The Poets to Come: Teaching Whitman in the Third Grade

by Thomas Smith



On the day first day of school, I asked my new third graders if they had ever heard of Walt Whitman. One child responded, “It is the name of a bridge.” Another child thought it might be the name of a poet. After a brainstorming session of “What is poetry?” we read Whitman's poem, “Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun.” They were quick to notice that there was no rhyme, which contradicted some of their earlier definitions of what poetry is. Throughout the year we continually redefined our notion of poetry by studying the life and work of Walt Whitman.

Many people are quick to comment that Whitman's poetry is not “developmentally appropriate” for third grade children. His potent images of sexuality and social concerns are often the reasons that Whitman is relegated to middle and high school study. I wanted the children to spend an entire year learning about the world through the eyes of a man who was not “squeaky clean.” In other words, they would hear from a man who celebrated life, blemishes and all, through his verse. I felt that Whitman's life was full of inspiration and courage. I felt strongly that the children would connect to the child in Whitman, which rings true so beautifully in much of his work. He went through life dreamily and never seemed to lose the quality of play in all aspects of his life.  Whitman's individuality and his refusal to follow the traditional conventions of poetry and societal norms is interesting to children, who appreciate the subversive nature of his work and life.


Our focus on Whitman progressed according to the needs and interests of the children. Class discussions on selected poems ranged from vocabulary, poetic conventions, metaphorical language, historical/social context, sound and personal connections. Extensive research by the children was utilized happily in a game of “Whitman Jeopardy.” Teams placed facts and anecdotes in a giant bull's eye containing the following rings: Self, The World Around Him, His Art and How He Moved the World. In this way, the children were able to concretely visualize the interconnectedness of a person and his work and thus imagine it for themselves, enabling them to “spin” poetry out of Whitman's life and work.


The result was a biographical collection of poems written by the students entitled “Whitman: A Celebration of A Life.” Modeled after Mark Doty's poem, “Letter to Walt Whitman,” the children began this poetry project by asking Whitman questions about an aspect of his life that interested them. Some wrote rhetorical questions, while others wrote as if Whitman might answer back. After sharing their work with their classmates, who were known within the classroom walls as “trusted readers,” the children eagerly took notes, receiving both positive and negative feedback. This was a particularly exciting time because the children had spent months writing their own poetry and learning about Whitman. The creative energy and intensity of the children was almost chaotic, save the determination each one had to realize their vision.

Local writer and parent, Joanne Sutton-Smith, was a joy to collaborate with and helped immensely at the crucial publishing stage. It was exciting to exchange ideas and opinions with another adult who deeply respected the voice of the children. Other area poets also supported the children by listening and offering advice. This “rippling out” of the children's work and the enthusiasm it generated, helped illustrate the effect Whitman, or anyone, may have on the world around them.


On May 31, 2002, the children came to understand this more than ever as they celebrated Walt Whitman's birthday. We crossed the Delaware River via ferry (just like Walt) to the Children's Garden at the New Jersey State Aquarium on the Camden waterfront, where we met up with the sculptor John Giannotti. Gathered around Giannotti's magnificent bronze of Whitman, the children and accompanying adults listened to an artist speak about a poet with the awe and reverence that I suspect could only truly be felt by the present young poets themselves. Giannotti was visibly moved by the children's poetry and their enthusiastic responses to his own words. After lunch we toured Whitman's house, eventually ending up at Harleigh Cemetery, Whitman’s burial place. Throughout the day, the children recited some of Whitman's poems, which they had memorized. This was voluntary and required extra work at home, yet almost everyone participated. How fitting that the day should culminate in a reading of their work, “Whitman: A Celebration of a Life.” Perched on large rocks and gnarled tree roots around Whitman's tomb, the children read their poems. We then sang happy birthday to Walt with Tasty Kakes and candles. I am sure Whitman would have approved wholeheartedly. Indeed, could anyone have enjoyed a more honored tribute?