National Poetry month often brings units of poetry study into our classrooms – there are wonderful resources for so many creative poetry endeavors to be found, and both teachers and students seemed primed to welcome Spring with a celebration of poetry. But, what about the rest of the year? And, is there room in our packed Language Arts curriculums for a study of poetry all the school year long?
My own love of poetry is sustained and nurtured every Friday with the weekly Poetry Friday Round-up, where teachers, teacher-poets, and poets gather to share new poems and revisit old favorites (here’s a link to last week’s round-up with Mary Lee Hahn at A Year of Reading). I wanted to bring some of that enthusiasm into my classroom, and so began our
Thursday “poetry time”: fifteen to twenty minutes set aside to explore poems, share our thoughts about them, and then, if inspired, to write poems in response. It was one of the best things that I ever did, for poetry has allowed us to grow as writers and readers, as noticers and creators, and here are some examples of how:
Poetry allows students a chance to practice close reading in a meaningful and authentic way:
My kids do a first-read of the poem of the week for homework, and we share these noticings on Thursday. This layered response allows us to dig deep and analyze the structure, language and tone of the poem. Here are two examples of such notebook work:
Much of this type of analysis builds upon work we do in both reading and writing workshop: interpretation, writing structure, word choice, symbolism, and thematic understanding. Poetry allows us to practice and gain a facility for close reading in a lovely way – through the words of Robert Frost or Naomi Shihab Nye, for example.
Much of this type of analysis builds upon work we do in both reading and writing workshop: interpretation, writing structure, word choice, symbolism, and thematic understanding. Poetry allows us to practice and gain a facility for close reading in a lovely way – through the words of Robert Frost or Naomi Shihab Nye.
Poetry allows students a chance to play with words:
The wonderful thing about sharing poetry with students is that they are both fearless as well as opinionated – they are not afraid to dive into a poem and make the most of it, whether they like it or not. They love the way poets play with words on a page – and I’m always keen to see how my students respond in their notebooks after that “first read,” when their thoughts are fresh and spontaneous and true. I always find the unexpected in these poetry notebooks….such as the time I shared the following poem with my class:
who knows if the moon’s
a balloon,coming out of a keen city
in the sky—filled with pretty people?
(and if you and i should
get into it,if they
should take me and take you into their balloon,
we’d go up higher with all the pretty people
than houses and steeples and clouds:
away and away sailing into a keen
city which nobody’s ever visited,where
in love and flowers pick themselves
I love the exuberance of cummings, the way his words dance on the page, and wondered what my kids would make of him. Richard seemed to share some of my enthusiasm, and this is how he responded in his notebook:
“I enjoyed this poem a lot. It was weird, but in an entertaining sort of way. Even though I don’t know what the name of this poem is, it sounded very serene and calm and tranquil. I like the part of this poem in which the author uses a different pattern than just writing line to line.
is a lot more fun to read than just to keep reading boring lines one after the other after the other. I think e.e.cummings was feeling very happy when he wrote this, he’s sort of floating with happiness really and that is why it’s so great. Either that, or he’s insane.”
…and then he went on to scribble this:
aliens appear from places
when (if you know when)
can’t be better
being where they
and you may think
But this is what I say:
Am I crazy or are you crazy
I’m not sure I “got” Richard’s poem, but I appreciated his willingness to experiment with words and punctuation. He developed a real love of cummings after this first poem, however, which I appreciated even more!
Poetry allows students a chance to explore the sensory world around us (i.e. a nice opportunity to get out of our building on a beautiful day):
Early in the Spring, we take a nature walk around our campus with our poetry notebooks and our senses wide open. Here are some of Sarah’s jottings from one such nature walk some years ago:
which she wrote long and experimented with before crafting this first draft of a poem:
We’ve also taken Fall and first-snow walks, for this purpose, much to the delight of my students – who could resist the chance for a mini field trip, after all? We often bring back leaves, petals, and branches that we find along the way, too, examining them more closely for further poetic inspiration.
Poetry allows students a chance to develop their own inner poets, and to practice crafting poems (not an easy task, and one that requires feedback and support):
Many of my students begin the year reluctant to write poems of their own, feeling that their poems will never measure up to the standards set by the poets we read. But, as the weeks of unpacking poems pass, they seem to gain confidence in the process of jotting notes, expanding ideas, fooling around with white space, and expressing themselves in beautifully crafted lines.
Sometimes, in unpacking a poem, we find the wonder of all the meticulously woven together words, which in turn lead us into creating poems of our own. Here, for instance, are two students responding to Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s “Indian Summer”. Amy’s website, The Poem Farm, is a true treasure trove of all things poetry, and we visit it often for poems, ideas, and to hear Amy’ lovely voice reading her poetry. Katie adored this poem, and spent quite a bit of time carefully considering all the compositional choices Amy had made before crafting her own poem:
And here is Sarah’s, along with her own first draft:
We go back and forth with these poetry notebooks, sharing first and second drafts with classmates, and practicing reading them aloud for word choice and line breaks. Poetry, in our classroom, is often a communal effort.
Making time for poetry all the school year long has been a wonderful journey for both my students and me. Whenever I begin to doubt myself, to wonder if I should perhaps be spending this class time studying grammar, for instance, I open my tattered copy of Georgia Heard’s Awakening the Heart and read the following, to remind myself that it is important work:
“The work of teaching poetry is the work of letting knowledge pass through our hearts: sharpening our own outer and inner visions; writing and reading poetry; and helping to awaken poetry in ourselves and in all of our students. The more we let ourselves feel poetry, the easier it is to teach it. All of us are hungry to express our true selves, to be reunited with our hearts, and this is the real work of teaching and exploring poetry.”
I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.