Darby Elementary School students are experiencing an engaging poetry writing program presented by the Missoula Writing Collaborative and financed by the Friends of the Darby Library (FODL).
The 12-week program costs around $1,200 and includes an instructor who guides students once a week in their writing. Participants are classroom teachers, members of the FODL board, and three classes of third- and fourth-grade students.
Principal Chris Toynbee said the school has been wanting to participate in the program but lacked funds.
“Due to the cost, it wouldn’t be possible for us to do this without the Friends of the Darby Library,” Toynbee said. “I’ve been inviting them to come in and see the process.”
Toynbee said one project was writing “I am” poems.
“What an interesting insight into some of our students’ lives,” Toynbee said. “Some are sad, some are pretty uplifting, but it is quite an experience.”
Toynbee said students are engaged, and he’s impressed with the writing program.
“It offers kids a different way to express themselves and think about their writing,” he said.
Participating teachers are Lynda Fox - fourth grade, Kerrie Holmes - third grade, and Rhoda Toynbee - a third and fourth grade combination class.
Fox said one of the biggest benefits of the program is that students get to experience someone new with a different style of teaching.
“They are really opening up their feelings, their writing - often kids tend to clam up and not express themselves,” Fox said. “Mrs. Withnall has an amazing way of just pulling those feelings out of them.”
Emily Withnall, Missoula Writing Collaborative instructor, got into the program after her oldest child enjoyed it at her school. Initially, Withnall shadowed two of the founding members and now has been instructing for four years. She is teaching in many western Montana schools this year, working with students in grades three through eight.
Withnall said students in younger grades engage in writing poetry right away, whereas older students care more about peer opinions. Yet to her, poetry is freedom in writing and expressiveness.
“I always tell them that poetry is about breaking the rules,” Withnall said. “We talk that poetry is not like their other writing assignments - I don’t care about punctuation or about whether the sentences makes sense. They can be silly and make stuff up.”
Writing poetry also becomes more difficult as students get older because they have expectations of form, structure, and rhyme.
“I think they need the freedom to express themselves and we talk about poetry as a good place for feelings, and they don’t have to always be happy,” Withnall said. “Poems are great when you are sad to talk about your sadness.”
Poetry lessons included animal poems, odes to students' favorite things like blankets, pets, or the solar eclipse, and “I Am” or “I Remember” poems.
“I used my own example so they could ask me questions and give them an idea of the different things they might include,” Withnall said. “They wrote such incredible ‘I Am’ poems.”
Judy Estler, chair of the Darby Library Board, attended the "ode" lesson and said she was amazed at what third-grade students created.
“Emily [Withnall] asked the kids to list two or three things they would take if they had to evacuate from a fire. Then she reviewed similes and metaphors and read two odes rich in both,” Estler said. “The kids then wrote an ode to one of the things they would take out. One boy wrote an ode to his blanket which is ‘fuzzy and smells like strawberries and raspberries.’”
On Feb. 7, the assignment was writing question poems.
In Fox’s classroom, Withnall introduced the question poem concept, gave examples and had students brainstorm questions. They came up with big questions like “How is the world round and yet we stand on flat ground?” “Why are we living?” “Why does gravity pull us toward the earth, instead of away?” “What is inside Area 51?” “Where do the stars go during the day?” and “Why is my tooth loose?”
Withnall said the poems could provide the answers or just ask additional questions.
“You can provide scientific explanations or you can make anything up – you can be as silly, wild, and creative as you want to be,” she said. “Any way that you want to answer these questions is wonderful. Maybe the answer is in the title or maybe you ask a series of questions. Besides using similes and metaphors, use many details and senses in your questions and your answers.”
After a period of writing, students shared their poetry.
“I love reading what they have written,” Fox said. “I love it when they get brave enough to read it to their classmates too. The more lessons we’ve gone through the more they want to share. They are feeling comfortable and safe - even the reluctant ones are feeling success.”
Friends of the Darby Library serves as a promotional arm of the Darby Community Public Library and raises money each year for extra programs. In addition to sponsoring the writing program, many of the members volunteered in the classroom each week.
Choo Turner, a member of FODL, said the writing program was impressive.
“This was money very well spent. We are hoping to do this again next year and watch it grow,” Turner said. “We originally wanted to do it at the library, but it works better in the classroom at the school. This summer we hope to have a contest so they can display their poems.”
Marie Myers, vice president of FODL, also loves the writing project.
“Every kid said they were enjoying this project,” she said. “There are seven of us and we rotate for one hour, three different times. We wanted to see how well it worked, if it was beneficial. For me it was over the top of what I ever expected. To me every penny is worth it. These kids are happy to be participating; they are smiling and eager.”
At the end of the program, Withnall will create an anthology of all the student work as a treasure to keep at the school.
In early March, Darby Elementary School has a showcase night and the third- and fourth-grade students will have a poetry room, with a microphone to read their poetry to parents and community members.
“These classes in Darby have really good writers, the students are super into it and their supportive teachers make a big difference,” Withnall said.