Friday, October 15, 2010

Sentence Fluency, Repetition, & Poetry

One powerful element of sentence fluency is the repetition of key phrases. This is especially powerful in poetry. The repetitive form, when used for effect is a sign of strong sentence fluency. The repetitive form used without an awareness of sentence fluency presents a teachable moment.

Reading this week's posts helped me recall a couple of terrific books for teachers written by the Poet Kenneth Koch. Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? & Wishes, Lies, and Dreams are books I can recommend without reservation. I used them when I first started teaching an was pleased to find both books still in print. I'm sure my copies are somewhere in the boxes of books I lug from place to place.

I used Koch's methods many times and they were always a hit with kids in the 5-8 range. I suspect Koch would play well in any age range and work well in the primary grades.  Here's an example of lessons and writing inspired by Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? from

From Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (p. 4-5) Kenneth Koch, Rod Padgett

"I asked the class to write a poem together, everybody contributing one line. The way I conceived of the poem, it was easy to write, had rules like a game, and included the pleasures without the anxieties of competitiveness. No one had to worry about failing to write a good poem because everyone was only writing one line; and I specifically asked the children not to put their names on their line. Everyone was to write the line on a sheet of paper and turn it in; then I would read them all as a poem. I suggest we make some rules about what should be in every line: this would help give the final poem unity, and it would help the children find something to say. I gave an example, putting a color in every line, then asked them for others. We ended up with the regulations that every line should contain a color, a comic-strip character, and a city or country; also the line should begin with the words "I wish."

I collected the lines, shuffled them, and read them aloud as one poem. Some lines obeyed the rules and some didn't; but enough were funny and imaginative to make the whole experience a good one--

I wish I was Dick Tracy in a black suit in England
I wish that I were a Supergirl with a red cape; the city of Mexico will be where I live.
I wish that I were Veronica in South America, I wish that I could see the blue sky...

The children were enormously excited by writing the lines and even more by hearing them read as a poem. They were talking, waving, blushing, laughing, and bouncing up and down. "Feelings at P.S> 61," the title they chose, was not a great poem, but it make them fell like poets and it make them want to write more."

Poetry out loud and a form of reader's theater

Later in my teaching practice I started writing grants to bring writers and illustrators to my school district. This helped me build a relationship with painter, musician and poet, Toby Lurie: Toby is still an amazing, creative, and unpredictable guy. (The link to his site will introduce you to his work. He shares many QuickTime audio clips of his work that trigger creativity.) It was fun to find him on the Internet after all these years.

I recall meeting him for the first time. I was about to introduce him him to a huge high school class of alternative ed kids. Even back then, he was wild white bearded poet is a gleam in his eye. I thought the tough crowd of edgy and angry high schoolers would tear him apart.

Just as I introduced Toby, he whispered in my ear, "Tell them I don't speak any English."

He proceed to emote with sounds and facial gestures and within seconds he captured everyone's attention. By the end of the assembly everyone was up moving and chanting found poetry immersed in Toby's unique patterns.

Several years later Toby taught me a great method that ties perfectly into Koch's I wish lesson. After a writing session, Toby had each student pick a single line from their work. Then he'd ask for 6-8 volunteers to come to the front of the room. They'd line up shoulder to shoulder and read their lines. Toby would point at them to read while he gestured to draw more emotion. Students began with confusion, but soon understood that Toby was conducting a word orchestra. They began reading their lines louder or lower, deadpan or angry, happy or weeping. Once the whole line had read once, layered together a sound poem based on the melodies of repeated lines and varied voice. Sometimes Toby had the same student read two or three times in a row or come back to one particularly powerful line repeatedly. No one in the chorus knew when they'd be called on and everyone was amazed at the nuances and lunacies that spilled out of it all. Toby created a wild reader's theater display of word choice, sentence fluency, voice, organization, and ideas all wrapped in a spontaneously generated poem. It was hilarious, energizing and fun. Everyone loved it.

All of this points to the powerful mix of music, performance, and poetry that supports sentence fluency (and all the other traits as well).

I'd use this method myself two or three times a year. I got so I could conduct a pretty good sound/word poem, but I could never top the Maestro!


Here are links to Amazon pages with the See Inside the Book Feature. You can get a glimpse of some great writing and if you wish buy these books as inexpensive paper-backs.

Rose, Where Did You Get That Red

Wishes, Lies, and Dreams:

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