(a poetry lesson for kids who love Shel Silverstein's poetry)

by Bruce Lansky

This poetry lesson is dedicated to the memory of Shel Silverstein

Is "Sick," which you can find in Kids Pick the Funniest Poems, your favorite Shel Silverstein poem? If you're like most teachers, it is. Why not have your students write new couplets describing phony ailments or problems that would prevent Peggy Ann McKay from going to school? Then they can insert the new couplets between Shel Silverstein's first two lines and last three lines. And voila--your students will have their own versions of the poem!

Here are Shel's famous first lines:

"I cannot go to school today."
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.

Your students need to create couplets that match Shel's rhythm and rhyme pattern. Each couplet should list one or more imaginary ailments. Here is Shel's first ailment couplet:

"I have the measles and the mumps,
a gash, a rash and purple bumps."

The poem ends with the following three lines:

What's that? What's that you say?
You say today is...Saturday?
G'bye, I'm going out to play!"

I'm sure you can already imagine how much fun this is going to be for your students. But to pull it off, there are two requirements:

1) They'll have to do some brainstorming--coming up with a list of phony problems including injuries, ailments, bumps, and bruises.
2) They'll have to duplicate Shel's rhythm and rhyme pattern; otherwise, their poems won't read or sound right.

Let's go back to Shel's first ailment couplet and study the rhythm and rhyme pattern:

I have the measles and the mumps, (A)
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
A gash, a rash and purple bumps. (A)
da DUM, da DUM da DUM da DUM

As you can see, the two lines rhyme and have exactly the same rhythm: four da DUMs. (If you want to impress your students, the da DUM rhythm pattern is "iambic," and since there are four Da DUMs in each line, you can refer to it as "iambic tetrameter.") So, the trick to brainstorming for phony ailments is to find some words that rhyme and then nail the rhythm.

I suggest you start by having your students make a list of ailments. Then rework the lines so they match the iambic tetrameter rhythm pattern. Then look for two lines that rhyme. I'll take you through the steps:

Some Phoney Ailments: Rewritten Versions (four da Dums)
I've got a bad haircut: The barber cut off all my hair.
My finger got caught in my fly: I've caught my finger in my fly.
My hair is falling out: I think my hair is falling out
My feet smell disgusting: My feet smell like a garbage dump.
All my clothes are in the laundry: I haven't anything to wear.
I'm too embarrassed: I'm so embarrassed, I might die.

As you can see, four of my rewritten ailments rhyme, so, voila--I've got two new couplets:

The barber cut off all my hair.
I haven't anything to wear.

I caught my finger in my fly.
I'm so embarrased, I might die.

Now you're ready to put your students to work writing new couplets for "Sick." I suggest that you do some together in class, writing down your students' ideas on the chalkboard, and then rewriting the lines to match Shel's rhythm. Then send the kids home with the assignment of doing more.

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