Taking literacy outside: How to write poems outdoors using sound

Literacy Outdoors

A writing activity for all ages and literacy levels

The birds are singing, the sky is blue, the trees are green, the air is sweet. I would be Cruella de Vil if I made my students stay inside to write. “Let’s go out! OUT!” I say. But before the stampede, I make sure to tell them what to do: “Take pen and paper, sit by yourself, and write down every sound you hear.”

Outside, the communal silence and stillness is rare. It is calming, meditative, even spiritual. At times I break it to quietly and individually coach students to listen beyond the obvious sounds like the drone of lawn mower, the ubiquitous chirps of the house finch – to hear the more subtle ones of a passing airliner 30,000 feet up, the bee hovering over a nearby clover blossom, the single call of a red-tailed hawk. Or in the city, the double thunk of tires hitting a manhole cover, the distant shriek of a Green Line trolley.

Lists accomplished, I ask my students to write a poem by using every sound on their list. To illustrate, I might read them all, or part of a poem I wrote with a previous class in the very same way.

Late Nights

I won’t be out much longer
to listen to the small plane’s motor
and the power saw
sink its teeth
into a piece of plywood
three houses down.

Though I know I’ll hear a bird or two –
the way the chickadee
sounds the last sound left
on the day it snows

Pretty soon the magnolia will give
up its leaves so fast
they’ll make a patter.

And I might be aware of
the cars on Burnham Road
rounding the bend for the climb to town.

I’ll shut the windows
inside the storms
and mostly hear the stove’s flame,
cabinets’ click,
and my dog’s nails
on the bare floors.

There is this, and more 
my own thoughts
to listen and listen to
late nights,
until I shove the door open
shiver – to hear something
from the freezing stars.

And I might read them this poem, by a third-grader whose approach was inspired by mine.

I won’t be inside much longer
to hear the sound of people on CNN talk
and the sound of computer keys clicking
I will also not hear the sound of paper rustling
and the fireplace’s fire burning

I will not hear the sound of chairs moving
or the microwave beeping when the coffee is done
I won’t hear the steamer’s whooshing when it makes buns
or the blender whirring when it makes strawberry smoothies

But I will hear the red robin chirping
and a gray Honda’s tires splashing in a puddle
I will hear the neighbor’s poodle barking
and a lawnmower chopping grass

I will hear a woman’s sandals clicking on cement
and a freight train loudly whistling
I will hear leaves rustling in the wind
and men shouting in a soccer game

I’d say to my friends, I haven’t seen you since school
And I’d say, What do you want to do?

The poems are like a collage, I tell my students. The sounds are your materials, like cotton balls, leaves, yarn and glitter. The additional words help compose the sounds into the unique shape or design that is the poem. I might supply a first line, and suggest that my students put themselves in the poem by using “I” as do both sample poems, as do most poems, in fact. The “I” is a persona, someone in the poem who hears, sees, smells, and touches, someone the writer and the reader can connect to and feel through. The “I” tells a story and the story becomes the poem.

As they write, I write too, and then stop to walk around to look over shoulders and suggest that they write free verse rather than rhyme so that the rhyme does not determine the poem’s direction or meaning. I suggest that they be more specific, as in “gray Honda”, instead of “car” or “strawberry smoothie” instead of “smoothie”. Or I suggest they rearrange or break their lines, use stanzas, or not use stanzas, and remove or replace three words with one. And of course I always tell them what is good.

And though all the poems are different, they often celebrate the day, the season, the beauty and the meaning of what is outside – and what is inside us all, when we simply pause for a moment, to listen.

Goals:

  1. To develop students’ observational skills. In this case, the emphasis is on auditory observation. Observation is not only crucial to good writing; it is crucial to all vocations.
  2. To instill an appreciation for nature, even in the city, and for the beauty and significance of sound.
  3. To illustrate that writers do not need, nor do they often begin with a specific “idea” or “topic” – that writing emerges from observations: images and sounds.
  4. To learn how to arrange the raw material into a form – in this case, the poem.

-The process of making the poem leads the reader to discover his or her own insight.
-The writer’s insight is the poem’s meaning.
-This impresses upon your students that writing is, indeed, an act of discovery.

Materials:

  1. Pen (Not pencil. Students should cross-out, not erase. This emphasizes the process. Drafts, particularly first drafts, should look messy.)
  2. Lined paper
  3. Sample poems  Preferably one you’ve written. Students are more apt to trust and respect your critique if they know you have done what you are asking them to do. Also include the work of contemporary poets. There are many poets who use sound as a central metaphor, for example Ted Kooser’s “Screech Owl” in his collection Delights and Shadows.

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