Poetry 101: Poetry Study on e e cummings

For many years now, I have been reading poetry to my kids,
From the time they were born actually.
My first aim was to simply get them to enjoy poetry.
To love the sound of it, the rhythm, the music, and the language.
When we started school, I kept reading them poetry.
One or two poems a day, part of our morning meeting–the way we began school every day.
After I read a poem a time or two, we’d talk about it.
I’d ask them questions like, “what do you think this poem is about?”
“What does it make you see?”
“How does this poem make you feel?”
“Do you think the poet had a message he wanted you to hear?”
Talking about the poems quickly became very natural and we all enjoyed it.
The next step was to slowly began introducing literary devices into our poetry talks.
Personification, alliteration, symbolism, allusion.
There were no tests or quizzes.
It was easy to introduce those terms and what they meant as they came up when we read.
I wanted these lessons to feel natural, never forced, or “schoolish”.
Instead I wanted them to be enjoyable, and yes, even fun.
The kids ate it up, and poetry became one of my favorite subjects to teach my favorite students.

Lately though, I’ve wanted to do more with poetry.
Or at least something different.
I had laid a strong foundation, and it seemed like the right time to build up.
Then the flash of idea came, and I decided to focus our poetry time on learning about one poet a month.
We’d immerse ourselves in their life and their work.
We’d read lots of their poems, memorize one or two, and illustrate some.
We’d learn a bit about their artistic contemporaries and the other art being made during their life time.
We’d even explore some of the history and what world events shaped their work.
I was excited!
It was time to go a little deeper in our poetry studies.

IMG_7963We started this month with our very first poetry study.
I chose e e cummigs.
For no other reason than I found an amazing book about him and wanted to have it in our collection.
I knew a great book would make all the difference in how the kids responded to the poet.
Turns out my hunch was right.
It has been the perfect place to start.

We’re only a couple weeks in and we’re all loving it.
Even though William says he’s not really a big fan of e e’s poems.
“They’re a little too weird,” he said.
But that’s perfectly OK with me.
That’s part of what these studies are all about.
I want to expose them to lots of different poets and poems and styles and voices, and to help them find the ones that resonate with them.
And the ones that don’t.
Like I’ve said before, I’m not just here to teach them to learn to read and write, add and subtract.
I’m here to make their world bigger.
I’m here to help them love to learn.
I’m here to light the fire.


So, just in case you’re interested in incorporating any of this into your school days, here is what we’re doing with our:
e e cummings poetry study.

Main Text: Enormous Smallness: A Story of E E Cummigs 

We read this book over the course of 3 days.
It helped to spread it out, allowing them time to think about who e e was, what he was doing, and become interested in his work.

Day 1:
Introduce the poet ee cummings, and begin reading the book abut his life, “Enormous Smallness.” Read about e e’s childhood and up to his graduation from Harvard University.
If you are not familiar with e e cummings (and yes, he liked his name spelt with all lower case letters) you can brush up on his life here.

Day 2:
Continue reading from “Enormous Smallness”.
Read of e e”s move to New York, his sojourn in France during WWI, and the start of his career as a poet.
Next we read one of his poems, “The Sky Was”.
That’s when the real fun began!
(You can find the poem here or in the book.)
The first time I read it to the kids, I stumbled and could hardly get through it.
I had to read it again, and then again, to really get through it and for it to make sense to us.
By the second reading the kids had gathered around me and pointed out the words that went together and we laughed at how silly and strange it was.
It was so much fun to see the way Cummings played with language, poetic form, and grammar.

And it was so good for them to see me struggling through a poem, not particularly enjoying it at first, but liking it more and more with each read.
Poetry can be hard work.
It takes patience and perseverance to read, understand, and enjoy it.
But having this experience with my kids, I am modeling for them the exact way I want them to approach a poem.
So I really, really, really suggest you approach this poem totally fresh when you read it to your kids.
Struggle with the poem.
Struggle alongside your kids.
But keep going.
You’ll be teaching your kilos such an invaluable lesson about reading poetry.

Next we discussed our own reaction to the poem, and how much more we liked it the first time we read it.
And then after we read it again, and again, and again, and again.
It was so great to see their opinions changing with each read.
We discussed the way other people responded to Cumming’s wild looking poetry when he wrote it.
I told them that in the next few days they’d get to illustrate “The Sky Was” in the way they saw it in their heads and they were quite excited about that.

Day 3:
I read “The Sky Was” again to get it thoroughly in our heads.
Each child looked at the poem as it was originally written by e e. (you can provide copies for them or just use the book and hold it up for them to see.)
Next I shared with them one of my favorite quotes about poetry by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Poetry: the best words in the best order.”
What does this quote mean?
Here’s how I explained it to the kids:
“Its so important to understand that poets choose every word in there poems with the utmost care.
They don’t have pages and pages to express an idea, paint a picture, or tell a story.
Instead they must do that in a few lines.
Therefore every word counts.
This is called word choice, or diction.”
(further reading on diction and word choice here)

Next I had the kids underline or circle word choices cumming’s made in the poem that they thought were important.
They could do this individually on there own copies of the poem, or you could do it all together as a group on the white board.
Everyone shares one of their choices and why they think it is important to the meaning of the poem.

Then I wrote the poem in a more traditional style up on our white board.
I underlined each word connected to a color: spry, shy and cool.
We lined up our colored pencils and I asked them,” what kind of yellow do you see when you hear it described as “shy”?”
They immediately chose the lightest yellow in the bunch.
We did the same for the other colors.
We also talked about the word “luminous” and “spouting”.
“What other words could the poet have picked and why did he chose those particular words? How do they affect the image the poem makes in your head?”

Lastly we discussed the image this poem created in our minds.
What did we see?
Each one of us saw something different.
Some of us saw a whimsical picture with cotton candy clouds and lemons floating in the sky.
Others saw a train speeding through cool green hills, with a glowing yellow and pink sunset and dark brown shadows on the ground.
It was so much fun to hear everyone’s different reaction to the same words.

Day 4:
Kids copy “The Sky Was” into their literature journals.
( I use these simple notebooks by Moleskine for almost all my kids subjects. After years of trying to find the best way to keep their work in one place and organized, these have been the best idea. I like their simplicity and how easily they store. My kids have no issue with adding illustrations on the lined pages, but if yours do, that would be a drawback)

Recalling our discussion from the previous day, the kids illustrate “The Sky Was” in their literature journals.
I read aloud several other e e cummings poems to them while they drew.
You can choose from any of these listed here:
In Just
Who Are You, Little I
O Round Moon
I Carry You In My Heart

We talk about the new poems a bit while they draw, but don’t go into any detailed lessons.
We’re just enjoying the poems and what they bring to mind.

Day 5 and beyond:
For the rest of the poetry study we will continue to read ee cumming’s poems–the five I’ve mentioned above and perhaps a few others.
Beyond the ones I have listed above, you’ll have to preview his poems before you read them to your kiddos. ee was famous for writing some erotic love poetry, as well as plenty more traditional love poems, and poems about nature and childhood.
Even if you only focus on these 5 poems and read them a couple of times over the course of the month, it will give your children such a great connection to the poetry of ee cummings.

Some additional activities I’ll do with my kids for this poetry study:
*Memorize a poem–my kids have chosen “who are you, little i”
*Look for examples of imagery, simile and metaphor, hyperbole, and personification in cumming’s poems. You can brush up on other literary devices here, This activity can easily be done with the poems I have listed. Because cumming’s poems were so avant-garde, it can be hard to find traditional literary devices in his poems outside of word choice. Explain that to your kids and make looking for the other literary devices like a treasure hunt. They’ll be excited hen they find an example.
*Read A Poke In the I” book to explore more poems that play with whimsical poetic format. *Encourage kids to create a poem of their own in this model.
*Discuss other poets and writers who have played with language and grammar like ee cummings did. Two great examples are Lewis Carol and James Joyce. We will read Lewis Carrol’s  “Jabberwocky” and then we’ll read the first few lines of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake“.
*Read poems by Shel Silverstein, focusing specifically on poems he wrote that combined words and pictures to create a non traditional poetic form. If you don’t have Silverstein’s books, you can do a google image search for these poems and print them up for your kiddos. “A Closet Full of Shoes” “A Light in the Attic” and “Here I Go Down Circle Road”
*Read these poems by cumming’s friends and contemporaries William Carols Williams, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound.
*Look at art by Paul Cezanne and Matisse, two artists that inspired e e cummings by their unique way of seeing and creating art.
*If there is time, take a museum trip and see works by either of these artists in real life.
*Listen to music by Igor Stravinsky a composer who influenced cummings with his revolutionary style of music.
*Spend some time learning about WWI as e e cummings spent time in France as an ambulance driver in WWI and it had a tremendous impact on his life.
*Explore a bit of the poetry produced by the WWI poets. These poems are hard because they are about war. But a few of them would be such a valuable way to help my kids better understand this part of e e’s life. These are the ones we will read. “In Flanders Field”  “War Girls” “Everyone Sang” (and these poets are sure to be a poetry study later on when my kids are a bit older.)
*Create a final art piece of a favorite e e cummings poem, hand lettered and/or illustrated.

Final thoughts: 

I plan to do this poetry study over the course of a month, but you could spend as much or as little time with it as you like. The activities I have listed for the first 4 days could certainly be divided up into smaller chunks, but I liked starting with a good dose of the poet and his works, to get the kids more invested before we branched off into studying all the other things connected to the poet.
The additional activities are ones you can do as you see fit. Some might not appeal to your kids. Or you. In fact, you could just spend a week with e e cummings and do only that first activity I have described — read the book, learn about word choice, and illustrate the poem.
What I hope you’ll take away from this is that teaching your kids poetry does not have to be scary, difficult or boring. I want to help you make it interesting and fun!
Whether you choose to go big or small with this, I hope you”ll find at least some of this stuff useful!
Because I sure had fun writing it all down for you.

If you want to read a little more of my thoughts on teaching poetry, I have some more Poetry 101 blog posts for you!
You’ll want to start here, where I talk about why teaching poetry matters.
And next, read about how to discuss a poem with your kids.

All my love from your favorite word nerd,

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