Poetry Teacher Spotlight

By Teacher Sherry, Teacher Peggy, & Amilia, Parent of Awesome Avocado Zara 

 

“Peggy is coming tomorrow,” Teacher Sherry announces as her 4th/5th grade class breaks into applause. This is a typical reaction to the news that Peggy, our resident poetry teacher, will be paying a visit.

For the past 15 years, Peggy has graced our 4th and 5th grade classrooms with her passion and creativity. “She’s a real gem,” says Sherry. She comes five times a year to Sherry, Jill, and Michele’s classrooms, each time engaging students in writing imaginative, expressive poems.

“[She] truly is gifted at drawing students into poetry,” says 4th grade teacher, Michele. “She has a way of helping every student become a poet. Throughout her lesson, Peggy encourages the students to step beyond their comfort zones and create a piece of writing that reflects them as a person. The entire class always looks forward to our poetry lessons with Peggy.”

Peggy has in total nearly 35 years of teaching experience as a junior high and high school Literature and Language Arts teacher, including including 18 years at St. Andrew’s School in Saratoga. She has a master’s degree in Reading Education and has studied with California Poets in the Schools. She lived in Europe for seven years where she tutored at international schools in Paris and Vienna. She has conducted workshops for teachers on how to teach poetry writing and appreciation and has worked with student teachers from San Jose State as well. She even spearheaded a well-received program called ‘Adolescent Voices of the Holocaust,” which exposes students to literature created by adolescent holocaust victims. This is all to say that she comes to us with a wealth of experience and a profound knowledge of the poetry genre.

Despite her impressive resume, Peggy acknowledges that she is a “team teacher” at Village. “The teachers are present and active at each lesson,” she explains. They are the ones who work with the students day-to-day, developing the poem from a rough draft into a final presentation. They “are crucial to the success of the program. Without their active role, the program could not function.”

On each of her visits, Peggy comes prepared with a ‘model’ poem, which she uses to discuss major poetic techniques, like the use of simile, metaphor and intense sensory imagery. Students are then asked to write their own poem. They are free to be creative within the boundaries set by the model. In this way, students learn to play with words by experimenting with various genres.

In the past, our students have written everything from spooky Halloween poems to seasonal wintertime poetry. They’ve written poems about nature, about peace, and have even written biographical poems.

Peggy has a real gift with the kids, pushing them to tap into their imaginations (in her words, their “right brain”) while staying true to poetic structure (their “left brain”). Under her guidance, and with the help of our incredible Village teachers, students learn to structure their words and express themselves through tone. They also learn about rhythm, mood and use of poetic techniques such as metaphor, simile, personification, sensory imagery, and alliteration.

Perhaps most importantly, Peggy sees poetry as a springboard to narrative, descriptive prose writing. She calls it the “poetry prose connection.” A poem may be free form, but when you ask a student to translate it into written text, they learn to develop sentences with punctuation. In this way, they are learning to apply writing to other subjects, like social studies and science. “This can be a great tool for teachers,” she explains.

Once complete, our students’ poems are often displayed on classroom walls or compiled into books. They have also been displayed at the Campbell Public Library and won awards at the Santa Clara County Writer’s Fair. But, perhaps most excitingly, they are shared verbally. Peggy is a strong believer that “poetry has to be heard to be best appreciated.” She encourages students to expressively present their poems in front of the class or in small groups.

“It’s a real treat,” Sherry says, “to see students act out their poems for the class, using tone and inflection to make their poetry come to life.”

“The program is interdisciplinary,” explains Peggy. “[Students are] reading for appreciation of poetic imagery, listening with a good critical ear, writing by experimenting with genres of poetry and orally presenting with good articulation and expression.”

The class also spends important time discussing active, respectful listening, the art of making constructive comments and how to react appropriately to peer writing.

Peggy’s poetry program has proved so popular that, over the years, even our Village parents have gotten involved. Several parents have begun actively writing their own poems alongside the students. Some have sent Peggy their poems for feedback, and two have since joined her at a monthly poetry group in Cupertino.

 

Q&A with Peggy

What is it about poetry that inspires you?
Like any art, it’s an articulation between the artist and the beholder. In poetry, the art form is the manipulation of words to convey thoughts and feelings. As an appreciator of language arts, poetry resonates with me as an opera would with someone else.

I also find that poetry can be incredibly valuable as a form of self-expression. I’ve taught poetry to kids, to adults, to juveniles, and to the terminally ill. I even once taught by phone as an outreach to a prisoner whom I sponsored. He used the process as a kind of outlet or therapy. I also teach the benefits and techniques of creating poetry as part of the grieving process. Poetry can be a tool for almost anyone.

What is your favorite poem?
I can’t say. It really depends on where I am emotionally or psychologically at the time. But, if I was stranded on a desert island and forced to choose one poet to take with me, I’d probably choose Shakespeare.

If you could teach the kids one thing, what would it to be?
Let me tell you an anecdotal story:

I was standing by a beautiful lake in the Sierras, surrounded by my 5 young grandchildren. I said to them, “Look at the shimmering water. It looks like fairy wings.”

“Oh no,” responded one grandchild, “it looks like diamonds.” And so it went, each one chiming in with a unique perspective.

Finally, my oldest grandchild weighed in. “No, no,” he said, “It’s just the light reflecting off of the water.”

The point of this story is that poetry is not for everybody. It comes naturally and intrinsically to some. For others, they may learn the mechanics of it, but it may never resonate.

My goal when working with kids is to ‘plant the seed’ by providing broad exposure to the art form and its various genres. How it grows and blooms will depend on each child and his/her own inclinations.

What, if anything, have you found is different about Village compared to other schools where you teach?
Village is unique in many ways, primarily of course because of the parents’ involvement. There is a sense of community, and a real ownership by all in the education of the students.

The culture at Village is also special. There is a recognition and appreciation of the uniqueness in each student.

Why do you think students respond so positively to poetry as compared with other forms of writing?
In our school system, expository writing is the mandate. It is what is taught and tested. However, there is no mandate for poetry in our schools and the kids recognize that. They know they are not being evaluated so, in their minds, it is just for fun.

I try to emphasize that a poem is never complete because art is always evolving. In this way, there is no pressure for a poem to be perfect. It can always be improved or adapted. Once you take the pressure and competition out, students react with a lot more enthusiasm.

 

Sample Student Poems 

Invitation Poem
by Julia, Sherry’s Mystical Mountain Lions

Under the black ashes of the night
soar to another place
for there’s a light
come fly with me
I will go in a pink lacy dress
and you in a flowery skirt
we will go there skipping hand in hand
and twist the skin of life
in the break of dawn
we will frolic in a million blades of invisible grass
do nothing but laugh with nobody watching
we will meet a purple monkey and he will show us around
we will hear the tweety birds sing and join in the melody
we will twist and dance
drink buttermilk tea with our pinkies up
The ocean water will comfort us
the joyful land is waiting for us
come laugh with me

Light Poem
by Mickey, Jill’s Terrific Turtles

Dawn’s light
Covered in neon robes
Awakening roosters angrily
Behind a long airport

Noon’s light
Wears epic sunglasses
Blazes happily
Over the huge earth

Dusk’s light
Cloaked in charcoal
Sets sadly
Beyond the reflective ocean

Midnight’s light
Is layered in dark shirts
Dies out crazily
Under the northern hemisphere

 
 


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