First of all, what a joyful book!
Only the first 20% or so of the book is prose, and this is divided between Koch’s story of finding success teaching elementary kids to write poems in 1960’s New York classrooms and Koch’s observations about what qualities and attitudes in their teacher bring kids and their writing to life. The remaining 80% of the book is an anthology of poems his young students wrote. These are divided according to the assignments Koch used to help the kids get started.
Koch focuses on the kids’ accomplishments and creative capacity throughout the book, but it’s clear he was as willing and enthusiastic to learn as any of them. The result of his humility and energetic work was a great experience for him and his students and a genuinely encouraging book for any of us who teach.
It’s likely that Koch’s writing prompts and classroom techniques will seem familiar, maybe even tired, to those of us who grew up even a few years after this was published in 1970. Really, though, that’s a sign of Koch’s success. The respect with which he treated children’s imaginations and the hopeful seriousness that runs through all his advice about teaching informed the attitudes of many, many writing teachers after him. If this story seems well-worn now, it’s because he did it and told it so well in the first place.
And the kids’ poems? They’re a sign of Koch’s joy in his students’ work as well as his evidence that the teaching methods he writes about are successful and that teaching kids to write poems at all is entirely worthwhile. Also, many of them are a lot of fun.
I’ll come back to the first 60 pages again whenever get tired teaching and to the 240 pages of poems if I ever start to wonder whether my students actually have imaginations.
(Click here to buy Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry.)