a VitaMix. You know the VitaMix, that blender you could feed car parts into and still end up with a tasty smoothie? Tim made salsa. Gallons of salsa. For every block party and birthday party years after Tim’s purchase, we could count on him to bring salsa. And we loved it. Salsa became Tim’s signature dish, and from the day he bought that VitaMix on, he was the salsa man.
Eating Tim’s salsa, I was reminded of my childhood and of Mrs. Roske, church secretary and mom at my childhood church. Mrs. Roske was well known for her Cardamom Braid Bread. And then there was my husband’s Babci who was famous for her Pineapple Cake. Even as her eyesight failed and she worked from a recipe written in one inch high letters, she made this cake. And Mark loved Pineapple Cake so much that for my bridal shower, I received a copy of the recipe along with a glass baking dish and all of the ingredients.
These cooks were famous for one thing, and decades later, I still remember them for their signature dishes. Well, last year, after 22 years away, I returned to the classroom for one year as a fourth grade remote-and-in-person teacher. I knew how much I didn’t know, and I was nervous, so I made a simple commitment to do one thing well. To stay true to one simple ritual: my fourth grade ELA students and I would begin each class by reading poems out loud.
On the first day of school, I introduced a poem written on chart paper (remote students shared a Google Slides poetry notebook), and I read it with a pointer. Then we read the poem together. After a whole class choral reading, individual students volunteered to “have a turn.” We read this poem together on each of the first few days of school.
On the first full-week Monday, we read our poem together again and added a new poem. On the third Monday, we added a third poem. On the fourth Monday, we dropped off the first poem so that we remained at reading three poems aloud to begin each class. And each week thereafter we dropped and added a poem. We read funny poems, serious poems, poems with lots of rhythm, poems to celebrate the change of seasons, and challenging poems such as “The Shaker Abecedarius.” We read old and contemporary poems written by so many poets. Sometimes it felt as if choosing the just-right poem was my most important task.
Poems Hanging On Our Interactive White Board
Children hand copied our weekly poem into their Poetry Notebooks. I could have given them printouts, but the hand copying helped the poems sink into our hearts. When we read aloud together, some students looked up at the charts and slides, and some chose to read their own handwritten versions of the poems.
From Olivia’s Notebook
We experienced grand surprises. When we read Rachel Field’s “Something Told the Wild Geese” and I played a song version, one boy asked to sing it to us on his own, and we all sat in wonder-filled silence afterward. Students noticed craft moves in poems that I had not noticed. Later in the year, students would request that old poems come back “for a visit.” Some children chose to read our poems aloud and alone with their eyes closed, to self-check if they had a poem memorized, knowing they could open their eyes at any time. Some brought poems to submit as possible class poems. Reading poetry aloud and together became part of who we were as a family. We carried the same 36 poems written on our hearts.
As June approached, my almost-fifth-graders asked, “On the last day of school, can we read all of our poems during ELA class?” And we did. Together, on our last day, all of us read 36 poems in unison, remembering our year by walking through those familiar and well-loved lines and stanzas.
My parting gift to these young readers was a gift of pencils. I purchased a foil stamping machine and stamped each student a set of four colorful pencils, each with a line from one of our shared poems. When giving the gift, I read each of four lines out loud, and together, they named the poems. Months later, they remembered.
Poem Pencils from 2020 – 2021
Photos by Amy LV
Poem Pencil Lines:
AS LONG AS EVER YOU CAN from “Rules of Conduct” by John Wesley
WORDS ARE MAGIC from “Treasure Words” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich
HOLD FAST TO DREAMS from “Dreams” by Langston Hughes
COME TO THE EDGE from “Come to the Edge” by Christopher Logue
The 2020-2021 school year was a challenging whirlwind for many, including this new-again teacher. I am grateful to poetry for holding my class and me steady, for slowing us down and teaching us about ourselves and each other. I am grateful to poetry for reminding me that one ritual, repeated with love, matters. In difficult times, a simple ritual can provide comfort and peace.
Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is author of several poetry and picture books for children including Forest Has a Song, Write! Write! Write!, and her latest If This Bird Had Pockets: A Poem in Your Pocket Day Celebration. A former elementary school teacher (ages ago and for one year during COVID), Amy is also author of the professional book Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres. She keeps two popular classroom blogs – The Poem Farm and Sharing Our Notebooks – and looks forward to sharing poetry at the CCIRA 2023 conference in Denver. Find Amy online HERE.