The Color of Poetry

“Let’s do some collective brainstorming,” Middle School Humanities teacher Jenet Dibble announced to her Class 5 students during a recent poetry lesson. The task? Think about imaginative ways to describe the color purple. She gave them five minutes to prepare. When their time was up, Ms. Dibble instructed her students to call out as many purple-themed comparisons as they could.

“The smell of lavender,” one offered. “A wet, slobbery chew toy,” another proposed. “The color of royalty and honor,” a third volunteered. “Sweet plums that make my tongue tingle with joy,” said a fourth.

As energetic voices punctuated the 6th floor classroom, Ms. Dibble wrote down her students’ ideas in purple marker. A large sheet of paper quickly overflowed with more than 20 vivid suggestions. After reviewing the difference between a simile (a comparison using like or as) and a metaphor (a comparison without like or as) and the importance of carefully planned line breaks, the students turned their attention to writing their own “purple poems.”

For the next few minutes, the students worked in silence. Pencils scratching, erasers rubbing and the soft whir of a small white fan were the only discernable sounds. With razor-sharp focus, they wrote intently in their spiral notebooks, looking up at the list of purple comparisons for inspiration. When their poems were complete, Ms. Dibble picked three students to share their verses with the class. “You’re really getting simile and metaphor,” she commended after each read energetically.

Next, Ms. Dibble asked for volunteers to recite the nine stanzas of Marge Piercy’s “Colors Passing Through Us.” One after the other, the students brought Ms. Piercy’s evocative poem to life, concluding with these arresting lines:

Cobalt as the midnight sky

when day has gone without a trace

and we lie in each other’s arms

eyes shut and fingers open

and all the colors of the world

pass through our bodies like strings of fire.  

This exercise was excellent preparation for the immersive activity that followed. “Are you ready for your next assignment?” Ms. Dibble asked her eager students. “Behold the color cards!” In her hand she held up an assortment of paint color samples with creative names such as “Strawberry Mousse,” “Cinnamon Whip,” “Maiden Voyage” and “Arizona.”

A 15-minute quiet period followed, during which the students wrote poems informed by the color cards, which represented a dizzying array of palettes. “Mix it up! Challenge yourselves! Stretch your brain!” urged Ms. Dibble, as she fanned out the stack of cards on a table. With their chosen cards close by, they settled into crafting poetry infused with similes, metaphors and expressive language.

Soon, more sharing ensued. This time, every student had a chance to read one or two stanzas of her brand-new poem. “Read slowly, loudly and clearly,” directed Ms. Dibble. “And don’t explain your poem. Let your reading do that.”

One by one, the girls recited parts of their poems, which were at turns playful, moving, sophisticated and observant – and, yes, very colorful. Throughout, the others listened attentively, some closing their eyes to concentrate more closely on their classmates’ words.

“Guess what?” Ms. Dibble asked when the readings were finished. “You’re really good poets!” Smiling proudly, her Class 5 students packed up their notebooks, returned the color cards and left the classroom, no doubt with their skills sharpened and their senses awakened.

Browse photos from the class below: