Put poetry into your writing tool kit all year!

April is National Poetry Month, the inspiration of the Academy of American Poets, who describe the event as:

the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of readers, students, K-12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary events curators, publishers, bloggers, and, of course, poets marking poetry’s important place in our culture and our lives…with an aim to:

with an aim to:

  • highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets,

  • encourage the reading of poems,

  • assist teachers in bringing poetry into their classrooms,

  • increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media,

  • encourage increased publication and distribution of poetry books, and

  • encourage support for poets and poetry.

Naturally, April seems to be the month to introduce poetry units of study as either part of writing or reading workshop, and that is a lovely celebration to look forward to.  But, why wait until April? Why not bring the power of poetry into our workshops from the very beginning of the school year?

Here’s what I do:

We begin the year with a composition book devoted to collecting poems which we “unpack” for homework every Thursday, following these guidelines posted on our Google Classroom poetry page:

  1. Every Monday, check our Google Classroom Poetry page for the poem – print a copy for your Poetry Notebook.
  2. Tape the poem onto the left hand side of your notebook and use our minilessons to help you “unpack” it.
  3.  The poem should be marked up with your thoughts, observations, questions and comments. Use our anchor charts to guide you:

poetry-charts

  1. Be prepared to share your thoughts on Thursday!

We read the poem aloud on Thursday, and my students share their thoughts and noticings; often, I will share a Prezi with photographs and video clips of the poet, and its historical and cultural context.  We spend five minutes quick writing our thoughts at the end of sharing time, extending our responses or jotting down new ideas.

Here’s why I do this:

Poetry is an amazingly rich and efficient source of  mentor texts.  Coleridge was right about  poetry being  “the best words in the best order”, and students can learn so much from being exposed to a wide variety of poetic styles and voices over the course of a school year.  A poem is a beautifully economic distillation of thought, feeling, and scene; it leaves enough to imagine for oneself, and yet opens new doors of ideas and emotions.  There is something open ended about  poems that frees kids up to enter the text more easily, and they seem to thrive on discussions about the way words were used and why.  They see poets taking risks with white space, vocabulary, syntax and composition, and they are often inspired to give these craft moves a try in their own memoirs or informational writing.  

Last year, for example, a student was so taken by the poem “Seasons of a School Oak (from Nancy Atwell’s Naming The World ), that she chose to structure her memoir in the same way – a writing risk that paid off beautifully.  I have seen this happen time and time again, especially in the way students come to see figurative language used with sophistication and subtlety.  For those of us who have to read “he was as fast as a cheetah” or “my stomach was a roller coaster” hundreds of times in the space of a school year, it will be a nice surprise to see similes and metaphors that vary and show imagination.  

One of the hardest aspects of teaching writing is how to bring one’s own unique voice to the writing piece.  Kids “see” this much more easily with poetry – Emily Dickinson sounds very different from e.e.cummings who sounds nothing like Jack Prelutsky, for example, and we have had many wonderful conversations as we compare and contrast voices, and analyze the techniques a poet used to get his or her voice across.  This is essential writing workshop work.

Finally, our Poetry Notebook jottings often contain the seeds for writing ideas.  The poem, “After School on Ordinary Days” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, for example, has led so many of my kids to take note of their after school days, and write about these ordinary experiences in which they are able to see the extraordinary.  Poems about social justice have often inspired topics for argument writing, and poems about the scientific world and space have led to independent inquiry and well researched feature articles.  Poetry connects all types of writing.

And here are some fabulous resources which have enriched our Poetry Thursdays:

Atwell’s Naming The World is so rich with poems and with ideas about how to present poems.

A Note Slipped Under the Door:Teaching from Poems We Love by  Nick Flynn and Shirley McPhillips  is another go to text for me, it was the book which led me to institute our Poetry Thursdays.

And here are some spectacular and creative poetry blogs:

Sylvia Vardell’s Poetry For Children

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s The Poem Farm

Renee M. LaTulippe’s  No Water River

Laura Purdie Salas’s Writing The World For Kids

Laura Shovan’s Author Amok

All of the poet educators participate in a round-up every Poetry Friday along with teachers and poetry lovers from every nook and cranny of the world, from Haiti to Singapore to Italy.  Many, like Margaret Simon, Mary Lee Hahn, and Diane Mayr, to name just a few, are accomplished poets themselves, from whom to learn so much about the craft of poetry.   Even if you don’t have a blog and don’t wish to participate, this is an excellent place to gather ideas for teaching poetry and for collecting poems to share with your students.

Whether a 15 minute-once-a-week poetry session leads to a poem,as it did here for Sarah:

sarah 1sarah 2

or an idea to write about some day, or even a collection of rich words and metaphors  to experiment with in some other writing piece, poetry should be part of our writing teacher toolkit, not just in April but all year.
Please share your ideas for poetry in writing workshop, we’d love to learn new ideas!