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"Whatif" Kids liked Poetry: Shel Silverstein in the Classroom
by Michele Ben


Ations - by Shel Silverstein
If we meet and I say, "Hi,"
That's a salutation.
If you ask me how I feel,
That's consideration
If we stop and talk a while,
That's a conversation.
If we understand each other,
That's communication.
If we argue, scream and fight,
That's an altercation.
If we later apologize,
That's reconciliation.
If we help each other home,
That's cooperation.
And all these ations added up
Make civilization.

(And if I say this is a wonderful poem,
Is that exaggeration?)

     Somes - by Michele Ben
If you don't like teaching literature but must,
It can be tiresome.
If the literary pieces bore you,
Teaching them can be bothersome.
If the pupils don't like literature,
They'll find the lessons loathsome.
If the themes and vocabulary are difficult,
Learning and teaching literature can be cumbersome.
But if you use Shel Silverstein's poetry in your classroom,
Then learning and teaching literature can be awesome.

(And in terms of writing poetry,
I'm just proud that I can do some.)

Humor, comprehensible language, themes kids identify with - these are all characteristics of Shel Silverstein's poetry. And these are all reasons to use poetry by Shel Silverstein in the EFL classroom. In order to deal with literary genres, along with its cultural and historical contexts, the text must be understood by the pupils. In order to discuss a literary piece, the pupils must find something in it to identify with. It's difficult for pupils to relate to something incomprehensible and foreign to their own lives; if they can't relate to something taught, they probably won't be learning much. With Shel Silverstein, pupils will enjoy learning poetry and therefore be open to learning other literary pieces as well. Pupils in all grades can learn his poetry, which can be exploited for language learning as well. But most of all, the accessibility of Shel Silverstein's poetry on all levels of comprehension allows for an interaction between reader and text leading to an enjoyable learning experience.

What follows here are a few suggestions for using Shel Silverstein in your classroom.

A great poem for discussing fears and anxieties is "Whatif." I like to use this poem at the start of the school year, but it can be used any time.

Whatif - Shel Silverstein
Last night, while I lay thinking here,
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I'm dumb in school?
Whatif they've closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there's poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don't grow tall?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won't bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don't grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems swell, and then
The nighttime Whatifs strike again!

When introducing the poem, aside from explaining unfamiliar vocabulary, it's important to point out, of course, that "Whatif" is an invented word made up of two words - what and if. You can start by asking the pupils to write down some of their fears. Then read the poem and ask them to see if any of their own fears are mentioned in the poem. Pupils can find the imaginary "whatif"s. After a discussion of the poem, you assign a response in writing. Here are some ideas: Write your own "Whatif" poem using the fears you wrote down at the start of the lesson; write a letter to the narrator of the poem; write about something that you were anxious about that turned out fine; write about some of your expectations for this school year.

A poem good for getting acquainted or learning about adjectives is "Tell Me."

Tell Me - by Shel Silverstein
Tell me I'm clever,
Tell me I'm kind,
Tell me I'm talented,
Tell me I'm cute,
Tell me I'm sensitive,
Graceful and wise,
Tell me I'm perfect -
But tell me the truth.

You can begin by asking pupils to write down eight desirable characteristics they have or they'd like. Then hang the poem written on poster board in front of the class and read the poem out loud. After that, you can hang up your own poem that you wrote modeled on this one in front of the class on the board and read it out loud. Now tell the class to use what they wrote down to write their own poem. Remind the pupils to pay attention to parts of speech; they may have jotted down words other than adjectives. That's fine but they have to try to write a grammatically correct rendition of the poem. Walk around the class helping the pupils write their own poems. An alternative approach is to hang the poem in front of the class, but hide all the adjectives in the poem. You can also cover the last line. Then tell the pupils to write their own poems and then reveal the original. Either way you do this, continue by asking the pupils to sit in groups of two or four and read their poems to each other. They can practice reading their poems aloud and then whoever wants to can read their poem in front of the class. You can also ask the pupils to write a poem titled "Don't Tell Me." What adjectives would appear in a poem of that title?

One of my favorite Shel Silverstein poems is "Helping."

Helping - by Shel Silverstein
Agatha Fry, she made a pie,
And Christopher John helped bake it.

Christopher John, he mowed the lawn,
And Agatha Fry helped rake it.

Zachary Zugg took out the rug,
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it.

And Jennifer Joy, she made a toy,
And Zachary Zugg helped break it.

And some kind of help
is the kind of help
that helping's all about.

And some kind of help
is the kind of help
we all could do without.

After opening the lesson with some type of introductory activity, you can lead the pupils through a literary analysis of the poem. Tell the pupils to mark each different name in the poem with a different color. Ask: "What do you notice?" Elicit - The names in each pair of verses repeat in reverse order. Elicit answers to the question: "Why is that?" Introduce the words, reciprocate and reciprocation. Ask: "Can anyone give examples of reciprocation?" Ask: "What kind of reciprocation is evident in the poem?" Ask: "Can anyone give other examples of reciprocation?" Explain: The last two verses describe different kinds of help. Elicit answers to the following questions: What kind of help is "the kind of help that helping's all about"? What kind of help is "the kind of help we all could do without"? Which verses of the poem describe the former? Which describe the later? Ask the pupils to write a verse for each kind of help. You can then have the pupils work in groups and rewrite the first verses of the poem. You can challenge the class and remind them to pay attention to the structure and rhyme scheme of the poem, as well as the reciprocation between the characters in the poem. (Something I did not do very sucessfully in my poem "Somes" based on "Ations" at the start of this article.) Please note: In the book Where the Sidewalk Ends where the poem was published, the first eight lines are not separated into verses, nor are the last six lines. However, for teaching purposes it's easier to present the poem to the pupils as written above.

"Anteater" is a clever poem that can be exploited to introduce homonyms and homophones, as long as you pronounce aunt and ant identically.

AntEater - by Shel Silverstein
"A genuine anteater,"
The pet man told my dad.
Turned out, it was an aunt eater,
And now my uncle's mad!

In his books, most of Shel Silverstein's poems are accompanied by drawings. When you work with this poem, it's a good idea to enlarge the drawing along with the poem when you hang it up. Ideas for a response in writing to this poem are: Write the poem in story form; write a conversation between the father and son or daughter; make the poem into a comic strip; write a conversation between the father and uncle. You can challenge the pupils and ask them to use a pair of homophones to write a poem themselves!

Another humorous and very clever poem that lends itself to writing a conversation between the characters in response is "Smart."

          Smart
My dad gave me one dollar bill
'Cause I'm his smartest son,
And I swapped it for two shiny quarters
'Cause two is more than one!
And then I took the quarters
And traded them to Lou
For three dimes-I guess he don't know
That three is more than two!
Just then, along came old blind Bates
And just 'cause he can't see
He gave me four nickels for my three dimes,
And four is more than three!
And I took the nickels to Hiram Coombs
Down at the seed-feed store,
And the fool gave me five pennies for them,
And five is more than four!
And then I went and showed my dad,
And he got red in the cheeks
And closed his eyes and shook his head-
Too proud of me to speak!

This poem can also be exploited to explore the themes of parent - child relationships, adult -child interaction and also trust, innocence and exploitation.

There are many other poems by Shel Silverstein that I use and each time I read through his works, I find more that I like. I hope that you now feel that Shel Silverstein's poetry can work for you.

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