A Poetry Lesson in Strong Verbs

by Kathleen Flenniken

One of the obvious weak links in most student writing is verb choice. Verbs are central to a sentence’s energy, and young writers often undercut their good images and ideas with was’s, made’s and went’s.

So why not challenge your writers by providing great verbs to begin with?  I presented each of my 4th and 5th grade students with one of five verb lists, each culled from a different text:  a construction manual, a groundwater textbook, a cook book, a bird book, and a history textbook.  Then I told the students they could write about anything they liked using any language they liked but would be limited to the verbs on their lists.

I asked them to use each verb only once, and to write about an unrelated subject (though as you will see, the verbs influence the direction of most of the poems).  I provided a few subject ideas as a examples:  new shoes, reading, clouds, snow, haircuts, color, running, and so on, and read to them a sample poem of my own:

Shouting

The beginning of a song
nests in your throat—
it burrows down in the dark
pecks and swallows
shhh                                               
searches for a route to climb out
 
all the while you’re simply surviving
quiet as a leafless tree on a windless day
preening behind a coat rack
but something in you
needs to fly
and those beating wings
lift
and suddenly you’re shouting

Here’s a sampling of what the students came up with.

Ella (5th grade)

Messes

They pour the
yarn right out
of the ball knowing
it would take a long
time to roll back up
and cover the floor with
your robot pieces
and add a little of
freckled strawberries
it was a recipe
for disaster
it sliced their mom’s
brain in half when
she saw the sight
and crushed her heart
and drained out
the tart it
made her face
heat up because
they really press
her buttons she
continued to
melt and then
she felt too
cool and began
to clean and
 stir up a punishment
and baked a
punishment stew
she removed
the freckled
strawberry
and dropped the
grenade of punishment

Jonah  (4th grade)

Love

Love starts in your
stomach, starts
to flap its wings,
starts to climb
your throat, and starts
to bathe in your
saliva, making your
mouth dry as a desert.
Then it lies on
your tongue, making it
impossible to speak,
starts to migrate
toward your brain,
making it go fuzzy,
and back to your mouth.
Suddenly, it drops
back in your stomach,
and dies.

Mohamed  (5th grade)

Construction

I nail the highways together
desperate for a coat in
the cold bouncing air I crawl
as I extend the road and
shut the cracks I moan as
the fuzzy wind hits me
when the wind sings its songs

Jesse  (4th grade)

Black
 
The darkest color of all.
 
It constructs nightmares
in your mind.
 
When you shut your eyes at night,
 
the nightmare strikes
you with me, the black,
 
the color of ink. I will break every color
 
and paint it into mine

Ethan  (4th grade)

Bird

He broke his
wing. He crawled
back home.  His arm
extended.  Raking his
arm on the dry ground.

Sydney  (5th grade)

Breath

I breathe in the words the record is playing
I study and write
while I look out the window
I will follow my mother’s footsteps
into the future
My breath scattering all over the polished floor
I take my first breath into my first life
I look out my window and breathe
Someday I may be history
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