by Bruce Lansky
Most of my school visits include 4 or 5 writing workshops—usually with 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students. And since we usually write 3 to 6 poems in each of those sessions,
I wind up creating about 10 to 20 poems on every full-day school visit. Recently I have begun to include free-verse poems in the mix. This allows us to focus on ideas and words—without having to worry about rhythm and rhyme. I started experimenting with a new “genre” I invented called “Short Metaphorical Poems.” These poems usually involve a comparison between two things or ideas. Sometimes they use metaphors (e.g., “My Mother is My Alarm Clock”), sometimes they use similes (e.g., “The Moon is Like a Light Bulb”) and sometimes they use comparisons (e.g., “How to Tell if the Critter Who Sleeps in Your Bed is a Dog or Cat”).
When I write metrical poems with students, I usually spend about 2/3 of the time explaining and demonstrating where the rhyming words go, the difference between “true rhymes” (in which both the vowels and consonants rhyme—like nap and cap) and “near rhymes” (in which only the vowels rhyme—like nap and hat), the need for a consistent rhyme pattern, how to count “beats,” the difference between “beats” and “syllables” (usually there are two or three or four beats in each line and two or three times as many syllables), and the need for a consistent rhythm pattern.
I thought you might find it interesting to share a recent free-verse comparative poem I wrote with students I recently visited in Dallas and Wichita. I got the idea in a 5th grade workshop in McKinney, TX. While working on “The Moon is Like a Light Bulb,” a clever student suggested that because the moon reflects light from the sun, it is more like a mirror than a light bulb. At the end of the session, I asked the students to think about other comparisons they might want to write about. One suggested a comparison between dogs and cats.
I worked on that suggestion with other 5th grade students in McKinney, TX and with 4th and 5th grade students in Andover, KS. The students seemed to love the concept and couldn’t stop thinking about experiments that would demonstrate the difference. The challenge of writing a quasi-scientific, humorous poem about the difference between cats and dogs kept students’ hands up throughout the workshops.
(I should probably mention that students in my writing workshops usually spend more time revising lines of poetry we’ve just written than writing new lines of poetry. Often they would rather rewrite, or fix, the line of poetry we’ve just written than start work on the next new line of poetry. I think this may be one of the biggest lessons they learn: That rewriting poetry is as important and fun as writing down a fresh idea.
Maybe it was the fun of writing non-metrical poems; maybe it was the plunge into scientific thinking—but whatever it was, the students were fascinated*. After I got home I decided to fine-tune the poem for presentation on my Giggle Poetry Facebook page. Below is my second rewrite on the dog/cat comparison theme. You might want to show it to your children or students to see what other experiments they can come up with.
How to Tell If the Critter Who Sleeps On Your Bed is a Dog or Cat
Call the critter. If it runs to you and wants you to pet it, it’s a dog. If it looks at you as if you are crazy, it’s a cat.
Throw a tennis ball across the yard and say, “Fetch!” If the critter chases it, brings it back to you—all wet and gooey—and then wags its tail happily, it’s a dog. If the critter walks after the ball, sniffs it, and then walks away, it’s a cat.
Take your critter to the lake, then run into the water and yell, “Come!” If the critter follows you into the water it’s a dog. If the critter won’t go near the water, it’s a cat.
On the fourth of July, bring your critter to the parade. When the fire truck drives by, if the critter chases after it barking loudly, it’s a dog. If the critter runs home and hides under your bed, it’s a cat.
Pick the critter up and throw it onto your bed. If it lands safely on its feet, it’s a cat. If it crash lands on its back it’s a dog.
Now that you know if your critter is a cat or a dog, take good care of it so your parents don’t get so tired of feeding it they threaten to donate it to Goodwill.