Last spring, during a poetry writing unit, a 5th grade student asked me to read a poem she had written. “I’d love to,” I told her as she handed me her notebook with pride. I knew this girl to be a good student and a strong reader, so I was quite surprised to read what she had written. It was mostly about pickles, but her poem was full of forced rhymes and then no rhymes. I told her that her love of pickles was coming through loud and clear. Then I asked her about some of the more questionable rhymes.
“What do smelly feet have to do with sweet pickles?” I wondered
“Nothing, but sweet and feet rhyme,” she said matter-of-factly.
“I wonder if there are any other words that rhyme with sweet that have more to do with pickles than feet.”
“Probably, but today I just feel silly and want to write a silly poem.”
“Fair enough. Let’s look at it again tomorrow and see if you still feel that way. Writers often see their work differently after a day or two,” I said.
She wasn’t convinced, and she didn’t change the poem.
Over the years, I’ve had plenty of students who were unwilling to revise their writing. It seems as if getting anything down on paper is torture enough. Then to have to make changes is just insulting. Part of me empathizes with them. I know it’s hard to get our thoughts down in the first place. But I also know how much better writing can be after the second or third revision.
I wish I’d had Jane Yolen’s article from the current issue of The Horn Book to share with my reluctant reviser. In it, Yolen muses over different forms her Caldecott-Award winning picture book, Owl Moon, might have taken. A sonnet? No, too short. What about as a rap? Definitely not. She states that “a writer has to make choices [about] how to tell a story. But when a writer finds the right voice, everything comes together.” (pg. 46)
Writers do make choices. But I feel that our students don’t really understand that this means more that just thinking of words that rhyme. As Yolen goes on to say, finding this voice for our writing takes “hard work, inspiration, even perspiration.” (pg. 50)
So why did my young poet short-change herself and her poem? In this case, I think she just needed more time. Time to build the habit of writing every day so being asked to write didn’t feel like punishment. Time to experience the joy of finding just the right word, the perfect expression of her feeling. Time to play with different versions of her poem to find out if silly really was the right tone. Sometimes we may get lucky and stumble onto the right form on our first try, as Yolen feels she did with Owl Moon. But in most cases, we need to sweat over our writing before sharing it. Only then can we sit back and have a pickle.
Thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life every Tuesday. Be sure to stop by to read the hard work of many devoted writers.