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Transforming the Academic Classroom: University Students and Children in a Homework Program Write Poems Together

California State University at Channel Islands

channel islandsClaudia M. Reder , Ph.D. teaches at California State University at Channel Islands. She is the author of My Father & Miro and Other Poems. Her interests include storytelling, poetry, and encouraging creativity in the prospective educators she teaches. A poet in the schools for twenty years, she brings her experiences into her university classes.  

Today I am excited
Because I meet new College people
Looking forward to Having fun
–child from The Poetry Project

The poetry service-learning project began with the question: What would happen if prospective teachers, who were mostly unfamiliar with poetry, created poems with children? Would these students accept the possibility that poetry can be a journey of discovery? Could the experience of helping children make poems enable students to become teachers who are not fearful of poetry, who enjoy incorporating poetry into their classrooms?

Students often need help with risk-taking. They want to know what is "right" and "what the teacher wants in order to do well." In this poetry service-learning project, students were taught how to discover and use their own resources and creativity. They learned how to be flexible, to respond to children who were reluctant readers and writers, and to collaborate with each other in poetry writing. The aim was not to write a "correct" poem, but to ignite the creativity in themselves and the children. Poetry expresses the essence of an experience or feeling or idea and therefore is an excellent medium to help children articulate what is most important to them.

In this service-learning partnership, children from a homework program and university students in a Children's Literature class engaged in the imaginative process of writing, reading, and sharing poetry in a supportive environment. I hoped that my students would develop a positive attitude towards poetry and creative work with children, and that the children would discover how to express themselves through poetry. Because poetry writing is an excellent resource for connecting students and teachers, including English Learners, Cahnmann and Carpenter (2006), it is more vital than ever that prospective teachers learn how to utilize poetry as a form of expression in their classrooms. Poetry allows us "to think in a different way about words” (student journal). Changing our thinking is the beginning of transforming our relationship with poetry and with each other in an educational setting. The poetic impulse can give a great source of pleasure, one that can be enjoyed at any age, when we recognize poetry as a way of knowing. Richard Lewis (2004) finds “…that if we do pay attention to this poetic ability there is dramatic shift in children’s sense of themselves and their desire to learn. By affirming their poetic ability we open up a natural instinct in children to bring the outer world into the inner world of themselves—to link the phenomena of the world, in all its complexity, to the phenomena of ones self.” (p. 6)

Preparing University Students
Prior to the service-learning course, very few students had had much experience in poetry writing of any sort in high school. Two had been in creative writing courses, and one had been asked to turn in a poem although no direction had been given. Rarely had they engaged in the imaginative process of writing and sharing poetry. However, a few remembered poems they had created in elementary school and one student recited it on the spot. Having a poem embedded in memory says something about the power of poetry. For this project, I focused on composing poetry with 4th-6h graders who were reluctant readers and writers, many of whom were English Learners. By partnering university students with children, I hoped that my students would discover the joys and frustrations of composing poetry and at the same time, become aware of themselves as learners.

Exposing my students to poetry was essential to our preparation. In the university classroom, we dramatized poems, created picture poems, poems for two voices, and read some of the rich diversity of poetry being written today. (see Temple 2005) In addition, poetry tasks were embedded in the Children's Literature curriculum throughout the semester. They included:

1. Write an adaptation of a poem (Where I am From by George Ella Lyons)

2. Create a Group Found Poem on poetry (created from lines in Temple, 2005).

3. Read a novel in poems   (Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.)

4. Read poetry by children

5. Write a poem or select a poem for an online class poetry anthology on diversity to be posted on bb.

6. Participate in poetry workshops held during class time.

After a month in the university classroom, we were ready to meet our poetry partners, 4th-6th graders in a homework club held after school. The project was consciously held during our usual class time so that we could go to the Homework Club as a group and I was able to observe how my students interacted with children in a setting outside of the classroom. Since many of my students are prospective teachers, this was invaluable because I developed a fuller view of the students--their strengths, their visual creativity, their rapport with children. Some students who didn’t shine in the classroom came to life in this authentic situation and so part of the service-learning program included helping them identify the positive traits I witnessed in their interactions with the children, such as building trust, using humor, making eye contact, and showing interest in the child’s school life.

Initially, I wrote up this project as a formal paper, but as I wrote, another voice, a poetic voice, came creeping in. I decided to honor this voice and what follows are what I call poetic texts, or ethnographic poems since they are created from an ethnographic project. These poetic texts capture the voices of those involved. Why poetry? I quote Leggo, (2005) “Basically, I claim that teachers, both beginning and experienced, should learn to know themselves as poets in order to foster living creatively in the pedagogic contexts of classrooms and the larger pedagogic contexts outside classrooms.” (p. 442)


I must also mention Mary Clare Powell (2002) whose essay on taking her poet self into the classroom gives me much to think about. Writing this project as poems enables my poet self to emerge, which makes sense, since this project is about poetry and the way poem-making can encourage community, literacy, discussion of issues, and self-realization.

Note: The voice of the researcher is on the left. On the right, in italics, are poetic texts formed from student journals

To My Students

Yes, this is Children’s Literature class.
Yes, we read many children’s books.
Yes, you also need paint, a stick of nonhardening clay,
and an art box with paper and markers.
Yes, we read and write poems and stories.
Yes, we sculpt and paint images
Engagement with poetry
is engagement with self
through poetry;
we glimpse into
learning how we learn
from literature and from our lives
The classroom is long and narrow.
Let’s move our chairs to form an unwieldy, lopsided sphere. 

As you take your first steps into the creative process,

  Take a risk,

     Explore the unknown,

        Be willing to fail,

           To feel uncomfortable,

              To dig in not knowing where you are going

                 To find you enjoy what you are doing

                    even though you may not know where it will lead

                        To create something unexpected

                          Reflect on the experience through discussion,

                             journaling, and imagemaking.

Dip one finger
in the tiny paint cup
and paint an image-
a sensory impression
in a minute or less.

These painted images
evoke thoughts,
poetic language,
points for discussion.

“Painting images, says Ruth, lets me get my ideas out more quickly.”
Marc says that images give him more time to think about what he is going to say,
and new ideas pop up.
Tori chimes in, “I never like sitting still.
Imagemaking is kinesthetic so it helps me concentrate.”
Sharing images and chatting is a good first step towards building community.

I have a hard time remembering names,
but I remember you by what you write:
You are “Boating with grandfather.”
You are “Strawberry-reddened hands.”
You are “Surfer girl.”

1. Calling the Muse
Join the voices
of prospective teachers
as they leap
out of their comfort zone.

Join the process
of learning about poetry
and children.

We embark, not knowing
what we may find
in this journey of discovery.

Take a risk.
Note, observe,

Document the evolution of a group and its changes over time.

2. Writing with Children
We learn to let go of
preset expectations.
A hovering judgment:
what is a ‘good’
poem may squash
a child’s urge to express
in poetic form.

Train your ear.
A poem may bubble up
on a child’s tongue.

Catch the playfulness of

Poets love open-ended structures,
and an opportunity to play.
Poets need permission to grow,
and a little bit of time.

Be a scribe.
Write down what you hear,
not ideas, but the actual words. Poems are found
in how we say things, in how the words shape sound.        

(Note to self:
How will my students
handle the process
asked of them?)                                 

The limitations of time
create a sense of urgency—
poems have to be written,
children’s poems have to be typed.
The small groups scatter throughout the library.
University students set up a social and meaningful poetic space.
They set the tone, bring materials,
smile when their poetry partners walk in the door.

Week 1

Right after walking in the door to the library,
I knew it would be a great place
for children to learn and express their creativity...
but could we help them do it?
I realized that the children were just as nervous as we were…

Faster than I knew
time was up.
My fear of silence,
of running out of things to do or say
has been laid to rest. 

C. told us about her best friend
who has four chickens and a goat….

I began to write down, word for word,

Pretty soon, it was
"and then this!,
and then that!
It was like we struck a nerve (a good one). 

In fact, we ran out of time
before we were able
to write down all her thoughts. 

Yet, I didn’t know how to respond when L.
said,” I had a bad day and kids made fun of me.”
Should I tell the librarian?
Ask why she had a bad day?

3. Researcher’s Questions

When I was in eighth
grade poetry
happened outside
of school

while I read under
the blankets at night
with a flash light.

Poetry is an intimate
art form- often solitary
and quiet. Now I invite
poetry to live in
a social space
so children won’t
think poetry
is subversive
and happens
only under cover.

To alter the academic
classroom—we meet
in a separate space,
in this case, a school library.
This library becomes our
metaphorical place
for poetic imaginings.

We meet each other
eye to eye.

We face each other
and ourselves.

We begin where the child is…
exchange the word ‘teaching’
for ‘collaboration.’

Each week we modify
goals and objectives
as we work with
our poetry partners.

Does this process work?
Will university students
let the children
find their inventive

Do I expect too much
in this short
span of time?

Suddenly I laugh at my own questions!
I also have to get out of my students’ way.
I need to trust them
the way I ask them
to trust the process
in the children they work with.

Week 2

We are starting to gain
a little more trust
from our poetry partners,


We couldn't get D. to talk much,
so we asked all the children in our group
to come up with
that POPPED into their heads
about vacations.
We combined these
into a collaborative poem.
D. smiled.

Our group brought in rain forest words
but the children weren’t interested
in using them so we asked the group
to select their own
rain forest words.

We had a pile of adjectives, verbs, and adverbs
and the children chose them for the poem.

We have to be as creative
as the children so we
can help them--they learn from us
and we from them.

We learn
to be patient
and understand
how some
require help
and others

B. who doesn't like to put pen
or pencil to paper
unless it is to draw,
is a great artist.

When we finger painted
the words
spilled out        

We gave our poetry-partners a little push.
Their ideas flowed.

Jesse, put the colors you paint
into your writing. Is your
purple and green iguana

I asked L. if he thought that what he wrote was a poem.
He said, "Well, no. Poems are shorter."
We went through his paper
and underlined thoughts and ideas
that we thought were poetic.
I read them aloud to him.
He said he liked it “because it sounded like a song!”           

4. In Medias Res
Who is learning
from whom?

The balance of power
from instructor/student
to student/student
and student/self.                               

University students’
and children’s
eyes mirror
each other’s joy.

In this intimate space—
in the corners of a library—it happens-
as it often does-

seemingly out of nowhere,
a child asked to write
about a time of courage--
a child who does not
like to express his thoughts--

 “Oh”, said the librarian,
“he has been so cooperative,
taking turns, working
well in his small group.
This has been a difficult year for him
and look at what he wrote!”
This crucial feedback
lets my students know
their work is valued,
that they are valued.

But the questions persist
Can future schools
transform learning
as prospective teachers
transform education?                                                          

And what are my students
about the challenges
of working with children,
about the poetic imagination
of young children?

Week 3

 Over time, their writing changes.
They refrain from telling a story.
They use more descriptive words
and emotions.

I discover that sharing
my personal connections
helps students
remember their stories.

What will happen to P.
in the future –she who doesn’t like to write
sits in the principal’s office.

Who will help C. who is shy
and bound to get lost
in a large classrooms
of middle school?

It’s a difficult age.
I remember what it’s like
to be ten

These children have
so much potential.
It is up to us,
as future educators,
to bring it out of them.

I have learned
I can be flexible,
I am better at improvising.

When we showed T. his typed poems,
it was a proud moment for both of us.
I noticed that he had opened up to writing
and that made me happy.
Most of all I was pleased
to see that all the children were glad
to see us.

They looked forward to Homework Club.
They really did appreciate our time and energy.
It put a smile on my face.

5. Reflections

So what? Now what?

University students focus on the small moment,
the single descriptive phrase,
a surprising use of language,
the value of poem-making
and service-learning.

Their reflective
can become objectives
for future university-school

To develop confidence
To be a mentor for children-
To let the children know
they too can go to college.
To experience poetry in action
To be part of the community
To express our ideas in poems.
To use poetry to release stress.
As an experience to make art.
To have fun.

6. Findings

We complete the semester
with a new set of perceptions
of self, with newly acquired

university students
encouraged the children’s
inventive voices,
and in doing so,
discovered their own.

It is appropriate to have the children in the program have the last word. Below are three of their poems that were created during the project. (See Week 2 above).


I was with my mom
and there was a fresh breeze outside.
somewhere with sand
and lots of flowers
on a mountain
various trees
cold and windy
wide open
with my family. 


I am mad.
He made fun of my name.
I feel like hitting him.
I'm about to
my fists are crunched up.
If I hit him
I'll get in trouble.
So I don't.
I don't want to wait at lunch.
I don't want a time out.

The Rain Forest

The rain forest was
drizzling frogs.
They covered every
leaf. Jaguars’ pour
out speed like
cheetahs. After the
rain the water and
mud flee down the
trunk of the trees.
On the hunt the butterfly
landed in the river. Hanging
from the monkey’s arm
was sunflower roots.
In the night I hear the
figs falling and the howls
of the stalking wolves. 


Cahnmann, Melisa, Marilyn Carpenter (2006). Reading, living and writing bilingual poetry as scholARTistry in the language arts classroom. Language Arts , 83, 342-351.

Leggo, Carl (2005). Pedagogy of the heart: Ruminations on living poetically. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice: 11, 5),  439-455.

Lewis, Richard (2004).  Becoming a world: Children and their poetic intelligence. Encounter. 17 (4), 6-8.

Powell, Mary Clare (2002). Why I send the poet to teach my courses, in Mirochnik, Elijah, Sherman, Debora C. Eds. Passion and pedagogy: relation, creation, and transformation in teaching (Lesley College Series in Arts and Education, v. 1). pp. 349-364. NY: Peter Lang.

Temple, Charles, Martinez, Miriam, and Yokota, Junko, Eds. (2005). Children's books in children's hands: An introduction to their literature (3rd Edition). Allyn & Bacon.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I want to thank Dr. Jacqueline Kilpatrick, the Center for Community Engagement, and the children, teachers, and coordinators at University Preparation School that made this project successful. I am grateful for the faculty minigrant that allowed me to integrate service-learning into Children’s Literature.

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