Poetry Please

AUTHOR: Laura Lee Stroud, Elementary ELAR Specialist

An Abandoned Tool

Past U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins says “High school is where poetry goes to die” because it is there that many students inadvertently learn that poetry isn’t relevant to their lives. Oftentimes in working with these teachers we find that poetry remains buried and absent from their instruction, until, that is STAAR is over and we pick up poetry as a fun filler. But poetry is a powerful, emotionally clad, succinct genre teachers can use to helps students express themselves, make their words come alive and synthesize their thinking.

Building Community Through Poetry

Nowadays, in order for our students to care enough to invest in writing and reading, we must take the time to create spaces of trust. Writers thrive in spaces they can take risks, feel valued, receive feedback and learn how to write from models and mentors. Writers need to understand that an investment in learning to write well will yield lifelong returns. Creating a writing community inside of a classroom means that as teachers we must let go of some control in order to empower our student writers to make decisions about their writing.

Cultivating a writing community doesn’t happen with a week or two of “getting to know you” activities but thoughtful planning and commitment. Taking time to read and discuss thought provoking ideas, problem solving together and planned inquiry of ourselves and families, all work to build spaces our students can thrive in as writers. Students must know that their thinking, their words, their perspectives matter and without it, our goal of meaningful learning remains unaccomplished. Weaving poetry through instruction works to create this communal space. Finding poetry models your students will love and allowing them to experience reading and rereading it together, can serve as a tunnel to bonding. Repeated readings promote fluency, boost vocabulary and engage students.

Give this a try:

  1. Show a spoken word poem. Button Poetry is a great place to begin mining for poetry. Just like any other text you would select for your students, it is critical that you preview the videos for instructional objectives that align with your purpose and that you are sure the content is appropriate for your students.
  2. Pass out the words. Joshua Bennett’s Tamara’s Opus is a poem eighth grade students’ love.
  3. Play the poem again.
  4. Allow students to discuss what they liked about the poem in small groups. The purpose of letting students identify what they like about the poem is that they are able to highlight the language that appealed to them without having to identify the academic labels in the beginning stages. Remember, our goal is building community with poetry. As you give your students the opportunity to discuss poetry in this way, academic language will emerge.
  5. Have students highlight their favorite lines.[4]  Read the poem aloud to students and when their highlighted line appears, they read that line aloud along with you (and the others that have selected this line). A chorus of voices will rise to the occasion.
  6. Invite students to bring in poems they love for community viewing/reading.

Poetry in Tiny Packages

Lucy Calkins speaks of poetry as powerful thoughts in “tiny packages.”   Tiny packages allow even struggling writers the ability to write powerful poems. Jeff Anderson agrees and teaches us that even a sentence can serve as a mentor text. We can focus on what is beautiful or empowering in one sentence.  If students can feel successful writing one beautiful sentence or phrase, they can become poets. By starting out the

year with these tiny packages, all will feel successful.

Creating Community to Boost Reading and Writing Performance

As Kelly Gallagher says, “Writing instruction should be a non-negotiable core value” (2015).  If we are looking to raise our performance and learning outcomes, we must ask if sound writing instruction and time spent writing are “core values” in our schools?

Sound writing instruction is not the same as test preparation. In fact, when test preparation replaces writing instruction, test scores are not likely to improve as evidenced by researchers like Judith Langer (2000).

Research Base

Remember that the power of poetry to teach reading and writing skills is well documented in the literature. The authors of Inside Out, (Kirby and Liner, 2004) teach us how the writing of poetry contributes to good writing:

In poetry, as in all writing, the technical aspects of the poem are really of secondary importance; good writing is honest writing. The writer risks feelings with us, and we respond to the words because they touch our feelings through shared human experiences. (p.74)

Such honesty and confidence can come into play through many different writing tasks. For example, if students are able to tap into their everyday experiences, they will be able to write short stories, personal narratives and, of course, write the deep development demanded on the expository essay.

Through poetry we can teach students not only come to understand the written word more deeply, but also make more meaningful connections to text. Therefore, if we are going to teach writing, we must include poetry. Poetry has been called “the great equalizer for both the reading and writing workshop” (Dorfman and Cappelli).

Revisiting Poetry for Different Purposes

The rich language and ability to engage readers make poems the perfect choice for teaching students to deepen comprehension through analyzing and comparing texts, citing evidence, offering opinions, drawing conclusions, and talking about main ideas and themes (Dorfman and Cappelli).  When we teach poetry, we offer multiple opportunities for practicing reading comprehension that will prove beneficial to reading in other genres.  Through the  analysis of different types of literature, we  promote cognitive development and give students an opportunity to apply such skills and strategies, as identifying themes discussed in one genre–fiction, for example–to other genres like poetry, reports, descriptive pieces, and plays (Smith, 1991). And last but not least, poetry is an often-tested genre on STAAR.  As responsible writing teachers, we cannot omit poetry!

Let’s encourage our professional learning communities to take up this often abandoned genre and find new ways to teach reading and writing this summer. One way to begin a new exploration of poetry, is to register and join us for Linda Christensen’s workshop on May 18.  She will discuss her journey into poetry as a powerful genre that changes not only students’ reading and writing skills, but their lives as well.  We would love to be a part of your continued journey with poetry!

Works Cited:

Smith, C. B. (1994). Helping Children Understand Literary Genres. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from http://www.ericdigests.org/1994/genres.htm

Langer, J. A. (2000, May). Guidelines for Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well Six Features of Effective Instruction. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from http://www.albany.edu/cela/publication/brochure/guidelines.pdf

Worsham, S. (2001). Essential ingredients: Recipes for teaching writing. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gallagher, K. (2015). In the best interest of students: Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom.

Kirby, D. L., Crovitz, D., & Kirby, D. (2013). Inside out: Strategies for teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann


Comments are closed.