Poetry can be a great way to connect with children. Why not, as Kenn Nesbitt suggests, slip some verses into your children’s lunchboxes to share a giggle or remind them that you’re thinking of them? To get you started, we’ve paired a few poems with momentous days of the school year.
Even the best-prepared student gets nervous on the day of a test. Ease your child’s anxiety with Kenn Nesbitt’s twist on the idea of a flawless spelling test score in “Perfect.”
Book reports, science projects, dioramas, scale models of the solar system, memorizing the times tables . . . sometimes all that homework is truly daunting. What child wouldn’t love to have a friend do it all for him? That’s the idea behind Phil Bolsta’s poem “Freddie,” in which a child’s grades improve once he hands his homework over to his pal Freddie, who “can’t wait to read my books. . . .” And the fact that Freddie is a dog, who gets rewarded with a bubble bath? Even better!
Childhood friendships tend to have a lot of ups and downs—a shove on the playground or a thoughtless word in the lunch line can turn best friends into worst enemies faster than you can say “You take that back!” Jack Prelutsky offers a pair of poems about the painful price of friendship. “My First Best Friend” lists a child’s companions, with names like “Awful Ann” and “Monster Moe,” and the unusual ways they show their affection—eye-socking, toe-trampling, pie-swiping. As the saying goes, with friends like these. . . . In “Suzanna Socked Me Sunday,” the narrator gets a punch from Suzanna every day of the week, but after being asked to stop hitting, Suzanna takes up biting instead. These poems might win a child a few new (hopefully less violent) friends when they get passed around the lunch table.
Most students look forward to art class—there are endless possibilities in all those jars of poster paint and cans of glitter. Not to mention: no tests! But sometimes things can get a little . . . messy, as illustrated by Constance Levy’s limerick “How awkward when playing with glue.” This one begs to be memorized, so be prepared—you’ll probably hear it over and over.
First Day with a New Sibling
Mary Ann Hoberman writes of the trials of having a new sibling in “Brother.” The narrator pleads with her parents to exchange her little brother for another, and reports their deadpan responses. Hoberman’s use of rhyme, meter, and alliteration make for a perfect read-aloud that builds to a tongue-twister of an ending.
Halloween Party Day
Carl Sandburg’s haunting ode to the jack-o’-lantern, “Theme in Yellow,” is a tribute to the season, highlighting the natural beauty of pumpkin fields and the near-reverence that children have for this symbol of the holiday. It’s a nice reminder to look past the candy and mayhem for a moment. For a lighter Halloween verse, Kenn Nesbitt delivers “Halloween Party,” in which the narrator has spent the morning perfecting a Dracula costume. Cape? Check. Fangs? Check. Blood-red nails? Check. On arriving at school, the child discovers that the costume may be perfect—but the party is still a week away.
Celebrate that childhood milestone, losing a tooth, with “The Toothless Wonder” by Phil Bolsta. Most children would be horrified—not to mention furious—if a little brother pulled out all their teeth while they slept. But not our narrator, who thinks a big payoff from the Tooth Fairy is in order. In a lunchbox, it is best paired with a crunchy apple or a bag of toffee.
“Over the river and through the wood / To grandfather’s house we go.” You know the song; now surprise your child with the original poem on which it’s based. The joys of the Thanksgiving holiday celebrated in this poem have not changed since it first appeared over 160 years ago—the thrill of a big snow, the anticipation of visiting family, and pumpkin pie. Mmm . . . is it Thanksgiving yet?
Music Concert Day
Let Robert Pottle take you to an unruly elementary performance in “The Kindergarten Concert.” The students sing their song, but not without some nose-picking, pants-wetting, burping, and much more. And Bruce Lansky provides a portrait of a young child coerced into violin lessons, only to send family members fleeing the room in tears (“My fiddle squeaked, my fiddle squawked. / The notes came out all wrong”). At the poem’s conclusion, the inept musician’s father puts an end to all the noise.
In “December Substitute,” Kenn Nesbitt tells of classmates mesmerized by their substitute teacher’s resemblance to Santa Claus (the snowy beard, the boots, the round belly, and his talk of reindeer and elves and everything in between). Or there is E.E. Cummings’ tribute to a Christmas tree, decorated with “the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads . . .”
In 1967 Aileen Fisher wrote a tribute to the Festival of Lights, “Light the Festive Candles.” The poem jubilates in the anticipation of the holiday and is the right read for the kindling of lights commemorating “the joyous day / when we regained the right to pray / to our one God in our own way.”
Viola Swamp, meet Mrs. Stein. In this reminder to pray that your regular teacher remains in good health, Bill Dodds introduces us to a nightmarish substitute teacher, “Mrs. Stein,” as her students suffer through what feels like the Longest Morning of the School Year.
Presidents’ Day or George Washington’s Birthday
Bobbi Katz pokes fun at the tried-and-true fable about our first president in “George Washington’s Birthday: Wondering.” The narrator imagines the excuses that could have been used to explain away that downed cherry tree: a herd of elephants, woodpeckers, even a hippo. The last line turns the fable’s moral on its head and supposes that maybe young George lacked imagination. It’s a comedic take on an otherwise not-particularly-funny holiday.
Standardized Test Day
Oh, the horror of a standardized test. In “I Left My Head,” Lilian Moore takes us into the mind of a child trying to compose herself on what could be a stressful day: “I left my head / somewhere / today. / Put it down / for / just a minute. . . .” Adults will chuckle too at this attempt to pull oneself together.
April Fool’s Day
“Good morning, dear students,” the principal said.
“Please put down your pencils and go back to bed.
Today we will spend the day playing outside,
then take the whole school on a carnival ride.”
Starting with those attention-grabbing opening lines, Kenn Nesbitt’s “Good Morning, Dear Students” describes the ultimate fantasy school day, complete with candy, TV, drawing on walls, and an invitation to “copy your face on the Xerox machine.” But then, of course, the cruel punch line—it is April Fool’s Day.
“Michael O’Toole hated going to school / He wanted to stay home and play. . .” Thus begins Phil Bolsta’s exaggerated cautionary tale about the dangers of playing hooky. Michael might be a bright student, but he’s doomed to a life of sitting at home with nothing to do, having never learned how to read or write.
Dave Crawley’s “My Doggy Ate My Homework” is the tale of a trip to the principal’s office. Crawley tops it all off with a wink-wink, bah-dum-ching ending involving the underappreciated homework-eater of the animal kingdom. And for the more run-of-the-mill offenses that send your child to the principal, one can always turn to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic nursery rhyme “There was a little girl.” Ah, yes—“When she was good, / She was very good indeed, / But when she was bad she was horrid.”
Teacher Appreciation Day
Let Kalli Dakos share with your child the perspective of the tired teacher who hears every excuse in the book regarding homework assignments, and can relate: the poor thing left her own work at home in her study drawer. This one can be appreciated by your child’s teacher as an end-of-the-year surprise. And for another perspective on a teacher’s ability to relate to her students’ lassitude, try Bruce Lansky’s “Confession.”
Last Day (before summer)
The last day of school before summer has to be the most blissful day of the year for children. If you want to help them rejoice with a bit of poetry, you have three options:
1) Kenn Nesbitt’s “Swimming Ool,” which includes the creative use of certain letters of the alphabet (yes, you guessed it: there’s a reason the “p” is missing!), all in celebration of the upcoming days of summer, to be spent splashing in a pool.
2) Lilian Moore’s “Mine,” which anticipates play on the beach, a time-honored summer ritual for many families—sand castles, sand tunnels, and the sand-pail-hungry sea . . .
3) Frank Asch’s tribute to sunlight and the days of midsummer. Through this play-on-words poem, Asch asks your child to ponder: What exactly would a sunflake feel like?