During the beginning of a month-long visit as poet-in-residence in a Pennsylvania elementary school, I made plans to take each class out for a walk. In the first few classes, we discussed the senses and how careful observation is a key to good writing. I have to remind myself that this follows as a rule for all learning and living – not just writing.
The fourth graders I was working with were studying landforms, the environment and pollution. The walk seemed the perfect way to talk about their local environment, the pollution from the strip mines, to explore the sensory of the outdoors and introduce Robert Frost.
Arriving to the school a little early that day, I scoped out the area around the building for possible short hikes. The best spot was right behind the building, where a short access road led into the woods and then opened up into a flatter area newly dug by developers. It was perfect – a small crop of discarded tires (pollution!), some coin-like fluttering birch leaves and the rumble of developer’s trucks.
My first class was excited so much by the prospect of going outside they couldn’t stop talking. Coats swished and zippered on, I loaned my sweater to a boy who had none, everyone was lined up and we filed out into the cold October air. The sky was a bit overcast too, and we pointed to the clouds and named what they looked like.
We turned onto the access road and stopped at the pile of tires. “Look what someone has planted here…a tire! How thoughtful! How do you feel about this?” I asked. The environmental issues were not my motivating factor for getting them outside. Poetry was. I believe in searching for poetry in the daily and mundane. And with poetry, I always hold my breath a little. I can count on a discarded tire, but I can’t always promise we will find a poem.
We followed the road and stopped near some trees. I asked the entire group to be quiet, close their eyes and just listen. We heard leaves rustle, and a far off dog bark from the neighborhood. With their eyes still closed, I read to them from Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:
“The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”
They opened their eyes. It began to snow. October snow. Flurries shimmered all around us, and the kids were leaping to catch them, sticking out their tongues and shouting with joy. “Read the poem again! You made it snow!”
On the hike back, the boy wearing my sweater galloped ahead and asked me to read the poem. I read it four more times on our way inside. It was an ordinary-extraordinary October day in a rural elementary school. We looked closely. We listened. Poetry, in the form of an early snowfall, had found us.
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