The unexpected power of poetry for shy children

photograph of gossamer between flowers in a field

By Megan Houston Sager

I was about to explain the meaning of the word “gossamer” to my five-year-old students. We were learning the next line in Shel Silverstein’s poem, The Weavers. “Can you spin it out of gossamer from the ceiling to the stair?” I paused because one of them was waving their hand at me in that urgent way that could mean anything.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Once I got caught in spider web because I didn’t see it,” they said.

“That’s gossamer!” I exclaimed, nearly jumping up from the rug. “You walked into it because you couldn’t see it. Gossamer things are hard to see. They are delicate, shimmery, tenuous.”

Gossamer is also how I might describe the voices of shy, young children. I can only hear them if I am close enough, if I tilt my head in just the right way and bend down. They are not the children raising their hands at circle time. They are not the children speaking with ease.

They are the children who grow red in the face if I call on them, or whisper, “I don’t know” even when they do know. I don’t want them to give up. I want them to be comfortable being heard.

Shy children have less practice speaking. To them it feels overwhelming, especially when there are other more willing children eager to talk. It’s a loud world. Though shy children may appear content to fade into the background, they are losing opportunities to participate. Without practice, fear of speaking grows.

It only takes about three weeks, a small bit of practice each day, for each of my 17 students to learn a lengthy poem. By December they have memorized more than five and we finish the year with Robert Frost’s, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. And, now, a profound shift has occurred. The “shyest” children are as eager to recite aloud as the extroverted ones. They speak in front of the entire class and do not stumble, flush, or give up. They like learning poetry.

I know this because their parents tell me they say the poems at home, in the car, when they are playing with their toys, or at their family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Their parents’ express amazement at their children’s ability to remember. I am not surprised. I’ve become used to watching children’s voices emerge with more strength and confidence when they have frequent sustained practice.

I also know this because the class crowds around me when I transcribe a new poem onto large chart paper.

“Is that our new poem?” they ask.

“What does it say?”

Their curiosity shows me they are interested.

I tell the students that reciting a poem to a parent or a grandparent is like giving that person a gift for their ears to hear. It is an offering of beauty.

I choose poems that resonate with the season, that will be relevant to things they might notice, things they might talk about if they had the words. In September, we learned Mary Ann Hoberman’s Grey Squirrel, and all they had to do to understand the poem was look out our classroom window and see the “small beasts” running about. When they played outside, they looked for “acorns stuck in hole and crack.” They chanted the poem to the squirrels running past.

In the beginning of the year, about half the children would say “pass” when we went around the circle to practice the two lines. By December, the percentage shrunk to zero. Everyone has become comfortable repeating the lines. Most notably, it is the shyest students who volunteer to go first.

Not only do the children become familiar with rhyme but also with unusual syntax and vocabulary. They are active participants in “owning” language, with constructing original images in their minds. With the increasing use of technology, where the stories are already created, children have few opportunities to engage their own imagination.

When spoken language becomes a comfortable extension of a child’s being, speaking boldly is no longer a hurdle. The sound of one’s voice becomes familiar. Even I find myself saying the poems we learn while on walks alone. I like hearing the words toss around in my head; the rhythm soothes me.

Learning a poem does not have to happen in school—and likely might not. Few schools have kept this ritual. But a poem learned at home is likely to yield similar outcomes. It is a straightforward way to increase confidence and vocabulary with your child all while enjoying the distilled treasures of language. The words will stay with you.

Megan Houston Sager, M.Ed, is a teacher at the Dogwood School in Chester, NJ and a writing workshop facilitator for children and teens. Her favorite way to learn and teach is through a good story. A mom to four, mostly grown sons, she is enjoying turning their rooms into her various hobby outposts.

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