Sunday, July 2, 2017

First Day I Am Poems

A mind is space with lots of things to discover.

I have heard it said that we understand the world through metaphors. Therefore, if you understand metaphors, then you understand the world. I'm not sure if metaphors can make any of us world experts, but I do think metaphors are a wonderful way to break the ice, and understand my students.

In my classroom, we jump right into poetry and the power of the metaphor the first day of school. I teach a mini-lesson about poetry and metaphors, and then we all write an "I Am" Poem. The reason I start with the metaphor versus the simile, which for many is more natural and easier to write, is that the metaphor holds power. When Romeo says in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that "Juliet is the sun" it means that life without her would not be possible. The sun is the center of every one's existence. It sustains life on Earth, without Juliet, Romeo's entire existence ceases to exist.

If Romeo, were to use a simile instead to describe Juliet and say, "Juliet is like the sun" then it would simply mean she was dazzling, brilliant, beautiful to behold, but not life sustaining.Saying that Juliet is like the sun is not worthy of sacrificing one's family and life. That's why I like to start with the metaphor.

A metaphor simply put is a comparison between two different things. It does not use the words like or as. The first metaphor I always teach students is, "My dad is a bear." Then I ask them what it means if someone says that their dad is a bear. Most kids answer that it means that their dad is cranky, or ferocious, or angry. My favorite answer though was from a 3rd grade girl who said she knew exactly what the phrase my dad is a bear meant because she went swimming with her dad, and he had thick, black hair all over his back. He was definitely a bear.

Next we talk about our 5 senses. They are so important in writing. Adding a smell or a sound can wake a piece of writing up. Typically, humans are very focused on how something looks.  Our strongest sense is our vision, up to about 2/3 of our cerebral cortex is devoted in some way to our sight. Next comes auditory, touch, smell, and finally taste. So naturally, writers, especially young writers, use sight descriptions in their writing more than any other sense. It's a challenge for students to use the other senses in their writing and especially to describe themselves. I ask my students to write an "I Am" poem using all 5 of their senses.

Students can typically come up with a sight metaphor to describe themselves quite easily. I am the sight of an eagle soaring in the sky. I am the sight of a rosebud blooming. However, when asked to describe themselves as a taste or a sound, students pause. I like to joke and ask them if they should write what they literally taste like? I lick my arm. Students always laugh, and tell me no. What can we do then for a taste describing ourselves? Usually a student will suggest that we could use one of our favorite foods for our taste. This is a good idea that I try to guide students towards if they get stuck on creating a taste metaphor. Every once in a while a student will think about how there are also tastes in the air like dew in the morning, or the stale dustiness of an attic, or the sugary sweetness of cotton candy at a fair. These type of tastes create unique and startling images.

Before, we start writing metaphors, or poetry for that matter in my classroom, I like to remind my students, the reluctant writers, and the writers who believe that poetry is all about sunsets, rainbows, and love, that poetry doesn't have to be beautiful. No one has to be the sight of a butterfly fluttering under a rainbow if he/she doesn't feel that way. Poetry is about creating strong imagery, and touching on real emotions. If someone feels like he/she is the smell of fuzzy toe jam, or a rotten, black banana peel, then that is what he/she should write about. Poetry that is true is always going to effect the audience more than poetry that is falsely frilly and beautiful. One of my favorite metaphors ever came from a 4th grade boy who wrote, "Ear wax is a yellow, banana slug oozing from my ear." Ewwww, but also, yes! Can't we all picture that?

I Am
By: Colton, 6th grade

I am the smell of animal bones in a cave
I’m the sight of a wolf hunting down an elk
I am the feeling of thorns being pulled out of your leg
I am the taste of elk sausage
I'm the feeling of dry, cracked dirt
I am the taste of cold metal

I am the sound of lightning itself

I share my "I Am" poem with my class, and then I let the students create their own. It doesn't matter what sense they use first in their poem, or how many meataphors they write for each sense. Some students will fill up an entire page with an "I Am" poem, and others will stick to just one of each sense. When we are finished writing, I let the students who want to share, read their poems to the class. I am always surprised by how many students are willing to share their poetry on the first day of school, even middle schoolers. For each student who reads, I listen very carefully and pull out one line that struck me. I try to celebrate this line by saying that I loved the line where the reader said he was the smell of animal bones in a cave, or by asking the class if they couldn't picture exactly what the reader was saying when she said she was the clattering sound of rain hitting a car? When the students know you are hearing their poetry, everyone is more inclined to read aloud. I have even noticed that other students are more likely to share what they noticed about another student's poem if I model that I am listening and hearing the imagery.

Then I type each one and put it on a bulletin board for my students to see the next day. This was quite a task when I taught 6th grade because I might have to type up 75 "I Am" poems the first day of school.  Now that I teach 3rd grade, typing 20-25 poems is a bit more manageable. yet still challenging with all the activity a first day can bring. However, regardless the number of poems I have to type, getting that bulletin board up is always worth while. As soon as students notice the board on the second day, they hover around it. First, they look to see their poem, everyone wants to see his/herself recognized, then they start to read other student's poetry. I will hear students pointing out strong lines, or funny lines in everyone else's poems. I keep this bulletin board up all year. It is usually the first thing students will take their parents to see at Open House, or a parent/teacher conference.

Throughout the year, I can read the poems, and it always makes me smile at how fitting they often are for a particular student's personality. Colton is a hunter with a dark sense of humor. Ella is a gymnast, so it makes sense that she wrote she is flexible and bendable. In the spring, I take the poems off the board,and give them back to the student's on the last day of school. It's a ritual that make me feel a little sad, and also like a class has come full circle. While metaphors might not be the key to understanding my entire world, they do help me build relationships, and give me insight into who my students are each year.

My Example "I Am" Poem
"I Am" Instructions and Student Examples

I Am
By: Ella, 3rd grade

I am the taste of hot cocoa on a cold morning
I am the smell of sweet, sugary flowers
I am the sight of a beautiful rainbow after a cold rainy day
I am the sound of thunder rumbling, lightning striking,
and the clattering sound of rain hitting cars that are zooming past
I am the sugary taste of honey and chai tea on a cold rainy day
I am a smooth skipping stone
I am the sound of skipping rock
I am the touch of a kitten
I am the sound of an ocean breeze
I am the sound of a butterfly flapping
I am the sight of a puffer fish puffing
I am the sight of love
I am the birds chirping
I am bendable

I am flexible

By the way, I in no way came up with the "I Am" idea for a poem. Many teachers use "I Am" poems in some form or another when students write poetry. There are a ton of templates teachers can use for this poem out there, but I like to stick to using the 5 senses. John Clare is credited with writing a poem called I Am! in either 1844 or 1845. It was written when he was in a mental asylum, and felt forsaken by both friends and family. I have never shared this version of the poem with my students, but it is quite a beautiful and haunting poem.

*Five Senses


  1. Sara, this is beautiful! I am a big poetry teacher--not a great poet, but we write lots of poems in grade 5. We wrote both onomatopoeia and "I Am" poems last year. Different forms, but I like yours.

    In fact, now I'm considering this metaphor poem for my first day of school, as well. Thank you for sharing. My students are native Arabic speakers, and in all my 20+ years of teaching native English speakers, I never had so much fun with metaphor and simile as I have with these students. Arabic is a rich, figurative language. They understand metaphor and write some beautiful thoughts.


  2. Denise,

    Let me know if you used the metaphor poems on your first day! I want to know how they went. I love the idea that Arabic is such a figurative language. I remember having a poetry class with a native Swedish speaker and when she was writing about grains of sand she wrote about sand kernels, and I just thought it sounded lovely. Poetry is such an amazing way to explore language, and learn about one another. Thanks so much for your comments.

    1. Sara, I will definitely be back here and share a link to what we do. We don't start school until the 6th of September, though. All the best.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Denise, We start the same day! I will share my 3rd graders work as well. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

  3. Thanks again, Sara, for the inspiration to write these metaphor poems. We all enjoyed it! I wrote about it here.



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