Teaching Children to Write
Polity of Literature (38/51)

Teaching Children to Write

The children that poet Robert Glück taught booed the “Poetry Playhouse” and wrote scatological jokes. He asked them for more.

As a young child Robert Glück wrote poems to please and impress, quite a feat for a dyslexic kid who couldn’t read. Time taught him to find his own language, and to recognize its difference from that of his teachers. Later, early in his long writing career, when a public arts gig brought him into the local elementary schools to teach the “Poetry Playhouse,” Glück was excited to find the children booing—”boooo poetry”—and writing childish jokes. “In general,” he writes, “I don’t like ‘fun-with-poetry.’  I thought it was a disservice to children.”

His brief recollections here convey a series of recognitions, taught to him by the elementary school kids and, later, his son, about the necessity of owning one’s own language and the inevitability of any new literature departing from its previous forms. “I wanted to create a situation in which children for once in their institutional lives experienced language as though it belongs to them,” Glück recalls. “Teaching children creativity should only incidentally include teaching them to master adult forms.  It should not (as a goal) produce art-objects to delight adults.  Most important, we should find ways for children to own language and image.”

I wrote my first poem in the second grade. I was so dyslexic that I had to read it aloud because the text was legible only to me. I was celebrating Thanksgiving. Every sentence began, “I am grateful for” and I rhymed “squirrels” and “world.” I wrote this poem on my own, but the endeavour was corrupt and subverted from the start—I wanted the praise I was certain to receive. Since I couldn’t read, I knew my poem would create a sensation, and in fact it was published in the school bulletin. If I’d felt language was mine to use, if I’d felt any agency, or that my readership actually wished to know something about my experience, believe me, these lines would not have begun, “I am grateful for.” But that thought was beyond the scope of my imagination. How could I express to others what I could not even tell myself? 

In the late seventies I taught creative writing in Berkeley elementary schools in a terrible program, Poetry Playhouse. I would race from school to school, seven schools in all, to teach thirty-minute classes. Arrrrgh. I was instructed to wear a black T-shirt with Poetry Playhouse in white block letters across my chest. In general, I don’t like “fun-with-poetry.” I thought it was a disservice to children. It seemed to me that children’s seeming inability to make connections was exploited to make charming language-objects that adults could enjoy, and presumably the children would enjoy being praised by the grown-ups. How completely repellent. Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry was the hated exemplar of this tendency. 

It took me a few weeks to realize all this. I rebelled against the T-shirt and threw it away. It seemed to me that school systems teach children how to endure boredom. I believe this is important for success in our society, and that anything we might want to accomplish, including playing an instrument or writing a novel, has an element of boredom. This and other skills are taught at home and school, and it is not doing children a favour to deprive them of aptitudes that lead to self-preservation and success. But I wanted to create a situation in which children for once in their institutional lives experience language as though it belongs to them. That was my goal, and that is the breakthrough for any marginalized group. I experienced it as a gay man in the seventies. In most of school and most of life, language belongs to institutions and the transmitters and vendors of those institutions and ideologies. As a precondition for creating, we ought to feel that the medium belongs to us, even the language of the enemy, at least for the moment. This can be tricky. Most people feel they have a poem in them, but often they express the soggy, warmed-over “poetic” poem that pollutes the atmosphere, the dregs of yesterday’s ideas of what a poem ought to be, and I suppose it is the reason most people don’t like poetry. That was exactly the poem I wrote in the second grade, and it is like some poetry that children are taught to write. That language does not belong to them. 

Most people feel they have a poem in them, but often they express the soggy, warmed-over “poetic” poem that pollutes the atmosphere, the dregs of yesterday’s ideas of what a poem ought to be…

I made it clear to the children that they could write anything they wanted. I abandoned teaching them poetic forms for the time being—I did not want to lead them into a box, but out of a box. One class wrote unrelentingly scatological poems. Ellen, the ringleader, was an uncharming girl launching a big puberty. When I entered the room, the class would boo. Boooo Poetry Playhouse!  Booooo Poetry! The bad-tempered teacher practically knocked me down on her way to the teachers’ lounge to smoke. We both knew that she was not supposed to leave. “The teacher eats spaghetti out of the toilet.  Bob drinks water from the toilet. The teacher puts poo in his….” It was okay, they could write whatever they wanted. But they were led by Ellen and their work was in obedient lines. They did not abandon poetic form, perhaps they were still writing for the teacher. In my view, their anger was credible, and constituted a possible beginning.  

I did have students who responded in ways that made me prouder than I have ever been in a classroom. These were the Carter years, and the news of the day was the hostage crisis in Iran. On many classroom blackboards they were keeping track (444 days in all). One boy wrote, “Whenever people talk to children about hostages, children should answer, ‘We’re hostages too!’” He certainly made two adults happy. I will never forget the look of wonder his teacher and I shared. 

Illustration of two children with furrowed brows. The words "We are hostages too" is spelled out in letter blocks.

My breakthrough came when I asked them, What is not fair? Children dug into that question with the motivation and skills of highly paid lawyers. And they fascinated their peers with tales of big brothers indifferent to justice, parents who declined to let them watch TV, Halloween candy wrongly divided—so much indignation! Even my scatological class abandoned their programmatic filth. So many seemingly petty conflicts would have made the adults cover their ears and run. The children listened to each other with rapt attention and heated discussion. 

When I asked them what is something incredible you have seen? most of their sitings came from TV. TV was a huge part of their lives. This made me contort inside until I realized I had achieved my goal. They were consumers, but, as described by Michel de Certeau, they subverted “regimes of power” with vernacular viewing. TV’s lack of authenticity did not trouble them in the slightest and they listened to each other with enthusiasm. 

Literature has its dynamics of power and its community. When I tell friends my story, I am restaging my experience in their psychic lives, which they offer to me, as I offer my psychic life to them. The first power dynamics of writing is that readers restage our work in their imagination. Like every power dynamic, this one is lopsided, unless it takes place inside a community. For children, this dynamic is further lopsided for the obvious reason that there are so few books written by children describing their experience in their own fashion. Any oppressed group will have this problem. My goal was to restage this exchange of power inside the children’s community. The capacity to tell stories is a form of literacy that has more to do with play than work—it is political in the first place. Matthew Stadler proposes, “The implication is of nonexistent, childish things that come into ‘the real’ by crossing a border policed by experts. Historically we know that’s not true, that the future itself is born in our imaginations…. Describe it as ‘play’ if you like, so long as we leave imaginary politics unpoliced and use it to make the realities that we need.”

When I became a father, I thought about the narrative models I wanted to present to my son. All the ways we engage with children are forms of instruction, and they fall on a spectrum—one side is nurture and the other is consumption. Part (but not all) of nurturing Reese was to protect him from me. That is, to protect his childhood from my adulthood. I remember being sad when he started speaking, as though he was going from the entire to the partial, and I felt ashamed by the paucity of English. As though to prove me right, Reese has gone on to Spanish and Mandarin. Showing a book or film to a child is not different from teaching, because the way a narrative is put together is the way a self is put together. I grew to dislike the Disney products. Some of this was from self-interest. When children become attached to a book or video, they will read or watch it a million times, and that is something to consider. Disney animations are suffocatingly emotional, emotionally overwhelming, with a rising action leading to a climax, and often a simple, depressing moral involving big helpings of romantic heartbreak. The exception might be Pinocchio, with its episodic plot and complex motivation. Most of these films leave you drained. They seemed to hammer adulthood rather than enchantment into kids. The background music is a bully, and the songs change your brain chemistry. The characters are generally good or evil, nothing in between. 

On the other hand, SpongeBob SquarePants was a godsend. Here was a narrative that resembled children’s play, one episode devolving into the next, with only a slight emphasis at beginning and end. I suppose children’s pretend play is more like dreaming—that is, makeshift plots, flexible roles, and plenty of elbowroom in the narrative structure for a compelling action to be repeated with slight or no variation. SpongeBob abandoned the integrity of the body in favour of early cartoons—rubber hose animation from the 1920’s—where limbs and heads detach and reassemble. A truly anarchic self was being purveyed. Some of Dr. Seuss belongs in this conversation, like that god of anarchy, that titan of the Id, the Cat in the Hat. “If Mother could see this, Oh what would she say!” I read to Reese’s second-grade class every week in the library, and I never experienced purer attention from an audience than when I read this book to them. 

I was grateful for the films of Hayao Miyazaki, especially My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. These masterpieces are not propelled by Disney’s rollercoaster crescendos—factories of emotion. Characters are complex, with good and bad aspects, like non-Western deities. A premium is put on exploration and curiosity, which leads to discovery of enchantments that can be very local. If there is a moral, it is generally that we must respect nature, and we are invited to feel pantheistic wonder. 

Before Reese could write, we constructed little books with blank paper and staples. Reese would dictate a narrative for me to write and then he illustrated the text. When he was six, he wrote his autobiography, beginning with conception and ending with birth. What a difference from my Thanksgiving poem! His rendition of intrauterine experience is from a blobby fetus-eye view, with Angie’s organs enlarged by proximity, and her tiny, useless (to him) head in the distance, with the caption, “I am turning into something cute.” Later, in middle school, Reese and his friends developed a complex immersive world of comics that had fifty unique characters, starring Fluffy and Ruffy, a cat and a dog, members of the BowWowMeow Club. This was an explosion of narrative possibility that continued for years. They made plays, and they held a “conference” at a hotel by the airport, the world’s most elaborate sleep-over. Each child was artist and audience, a perfect world. In one strip, Fluffy and Ruffy visit the Antiques Road Show fifty years in the future. They present an ice cube, the remains of Antarctica. 

A child reads from a piece of paper. In their speech bubble is a pregnant woman, with a speech bubble coming from her belly saying "I am turning into something cute." Above the drawing are the words "Poetic license."

I asked Reese (twenty years later) if he feels that children are oppressed. He said yes, because they have no weight in a difference of opinion with adults. They are not given the “benefit of the doubt” as adults are. Is this not another way of saying language does not belong to them? Is this different from the dynamics of oppression, and especially the infantilization, in sexism, ageism, colonialism and racism of all kinds? The oppressors of children want to bring an end to a given childhood—that is, they want to produce an adult. In the children’s response to my question about fairness, they were making their side of the argument, and since they were speaking to a community that took them seriously, they were adjusting power imbalances. Turning these instances into writing gave them credence, permanence, and made their grievances official.

Five children stand with furrowed brows, each one thinking of a different book with the title "It's No Fair!"

Teaching children creativity should only incidentally include teaching them to master adult forms. It should not (as a goal) produce art-objects to delight adults. Most important, we should find ways for children to own language and image.

Signup for the ArtsEverywhere newsletter

icon-angle icon-bars icon-times