Dinner in the small cabin was over and our two families had no electricity or wi-fi to worry us, just the sound of the ocean waves crashing outside, the crackle of a log in the woodstove and the low hum of the propane lantern hanging above our wooden table. Now what?
“Anyone know anything to recite?” asked the friend who had invited us to this rustic cabin perched above the Pacific Ocean.
“I do!” said our 11-year-old daughter, Maya. She slid off the bench and stood facing the wooden table where we all sat. She took a deep breath and began. “Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll. ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe...” When she finished, claps and cheers joined the crashing waves outside in a roar of approval.
At age eleven, reciting poetry for a crowd is nothing new for Maya. She has performed in the city-wide finals of an oratorical fest in mega-church here in Oakland, California, where we live. Before that it was reciting poetry in school assemblies or classroom poetry slams.
However, I am not here to tell you about my daughter. This is not the tale of an exceptional child, but of a simple practice with exceptional results: “The Poetry Café.”
What is the Poetry Café?
The Poetry Café started out as a father/daughter plot to amuse the grandparents. Maya, age five, knew a handful of short poems. So we decided to make a list of them and let her grandparents choose what they would like for her to recite. When we realized the list was essentially a menu, the Poetry Café was born.
Grandpa and Nona sit on the living room couch and look at the girl standing before them. With a big smile and a gap between her front teeth, she throws her arms in the air and cries, “Welcome to my Poetry Café!”
Nona claps. Grandpa smiles.
Maya reaches back to a table and says, “Here, let me give you a menu.” She frowns. “You’ll have to share.” She didn’t have time to make two of them. She hands Nona a folded sheet of yellow paper where she has carefully printed, “MAYA’S POETRY CAFÉ.”
Grandpa leans closer, slipping on his reading glasses. Nona opens the menu and they see a drawing of a smiling girl in a floral dress standing near a birthday cake. On the other side of the page it reads, “Please Order a Delicious Poem!” and lists several poems, organized by poets, including two originals by the little poet herself.
“Please choose a poem,” says Maya.
“What would you recommend?” asks Nona.
“Do you have any specials?” asks Grandpa.
“I’ll start you out with “Lazy Jane,” says Maya with a serious face, glancing momentarily at Grandpa. Specials? He has given her an idea for next time.
She takes a breath and begins. “'Lazy Jane,' by Shel Silverstein.” She lies down on her back on the carpet and recites from memory, “Lazy lazy lazy lazy lazy lazy Jane. She wants a drink of water so she waits and waits and waits and waits and waits for it to rain!” She opens her mouth wide to catch an imaginary raindrop (Nona laughs with delight), then leaps up to take a bow.
After they stop clapping, she says, “What would you like next?”
Grandpa clears his throat and says, “Ah yes. Let’s see...I’ll have the Langston Hughes poem, please.”
Maya nods and takes a deep breath. Then begins, looking as if she might cry:
I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
soft as it began-
I loved my friend.
When she has recited all her poems, Maya shrugs and says, “I’m sorry everybody. The kitchen is fresh out of poems!”
Why do the Poetry Café?
It started with Maya, but I soon translated it to my classroom. Since that time, as a sixteen-year veteran classroom teacher in Oakland public schools, I have seen the Poetry Café work wonders with school-age kids of all backgrounds and abilities, from word wizards to kids who had all but given up on reading, from advanced writers to struggling English language learners. I’ve even used it halfway around the world with Korean students in a writing camp in Seoul.
The Poetry Café is valuable because it turns kids on to poetry, of course, but it also strengthens their own writing, teaches them how to learn more deeply, and helps them develop public speaking and performance skills, all of which will serve them for the rest of their lives. There are other benefits, which cannot be measured. I remember a third grader from Yemen telling me one day, flush with the success of a new poem, “I used to hate writing. Now I love it!” Best of all, it is easy and fun.
How to do it at home? It is a truly simple idea: have your child learn some poems, make a list and perform them by request. That’s it.
First, start reading poetry aloud with your child. There are many wonderful books of poetry out there (see suggestions below). Read ‘til you find what you or they like and then read those ones over and over.
Next, tell your child that you are going to learn a poem by heart so you can carry it around with you and have it whenever and wherever you want it. This is a very different message from the gadget dependency of the digital age, and I think an important one.
Practice learning the poem in front of them, any way that works. I usually recite a couple lines at a time, backing up as I go to make sure I have it from the beginning. When you learn in front of a child you are modeling both how to learn as well as your enthusiasm for learning. If it is hard for you, all the better! You are showing them the power of persistence.
But while some kids may be ready to start learning poems from the onset, other kids will need more help or motivation. As a teacher, I discovered it wasn’t going to happen until I sat down with them and we struggled through it together, shoulder to shoulder. Many kids want to be able to read the whole poem through once and, PRESTO! know it, but when you start to learn it with them, word by word, line by line, that door in their mind slowly opens.
Revisit the poem a day or three later and show them how the poem slips away from the surface if we don’t really massage it into our deeper memory. You won’t just be helping them learn a poem, you’ll be setting them up to master their times tables, learn their lines for the school play and be a better joke teller at cocktail parties.
Once they have a poem or two under their belt, help them make a poetry menu. It can be as simple as a list on a folded piece of paper to all sorts of wonderful book-making and art projects. I recommend making a rough draft menu first, though, because it is likely to change. Get the poem titles and the poets’ names down on paper so they can start practicing. “Order” everything on their menu and see if they can really recite from memory what they say they can, not just one day, but the next and the day after that too.
Innovate and improvise!
Once you get started, the variations on the Poetry Café are as endless as kids' creativity. Kids can organize poems by poet’s name, seasons, mood, length or perhaps thematic categories such as Friendship or Animal Poems.
I once had a third grader add a special section called “Sauces,” where customers could also order up an accent for the delivery of the poem, such as “British,” or “Cowboy” or maybe even “Hip-hop.” For example, “I’ll have “April Rain Song” with a Cowboy sauce, please.”
Eventually, they may want to feature some specials as well, and an “About the Author” section on the back. But the first Poetry Café menus really just need the names of poems and the poets who wrote them. Don’t forget to include their own poems!
Over the last handful of years, I’ve watched many graduates of the Poetry Café go on to challenge themselves in bigger arenas. Just last month, I sat in an enormous church to watch Maya and her fifth-grade schoolmates, many of them my former students, step up on stage to recite at a city-wide event. In powerful chorus, fifty kids from all different backgrounds, spoke as one, their voices bouncing off the back of the cavernous church as they recited verse after verse from deep memory:
I am young and I am positive
I am the future
I won’t let anything stand in my way...
About the author: Evan Nichols has been an elementary school teacher in the public schools for the past sixteen years. He is a Teacher Consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project and the editor of Digital Paper, a literary eZine for Bay Area teachers. He lives in Oakland, California with his wife and two children, an 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. In May he will earn an MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College.
Appendix: Great Poetry Books for Children
1. A Family of Poems: This incredible collection of Caroline Kennedy’s favorite poems for children was a huge hit with my family, from Langston Hughes’, “Let the rain kiss you. / Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops...” to e.e. cummings’, “...and it’s / spring / when the world is puddle-wonderful,” all matched with beautiful paintings by Jon Muth. She also has a brand new book out called, “Poems to Learn by Heart.”
2. Honey, I Love: A favorite of my daughter’s when she was five, this small book by Eloise Greenfield is filled with sweet and powerful poems, from the better known “Harriet Tubman” and “Things” to "Love Don't Mean."
3. Where the Sidewalk Ends – Shel Silverstein has filled this with goofball poems for the goofballs. Lots of easy, funny poems, such as “Lazy Jane,” perfect for a beginner.
4. Poetry Speaks to Children and Hip Hop Speaks to Children – Both include CD’s with audio versions. The former is worth it just for the brilliant reading of “Jabberwocky,” which is how my daughter and I learned it. The latter had a room full of third graders all chanting and moving to this hip-hop classic:
i said a hip hop the hippie the hippie
to the hip hip hop, a you don't stop
the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie
to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat
5. Joyful Noise – Paul Fleischman, author of the amazing picture book “Weslandia,” has put together this Newbery Medal winning collection of “Poems for Two Voices” about grasshoppers, fireflies, cicadas and more. Written in two columns, one for each voice, these excellent poems require two poets and are great for kids eight and up.