“No more pleasant sight has met my eye than this of so many thousand of living creatures in one small drop of water.”
– Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, 17th century pioneer in microbiology
Last fall I did a poetry residency with a seventh grade science class. They were studying cellular structure and respiration followed by a unit on genetics and DNA. Their teacher and I discussed ways we could connect poetry and science with the students. We landed on the big idea of close observation, noticing deeply and seeing patterns—essential skills for both poets and scientists. We wanted the students to practice looking closely and describing what they saw in precise detail.
We asked them to consider the question:
What do we learn from looking closely?
For our first day, I found a poem by Maxine Kumin called “The Microscope” about Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a seventeenth century merchant and civil servant who refined the lens design of the microscope, bringing ever smaller images into focus. He’s known as the father of microbiology. Kumin describes van Leeuwenhoek’s curiosity:
Some of the things
He looked at were: mosquitoes’ wings,
the hairs of sheep, the legs of lice,
the skin of people, dogs, and mice;
ox eyes, spiders’ spinning gear,
fishes’ scales, a little smear
of his own blood, and best of all,
the unknown, busy, very small
bugs that swim and bump and hop
inside a simple water drop.
I asked the students what they would be interested in viewing at a microscopic level. (Among other things, skin, nail polish, an eyeball and a booger.) Then we turned to close observation as a way of approaching writing poetry. We read May Swenson’s “Water Picture,” which depicts a city park through its reflection in a pond. Students wrote their own poems which practiced close observation of a place using sensory detail.
Each day of the residency students observed and described both microscopic images and poems. In each, they identified structures and patterns. Each day they wrote their own poems focusing on a different structural idea or literary device. To explore patterns in poetry, we wrote pantoums and abecedarians (poems in which each line starts with a letter of the alphabet, in alphabetical order).
At the start of the residency, students struggled to get specific in their written description in their poems and their descriptions of microscopic images. Week after week, their writing developed in specificity and detail.
The unit on cells dovetailed with a unit on genetics and DNA. I thought it would be interesting for students to do a project in which their text and images could create different sets of pairs as a metaphor for the ways genes combine in different ways. My idea was to make books of sturdy cardstock. Each page would have text, an image or both. After the books were bound, we would cut the pages in half so the top of each page could combine with the bottom of any other and vice versa. This little book was my inspiration (although we just made one cut in our pages instead of two):
After the students had written several poems and described and sketched a variety of microscopic images, we invited photographer Krista Wortendyke to come in as a guest artist. She talked with students about framing photographs and about looking at a whole object versus looking at a part. Students selected an image to photograph—either themselves or an object brought from home or found in the classroom. They took three photos of their object—the first from a distance, the second close up and the third through the viewfinder of a microscope.
With their collection of photos, sketches and poems, each student designed, titled and assembled their book. We bound them with embroidery floss using a simple Japanese four-hole binding technique. They turned out pretty great.
At the end of the residency, I asked students how patterns relate to both poetry and science. They said:
“We have used microscopes for images and found hidden meaning in poems. In microscopes there might be patterns in the circle. In poems like pantoums there are patterns.”
“There are the same types of organelles in cells. There could be repetition and rhyming in poems. There’s a rhythm in patterns and there’s a rhythm in poems.”
I love the idea of finishing a writing residency with an object students can hold and share. The students felt proud of their books. Their teacher told me some of them came in during recess for an entire week to perfect them. At our final showing/gallery walk, students enjoyed selecting their favorite combination of pages and shared thoughtful insight. And they wrote some fantastic poems!