Monday, November 9, 2015
Percy Wakes My Students: How a Poem by Mary Oliver Enlightened Two Middle-School Writers
"Percy Wakes Me," a poem by Mary Oliver, describes a morning when a determined dog, Percy, wakes his slow-moving owner for a walk and breakfast and then "jumps onto the kitchen counter where he is not supposed to be." Instead of reprimanding the dog or getting angry, the owner pets and praises him: "How clever, if you/ needed me,/ to wake me." The owner observes that the dog seems delighted that he was not "lectured," and then she adds: "He has done something/ that he needed/ and now he hears that it is okay." The final lines provoke an answer from the reader: "This is a poem about more than Percy./ Think about it."
A perfect writing prompt, I thought, after reading "Percy Wakes Me." I knew this poem would elicit some thoughtful words from my middle-school students who, like Percy, have felt ignored or controlled by adults who set the rules. I knew that they would identify with the dog's joy at the surprising response to his rule-breaking/attention-seeking/limit-testing behavior. After a lively discussion about text-to-self comparisons, they wrote their own poems, and I am proudly sharing two of those poems below.
The first poem is untitled, by a 12-year-old boy, whose poem shows how a clever teacher redirects destructive behavior to teach a lesson about respect and responsibility. Notice how this young poet, S.M., also emulated Mary Oliver's style:
Johnny screams, and I groan with annoyance.
He has been dumping all the crayons onto the floor,
Now he's happily jumping on desks,
So I inhale deeply.
How great you are, I say, helping me teach a lesson about
respecting other people's possessions!
He thought he would have his ears yelled off,
His eyes glimmer with confusion.
He sits down, waiting for more compliments.
He expected yelling and now he hears praise.
Then I hand him the broom and his smile fades.
He understands now what I mean,
He understands his mistake.
He slowly begins to clean up.
This is a poem about Johnny.
This is a poem about more than Johnny.
Think about it.
The second poem is by an 11-year-old girl, A.M., who also takes her comparison to the classroom in "The Homework I've Forgotten." (Ironically, this student author NEVER forgets her own homework for my class!) The teacher in her poem offers a poignant lesson about how honesty and the ability to admit one's failures may earn us second chances to prove our earnest efforts.
The Homework I've Forgotten
I get to school, smiling and skipping,
Then I realize what is wrong
When the teacher asks for the homework.
The homework I've forgotten.
I shuffle up to her slowly
and she smiles as I approach.
How can I tell her, that in
the big stack of papers, she
won't find my name?
"I didn't get your homework," she tells me.
Well, I tell myself, at least
you didn't have to start the conversation.
She raises her eyebrows at me.
"I forgot it at home," I say.
She just smiles.
"You have all recess," she says.
I smile too.
Both poems indicate not only the writing talent, perspicacity, and imagination of these young poets, but also their potential to grow into understanding, inspiring, and effective parents and mentors to others. (They might make great dog-parents, too!)