Teaching “the arts” can be daunting for homeschoolers. I know that I myself often think, “How can I teach visual art when I’m not much of an artist?” And yet, I don’t think, “How can I teach science when I’m not a scientist?” or “How can I teach math when I’m not a mathematician?” But, while many people have access to art classes for their kids, creative writing classes don’t really exist outside regular schools.
What’s a non-writer parent to do?
Learn how to teach creative writing, just like we learn how to teach arithmetic or science or history, that’s what. I’m an author, and I love teaching creative writing, so I’m here to share some tips, strategies, and resources that can help non-writer homeschoolers teach creative writing to their students.
The absolute best resource I’ve found for teaching kids to write is a book by poet Kenneth Koch called Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. Koch taught poetry to kids in a public school setting and learned a lot about ways to do that. I wholeheartedly recommend finding a copy of this book, as it will teach you so much more than I can put in this little blog post. Koch wrote a follow-up, Rose, Where did You Get That Red? which covers teaching children to both write and appreciate poetry. I recommend it too. Both of his books will give you lots of ideas for teaching poetry to all ages of kids, from preschool up through high school.
But here are a few ideas of my own, broken down by age/ability levels.
Remember: poetry does not have to rhyme. It can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to. Poetry is about trying to capture one small slice of life. An image or a feeling, one small thing. Kids are especially good at writing unusual and unexpected poems, so let them be wacky and imaginative! The more free they feel to write their own way, the better their poetry will be.
Preschool, Kindergarten, First Grade
Small children are very creative thinkers, and very in tune with their senses. List poems and collection poems work really well for this age. They’re also learning basic rhyming, so you could try making a list-poem of rhyming words based around a subject. For instance:
Try brainstorming about poetry a little first – say things like, “Let’s see how many colors you can name!” or “How many different animal sounds do you know?” Then spend a few minutes with them saying ones they know, contributing ones of your own. Then say, “Let’s try writing a poem about those?” You could do a poem combining colors and animals, or adjectives and animals, or colors and sounds. Usually having two small ideas to put together helps kids at this age concentrate on coming up with interesting combinations and ideas.
If they’re too young to write well or easily, write their poem down for them! Just try hard not to coach them or correct them. If they want to write a poem about a green sparkly horse, don’t tell them horses are neither green nor sparkly. If they want to write about cows that say oink, let them. Poetry at this age needs to be fun and silly and comfortable, all about playing with words and enjoying them.
Second through Fifth Grade
Kids at this age are figuring out the difference between what’s real and what’s pretend. Some of them like reality more than pretend, and some are the opposite. They’re very good at writing poems about differences in things, about emotions, and about things they’ve observed. Don’t be afraid to let them be silly too! Playing with words is a big part of what makes poetry fun and wonderful.
List poems work well for this age too, but they tend to want more complex subjects than “colors” or “animal noises.” They could start by making a list of things like “favorite foods” or “things that smell bad” or “ugly noises” or “words that sound funny.” Try combining the words on that list with another idea, like “I wish I was…” or “I tried to… But instead I…” Repetition works really well for poems by elementary age kids, like:
I tried to fly,
But instead, I fell.
I tried to swim,
But instead, I flew.
I tried to dream,
But instead, I laughed.
I tried to run,
But instead, I slept.
Giving kids this age a form like that to slot their own words and ideas into can be really helpful.
Also, don’t get too critical about things like spelling and punctuation for people in the younger grades. Let them be enthusiastic and have fun with the writing process without bogging them down with rules in that moment. On a different day, you can haul out the grammar textbook and help them fix those issues.
Sixth Through Eighth Grade
Middle-schoolers get so serious sometimes. Yet they still love silliness – sometimes more than elementary-aged kids! Help them feel safe about expressing serious ideas or emotions, but don’t make fun of them for being silly either. Poetry is a wonderful way to express what you’re feeling or thinking in a way that makes you feel very grown-up when you’re this age. Again, don’t be critical of their spelling and punctuation while they are writing. Save that for a totally different day.
Kids at this age like to write about emotional subjects like friendship, boy-girl attraction, hatred, anger, happiness, and worry. But they often get shy about those, so help them find a fun way to work into those. Maybe ask them to pair an emotion with a color that we don’t usually use to describe it. No “sadness is blue” and “love is red.” Encourage them to think in new and different ways. Comparisons are a lot of fun for all ages, and the more unusual, the more evocative and interesting they are!
Happiness is bright blue,
But sadness is yellow.
Loneliness is grey and white,
And anger makes me black and green inside.
Kids at this age especially like to take a strict form for a poem (XYZ is ABC) and then mess around with it. Let them! Poetry is wonderful for experimentation and trying new things.
Some subject ideas for this age would be “When I feel _____, then I want to_____.” Or “The color _________ smells like _____________.” Or “My grandma is the color ____________, And my Uncle Bob is the color ______________.”
High schoolers often get taught a lot of formal stuff about poetry. Rhyme schemes, rhythm patterns, forms of poetry like the sonnet, and so on. That gets dull fast for most teens. Let them loosen up when they write their own poetry. Try asking them to write a certain number of lines about a specific moment in time, like the day they got their driver’s license, or the day their best friend moved away, or the day they got an A+ on a test they studied hard for. Ask them to focus on one moment, one feeling, one emotion, one tiny thing.
Driving a car is like waiting for concrete to pour.
The more I want to go fast, the longer I wait for.
My car wants to fly and soar,
But I’m not allowed to push the pedal to the floor.
Let them do list poems too! “All adjectives that start with the letter P” for instance.
Or a list of historical battles. A list of unusual colors. Kinds of birds. Bodies of water. Words that mean “love.”
Comparisons are wonderful. Try doing alliterative comparisons. (Alliteration means every word in a phrase starting with the same letter or sound.)
Boring is like brothers.
Happy is like hamsters.
Mellow is like midnight.
Tired is like tests.
Sad is like salamanders.
Excited is like elephants!
Or instead of “is like” that could be “as”:
Boring as brothers
Happy as hamsters
Mellow as midnight
Tired as tests
Sad as salamanders
Excited as elephants
Or leave out the connecting word all together.
Each of those examples as a slightly different flavor and energy, doesn’t it? Just because we’ve changed up the form a tiny bit.
Let high schoolers write poems that have no formal forms too. Poems with a strict, repeated form like this often get very boring for older kids and teens. Let them play and explore! But if they’re having trouble getting started, a form like that can be a great way to jumpstart creativity.
I hope these have been helpful to you! You can use all of the ideas I’ve presented with any age, with a bit of tweaking, so don’t feel like you should ignore the age groups that your kids aren’t in.
If you have more than one child, try doing poetry all together! Older kids can help young ones with writing things down, and the creative energy of one kid will spark that energy in another. Also, the free-flowing, less-regulated ideas of younger kids will help older ones loosen up and try new, unusual, silly or wacky things they might otherwise feel weird about writing.
Any questions? I’ll happily answer whatever I can in the comments!
Rachel Kovaciny was homeschooled K-12, graduated from Bethany Lutheran College with a BA in Liberal Arts, and promptly married her college sweetheart. She now lives in Virginia with her husband and their three homeschooled children. Rachel writes a monthly history column for the newspaper Prairie Times and bi-monthly articles for the online magazine Femnista. She also blogs about books at The Edge of the Precipice and about movies, writing, and life at Hamlette’s Soliloquy. Her 2017 book, Cloaked, was a finalist for the Peacemaker Award for Best YA/Children’s Western Fiction, and her follow-up, Dancing and Doughnuts, is now available in paperback and e-book. To learn more about Rachel and her writing, visit www.rachelkovaciny.com