The poetry of Joyce Sidman


by Joyce Sidman


Celebrating Nature’s Survivors

Illustrated by Beckie Prange ISBN: 978-0-618-71719-4




Predictions: reader’s guide
UBIQUITOUS is a book about organisms that have survived and spread throughout the world over long periods of time. What plants or animals do you think might be in this book?


What is involved in “surviving”? What do you need to survive?

How do you suppose that some of the creatures in this book might have survived? What would be some good survival techniques?

Look at both the front and back cover of this book. Can you identify these “survivors”?

Look at the endpapers. Discuss the concept of a timeline.

Each of these poems features a familiar organism that your students will have encountered somewhere. Before reading each poem, ask students where they’ve last seen or heard of this organism.

Suggestions for Reading Aloud:
2 3
Extra credit: The squirrel poem (“Tail Tale”) is fun but challenging to read aloud, as it is basically two run-on sentences delivered in nonstop chatter. This might be a good poem to offer as extra credit for a student to master and perform for the class.


Each spread in this book consists of a poem and a nonfiction note. Try reading the poem first. Ask students what images and words they liked. What is their impression of this organism? Then go on to read the nonfiction note. Ask students what interesting things they learned, and then ask them what the strengths of this organism are—how has it become a “survivor”?

Writing Activities: diamante poem
A diamante (“diamond” in Spanish) is an easy poem form that can start anyone writing. It is seven lines long with varying numbers of words on each line, in this order: 1, 2, 3, 5, 3, 2, 1. Start and end with a noun. There are many variations of this form, some specifying adjectives, adverbs, etc., some moving from one noun to its opposite. The following is an open-ended version:

First Life (a diamante) Bacteria ancient, tiny teeming, mixing, melding strands curled like ghostly hands winking, waving, waking first, miraculous Life

1. Read the poem “First Life.” Discuss interesting or vivid words in this poem, what images it evokes. Then read the nonfiction note and talk about how the first noun relates to the last noun. 2. Choose a subject to write about—maybe try a group poem first, about an animal. Start with the name of the animal (“tiger”) and use the next five lines to describe this animal—what it looks like, how it moves, etc. End with another noun that shows us the animal in a new way (“shadow”). 3. Have each student choose his or her own subject to write about.


Letter Poem
In a letter poem, the poet speaks directly to the subject of the poem. Many students respond to this form because it’s not that different from writing a note to a friend.

1. Read “The Mollusk That Made You.” Who is talking? Who is he/she talking to? Discuss with students the metaphors and vivid language. Have students identify the questions within the poem. Ask them what questions they would ask a shell, if they could. 2. Brainstorm some interesting objects from nature—or better yet, take a nature walk. Have students soak in the sights, smells, and sounds of the outdoors. Have each student choose a subject—a tree, a dragonfly, the wind—looking at it closely and noticing it with all of their five senses. Tell them to imagine that they can speak to their subject and have a conversation with it. What questions would they ask? 3. Write the letter poems. Use this form if you wish: start with a compliment, then ask at least one question, then end with a wish (Dear Wind: You are invisible but strong. Where do you sleep? I wish I could ride you like a horse!).


Mask Poem
Mask poems are first-person poems that take the voice of the object they are about, so you get to pretend to be anything you want! They are wonderful for getting students to use their imaginations and see the possibilities of poetry.

1. Read “Scarab.” Ask students about the images/mood of the poem: how does this creature describe itself? How does it see the world? How is its view of itself different from our view of beetles (especially dung beetles!)? Now read “Tail Tale” and ask all the same questions. How are these two animals presenting themselves differently?

2. Choose any object from the classroom—a stapler, a water bottle, an eraser. Hold it up and have students brainstorm metaphors for it: What does it look like? Sound like? How does it behave? If it were alive, how would it view the world? What would it dream about doing?

3. Have each student choose an object; either from his or her desk or the classroom, and do the same sort of brainstorming. 4. When students are ready to write, ask them to take the voice of the object: they will “become” the book or clock or marker. They will use their brainstormed ideas to tell the world what it’s like to be a book, clock, or marker! “I am a round white eye with black lashes” (clock).


Science/Math Activities

There are many other organisms that could be considered ubiquitous, and some have been successful for long periods of the earth’s history. Here is a list of other organisms your students could study, answering the following questions: Where does it live? How does it survive in lots of places? What makes it successful? How long has it existed?

Species that thrive among humans: Groups of organisms that are widespread: Pigeons Canada geese Rats/Mice Deer Rabbits Finches (including English sparrow)

Other “Ubiquitous” Organisms



Viruses Algae Mosses Legumes Ferns Grasshoppers Dragonflies Cyclothones (fish) Nematodes (round worms)


Personal Timeline

5 4

The earth’s history, with its billion-year periods, is difficult to comprehend in a visual way. Personal history can be the same way. In this exercise, students will learn how to apply scale to the events of their own lives. 1. Look at the endpapers of UBIQUITOUS and then read the Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book. Discuss with your students how Beckie Prange used string to represent the passage of years, and the concept of “scale.” 2. Have each student brainstorm a list of important events from his or her life (learning to walk, moving, birth of sibling, etc.) with the dates these events occurred. Help from home is useful! 3. Give each student a long piece of ribbon, yarn, or string, and a tape measure. Decide on the scale of your timelines, perhaps one inch = one year. Have students measure out the appropriate length, cut, and glue their string onto paper. Strings can be glued on straight or in a curved pattern. 4. Using the tape measure, students can then accurately mark out when each event in their lives took place, and label it on their timelines. 5. When timelines are finished, have each child reflect on which periods in their lives were exciting, important, or difficult for them. As an added activity, have your students project their timelines into the future, predicting what they will be doing in ten, twenty, and thirty years.


Discussion Topics


UBIQUITOUS touches on some weighty topics. You can use this book as a springboard for classroom discussion, writing, or study: What makes humans human? Read both the poem and the note for “Baby.” Discuss with your students this view of humans. Do they agree with it? Are there other aspects of humanity they think are important? What do they think separates us from other kinds of animals? What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? Extinction—why does it happen? There have been five major extinctions in earth’s history, and scientists have various theories about what caused them. Discuss with your students what their theories might be. Some scientists say there is another “extinction event” going on right now, caused by humans. What might humans be doing to cause species extinction? What could we do to reverse this? What makes you a survivor? After reading UBIQUITOUS, ask your students what kinds of things they think they need to survive. After a short discussion, have them make two columns on a piece of paper, one titled “Visible” and one titled “Invisible.” Ask them to jot down at least five things in each column that they feel they need to survive in their world. Suggestions might be “food” (visible) and “respect” (invisible). Continue your discussion, using their lists as a starting point.



Red Sings from Treetops
Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski ISBN: 978-0-547-01494-4

A Year in Colors

Don’t let this odd word scare you— synesthesia just means a mixing of the senses. This poem is a lot of fun! Start like this:

After reading the entire book to students, go to p. 6 (“Green is new in spring”), and ask students...

Synesthesia Poem
How can rain taste green? Then try some experiments with them:


Brainstorm a list of colors on the board, including some fun ones like magenta and indigo.

What color do flowers smell like?

Clap your hands. Ask your students what color that sounds like. What color do you feel like when you’re happy? Excited? Mad?

Ask them what color chocolate tastes like.

From the list, choose a color for a group poem. Review each of the five senses with your students: sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste. Using each of the five senses, write about the chosen color: “Yellow looks like the sun beaming through a window . . . It smells like toast with honey on it . . .” etc.


Have students write individually about a chosen color. Encourage them to be as descriptive as possible. End with a line about their own emotions: “When I feel yellow, I am warm and cozy, snuggling with my cat.”

This Is Just to Say
Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski ISBN: 978-0-618-61680-0

Poems of Apology and Forgiveness

The idea for apology poems comes from Kenneth Koch’s book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children, which I highly recommend to any classroom teacher interested in teaching poetry. As Koch says, the basic idea of this poem is to “apologiz[e] for something you’re really secretly glad you did.” Advice from the Editorial Board: <> a separate sheet of printable “instructions” from the students of Mrs. Merz’s class to help other students write apology poems. Note: the children in this book are fictitious; all poems authored by Joyce Sidman.

Apology Poems
1. Read the poem “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams, on page 6. Discuss: Who wrote the poem? To whom was he writing it? Why did he do it? Is he really sorry? 2. Reread “Sparkling Deer,” and discuss this in a similar way. Then choose an incident from your own (the teacher’s) past that you regret. Have your students help you write a poem on the board apologizing for this incident, but also explaining why you couldn’t help yourself. What tempted you? Include lots of sights, smells, and sounds. 3. Have each student choose his or her own past incident to write about. It can be from years ago, or yesterday. The important thing is to write the poem so that the reader understands exactly why the writer did what he/she did. Include: sensory details from the incident and feelings before and after. Note: Many students find this type of poem easier to write if they assume another persona, like that of their dog (see “Sorry Back, from the Hamster” on page 37).

Response Poems
If your students are feeling especially brave, have them give their sorry poems to the person they’ve apologized to. Several things might happen subsequently: 1. An interesting talk between the two parties involved, which the student could write about. 2. Your student could ask the recipient to respond on paper, either in a poem or letter format. 3. Your students, as a class, could gather the apology poems and write-ups/responses and make a book of them, as Mrs. Merz’s class did.

Butterfly Eyes
Illustrated by Beth Krommes

and Other Secrets of the Meadow

ISBN: 978-0-618-56313-5

Letter Poem
1. Read “Letter to the Sun” and “Letter to the Rain.” Discuss descriptive phrases used, and have your students pick out the “compliment” in each poem. 2. As a class, choose a natural object to write to: a plant, an animal, a type of weather, a season. Brainstorm all the things your students love about that object—sights, sells, and sounds. Write a class “letter poem.” (“Dear Spring, . . .”) In your poem, include...

3. Have students choose a subject and write their own “letter poem.” If possible, take your students outside to a natural area and have them settle into a quiet place to write.

• • •

a compliment a question a wish

Song of the Water Boatman
Illustrated by Beckie Prange ISBN: 978-0-618-13547-9

& Other Pond Poems

Riddle Poem
1. Read “A Small Green Riddle.” After trying to guess the subject, find clues from the poem. Identify metaphors used. 2. Choose a different plant or animal to write about—it can be part of a current science unit. 3. As a class, brainstorm descriptive words for your creature. Where does it live? What does it eat? Create metaphors for how it looks, moves, sounds. 4. Create a class riddle poem on a large pad or whiteboard. Use first person—“become” the creature!

WHAT AM I? With my white crown of feathers I am queen of the pond. Perched on orange stilts, my neck poised like a still, blue snake . . .

5. Then have each student pick his or her own subject for an individual poem, or they can work in pairs. 6. For individual work, have available library books about different creatures. This helps students focus on the looks and behavior of their animal/plant. 7. Schedule a sharing time so students can read their riddle poems aloud and guess each other’s subjects.

The World According to Dog
ISBN: 978-0-618-17497-3 Photographs by Doug Mindell

Poems and Teen Voices

Memory Poem
1. Some memories stay with us more than others. Which sorts of experiences stick in the mind? Brainstorm a list on the board (birthdays, vacations, firsttime experiences, losses, embarrassments, etc.).

This works for any age, since we all have important memories that deserve to be captured in poetry.

2. Pass out copies of “Hornet’s Nest,” p. 29, and read aloud.

4. Look back at your brainstormed list of memorable types of experiences. Remind your students that as they grow older, some of the vividness of these experiences may slip away. Poetry is one way to capture them forever. Ask them to think back over their lives and pick one moment that they want to capture: a) Jot down sensory details from the moment: sights, smells, sounds. b) Who else was there? What did they do, say? c) What were the emotions of the moment–before, during, after?

3. Discuss what happens in the poem. Who is the speaker? Who is he/she speaking to? What sensory details help create an image in the reader’s mind? What metaphors/similes are used? What is the emotional tone of the poem? What is the speaker trying to convey in the last stanza?

5. Ask them to write their poem addressing someone/ something who was involved in this memory, almost like a letter: “Grandpa, do you remember the day we . . . ?” Include those sensory details to put the reader right there.

6. Write! Then share! (This exercise is most effective if you, the teacher, also participate and share your writing. Low-key background music helps, too.)

Illustrated by Michelle Berg

A Story in Concrete Poetry

ISBN: 978-0-618-44894-4

1. Begin by sharing the book with your group. Then say, “What would happen if we tried to make the crow into a concrete poem?” On the board, use anatomical words to “build” a poem in the shape of a crow as a model (wing, feather, body, beak, claw, etc.). You can use each word as many times as needed to create a shape. Click here < concreteanimalpoem.html> for a full-page example (done by a second-grader).

Concrete Animals

2. Make three columns on the board: Head, Body, and Feet. With your group, brainstorm all the animal “parts” words you can think of: Example

Head Snout Antenna Mane

Body Scales Gills

Feet Talons

3. Ask each child to think of an animal they want to “build” out of words. Have them lightly sketch their animal on a piece of unlined paper. Then have them fill in their animal with appropriate words from the board (or others). Words can be used more than once!

About Joyce Sidman
Joyce was born in Connecticut and spent summers at camp in Maine. She now lives in Minnesota with her husband and two sons. The following is a brief Q & A, of which you can read more on her website (

Q. How did you start writing? A. Words came into my head, and I wrote them down. This started in grade school. Later, I kept journals (still have most of ’em). From early on, I felt compelled to write. I think a lot of writers are like this. Writing helps us understand the world; we’d be lost without it. Q. Where do you get your ideas? A. I firmly believe (lecture coming . . .) that everyone needs “pondering time.” Time alone, without noise and distraction. This is when ideas come--when things sort themselves out, when you see visions and solutions. Not just for writing, but for life. My pondering time happens during walks in the woods, where I watch the seasons change and let my thoughts wander. The natural world sustains and inspires me. I could never live in a city for long. Q. Why do you write poetry? A. I really discovered poetry in high school, encouraged by a sympathetic teacher. Poetry is so vivid and sleek–like a racecar. No extra words. I love using image and metaphor; it’s such a powerful way of explaining your thoughts and feelings (as in poetry = racecar). Poetry comes naturally to me. Storytelling is not so natural to me, though I hope some day to successfully write a novel. Q. How many books have you written? A. Almost a hundred. Really! Most of them are sitting in dusty stacks under my desk. How many are published? Nine children’s books, and two more on the way, at the moment. Q. What do you like to do when you’re not writing? A. I like to teach poetry-writing in schools. I also love to dig in the dirt and eat chocolate (not usually at the same time, though it has happened). I love poking around outside, identifying birds, insects, frogs. And on inside days, I like to read and snuggle with my dog. Q. Are you famous? A. Yes--to my dog. And to my children, on good days. And there’s a lady I met at the library who says my poetry makes her cry (but I’m not sure if that’s good or bad).

For more information and many more activities, visit

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