Sounds Like Bees

by Erin Malone, Whittier Elementary School

All of us have our favorite writing exercises, but after a while even those start to feel worn. Our students are always new, but it’s not enough to surprise only them with our assignments—to keep our spark, we need to invent and try fresh lessons that may work, or may not. (I love a good experiment, and just keep my fingers crossed that if it “fails”, it’s not on the day the principal is observing.)

In the flop category, I tried “Two Truths and a Lie” with my 5th graders at Whittier Elementary School this spring. I said, “My mother was a rodeo queen”; “I was born with an extra finger”; “I have a friend who trains whales at Sea World.” They got to guess which was the lie, and then my assignment was to write around the lie so that it would seem true. Oh, I was telling some whoppers. They were laughing and yelling out and having a great time. Then I told them it was their turn. And unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, it seems most 5th graders are very bad liars. “I have two cats”; “My dad works at Boeing”; “I like playing soccer.” The lie? Kid has just one cat.

Later on in the quarter, though, I had better luck with the “quiet game.” First I had the students go into the hallway and write down all the noises they heard. From this Sydney wrote:

School Sounds
The tap, tap, tap
Of a pencil goes rhythmically
Paper crumpling
One idea after another
Is thrown out
People cough
As doors slam
Mouths full of food
Chew constantly
Pencils scratch
As people laugh
In a way
It’s almost music


When we returned to the classroom, I told them to listen very carefully to a musical composition I had brought in: John Cage’s 4’33”. “I can’t hear anything,” they said. “Can you turn it up?” I assured them the volume was up. I went around the room with a hand-held speaker, putting it up to their ears. Slowly they began to get it: they were listening to “silence.” When someone in Cage’s recorded audience coughed, the student whose ear caught it smiled a big smile. When 4 minutes and 33 seconds had elapsed, I asked them what they’d heard. “Static,” and “vibration” were built up to become “waves,” “wind,” and “fuzzy under the ocean sounds.”

What is music? Can silence be music? Alec Y. raised his hand to say, “Are we having a philosophical discussion now?” (No pulling the wool over his eyes.

Composition depends upon the importance of listening. What is that in the space between words, between sounds? What happens if we become still enough to let the world move around us, instead of pushing into it? My students remind me to listen, and when I do, I’m rewarded. They are rich in surprises. Here are some of their poems from that day.

Silence is like
The grass and
Leaves having a
Conversation under
The night moon.
-Toby W.
Silence sounds like
dust on the ground.
Silence sounds like
chipped paint on an old house.
Silence sounds like
a damp roof.
Rain clouds about to burst.
Silence sounds like
a call being declined.
Silence sounds like
a pigeon on a lamp post.
Silence sounds like bees.
Silence sounds like
an ocean coming ashore.
Silence sounds like
a fisherman catching a trout.
Silence sounds like a poem
being written.
Silence sounds like. . .
-Fiona N.
Stone River
Silence is like a stone river.
Fish sit,
Stuck in time.
A bear looks surprised
As his meal
Turns to stone.
And everything
Is silent.
-Ben W.
The Ocean Sky
Silence is like a bone pale night sky,
With a ribbon of a silver moon,
Shining over the sea,
With fish underneath, in the reef,
Twirling under the glossy light,
Close to the copper beach,
But dancing away at the last
-Nicky L.
Silence Is Like
Silence is like a fish, when he blows
bubbles they float up and pop above the surface.
Silence is like secrets being held,
waiting to be told.
Silence is a flame, catching the sky on fire.
Silence is peace, when the war has stopped.
-Emily K.

One Response to “Sounds Like Bees”

  1. I will certainly use these exercises with my creative writing students! I love the poetry that was created with “silence” as the MUSE!

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