December 1, 2002
Listening In on an Earthworm

Reach for the sky now
Don't ask me why now
You push
You pull
You gather the wool.

A roomful of children mime the words and sway to the rhythm. And in the middle of the room is Elizabeth McKim, poet.

This is her warm-up. Soon McKim, of Cambridge, will have the students hunkering over sheets of unlined paper, working on poems of their own. Since taking part in a pilot program in 1971, McKim and her friend Judith Steinbergh, of Brookline, have been "poets in the schools," working poets bringing children the chance to learn about the art and craft of poetry. And much more.

Some see arts education as an extravagance. Last year the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which funds poets in the schools throughout the state among its arts programs, saw its meager budget slashed by 62 percent to less than $10 million. McKim and Steinbergh and the children they teach know better. They know that these are life-expanding lessons on the power and precision of words, on discovering and respecting creativity, on looking beneath the surface of their world.

"Poetry gives a kind of strength to children and teens that they need so badly today," says McKim, adding, with a shrug, "We all need this."

Steinbergh and McKim have written books of poetry and books on teaching poetry, and are the co-authors of Beyond Words: Writing Poems with Children. In addition, Steinbergh also is co-founder of Troubadour, a Massachusetts not-for-profit organization that marries poetry and music. McKim also leans heavily on music, and on poetry's oral tradition in which breath and heartbeat form a visceral foundation for sound and sense.

"We start with a lot of out-loud work," says McKim. "I tell them to be as specific as possible. Listen in on a tree, a hat, a stone. You can use 'I' about a voice of something beyond yourself. I tell them to try to talk earthworm. Poetry is voice and breath, but it is also how you put it on the page."

For both Steinbergh and McKim, the freedom to express ideas is balanced by the rigors of real craft.

"Poetry gives the children a place to put their thoughts," says Steinbergh, "but with a grace that comes from using literary techniques and choosing words, phrases, and images that will work for them. They learn how to become articulate in an economical way, like artists given paint, brushes, techniques . They can use all those things to transform their own thoughts and feelings into poetry. The intimate place with the child is the place where art is happening. You can see it in the child who is waiting for a word to rise up."

But just getting thoughts down on paper doesn't mean it's poetry. That's where the craft part comes in. As McKim says, "The addition and subtraction after the first outpouring is the revision--the re-visioning of the poem, seeing it again." This is part of her strategy in having the student use unlined paper. "It helps them find their own form and find the voice of the poem."

McKim and Steinbergh feel strongly about having their students share their poems with an audience.

"For me and most poets working in a community," says McKim, "it's important to read aloud, to publish, to make it public. When children read their poems they honor the poem. They read it with the strength of their passion. And they love it--even the shy ones. When you see children completely engaged with language, you know you are in the presence of something very powerful."

Steinbergh agrees, "It's very moving to see kids reading They're just up there risking their lives.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at

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How I Write Poems

I walk by a dandelion blowing in the breeze,
That gives me an idea for a poem,
my mind fills up to the top
with ideas and the ideas
even go down to my knees,
soon they will be down
to my feet, and I will be
so full I will pop.
I run to find a paper,
I hop to find a paper,
I jump to find a paper,
my mind is empty,
my knees are empty,
my feet are empty,
but my paper is full.

by Abigail Drescher, 4th grade

from Beyond Words: Writing Poems with Children, third edition,
by Elizabeth McKim and Judith Steinbergh,
Talking Stone Press, Brookline, 1999.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
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