As teachers, many of us must spend time teaching the personal narrative in preparation for state testing exams. We concentrate on organization, clarity, word choice, grammar, and other writing “essentials.” The child’s real story, though, sometimes gets lost. As I prepare to return to the classroom (and all of those What I Did This Summer essays), I want to make sure I inspire children to express the deep feelings they have about an event before they try to organize and revise their thoughts into the perfect essay.
One way that I’ve accomplished this in the past is through poetry. Poetry can help children get at their core feelings about an event. Sergio, for example, is a smart, quiet student who has been dealing with family changes ever since we met. He wanted to write an essay about living without his older brother, who has been serving in Afghanistan for two years. Sergio really misses him and wants him to come home. I thought Sergio’s idea for his essay sounded important and meaningful.
Before Sergio started to write, I gave him Langston Hughes’ poem about deferred dreams and asked Sergio to think about his dream for his brother to return home safely. How would he describe that dream? What does it feel like to wait for him? Below is the Langston Hughes poem and Sergio’s imitation, which talks about what it’s like to carry around the weight of a “rusty dream.”
What Happens to a Dream Deferred?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust over and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
by Langston Hughes
What Happens When a Dream Rusts?
Does the dream rust until it falls
like a man’s heart when it’s broken?
Does it stink like a spoiled egg?
Is it crushed with a lie?
Is the dream like a sharp nail
being pinned to the wall?
Does it fall into the fire
and explode like popcorn?
Or does a rusty dream lay
down, ice-cold like the fallen
brother of a marine.
by Sergio, 4th grade
Thank you, Sergio, for reminding us that the personal stories we tell can be powerful and beautiful. Thank you for showing us that poetry can put us in touch with our deepest feelings and lay the groundwork for more writing.
By Marcia Chamberlain, Writers in the Schools