I hated poetry as a kid. Looking back, I think it’s because I thought all poems had to rhyme. In fact, I didn’t enjoy poetry until I took African-American Literature as a college junior. My professor, Michele Simms-Burton, shared Langston Hughes’s poetry with our class. After reading his work, my attitude towards poetry was forever changed. (This is proof that a great teacher and fabulous poetry can be life-changing.)
I didn’t read much poetry again until I began teaching elementary school in 2004. I remembered back to Professor Simms-Burton’s class and aimed to find poets and poems all of my students could connect with. I made sure my students knew poetry was a genre I had struggled with as a reader and writer when I was their age. I consumed books about poetry by Georgia Heard, wrote my own poems, and bought as many books of poetry for my classroom’s library as my salary allowed.
I was delighted to learn about Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s new professional resource for teachers, Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres (Heinemann, 2017). As I began reading, I made notes in the margins, wrote pages I wanted to return to again on the inside back cover, and underlined pertinent parts in different colored ink. I cringed upon finishing the book since I marred Amy’s beautiful writing with my markings. (If you’re unfamiliar with Amy’s writing, Katherine Bomer, who wrote the foreword, explains Amy’s writing by comparing it to a Dove Chocolate: “elegant and unassuming, but oh, so rich. Her language illuminates and delights.” Hence the reason why I regret not taking notes about her text in a separate notebook!) However, the notes I took will guide me as I help teachers use this book with their students.
Before you pick up a copy of this important book, here’s a Q&A I did with Amy about Poems Are Teachers. I hope it helps you understand the essence of this book and how it can be a valuable resource for you when teaching writing to your students.
Stacey: There are many books about the teaching of poetry. Your book is grounded in the idea of writing workshop, contains practical lessons teachers can use the very next day, as well as mentor texts written by published poets and student poets. What else do you think makes Poems Are Teachers unique?
Amy: I think that this balance is what makes it unique. I call Poems Are Teachers 1/3 poetry anthology, 1/3 teaching ideas, and 1/3 celebration of student writing. It’s like a three-legged stool!
Stacey: Several years ago, poetry was overlooked on the Common Core’s writing standards. The CCSS emphasize three types of writing: argumentative, informative, and narrative writing. Since poetry doesn’t fall into these three categories, I appreciate the way you’ve used poetry to address the modes of writing (i.e., opinion, narrative, and informational pieces). That being said, how do you foresee teachers using your book if they work in a school that doesn’t value writing poetry (i.e., because they aren’t tested on their state’s test)?
Amy: My hope is that Poems Are Teachers will help teachers in such schools and districts, will help them argue how poetry’s value extends beyond the land of poems. It’s a sad day when we have to say this, but one reason I wrote this book was to bring the light of poetry back into some dark corners where it has been banished. Poetry-valuing teachers in such schools can point to this text as a resource for strengthening all writing craft by studying short poems. The arts are important for us as humans and for us as a society. However, it also happens that the study of poetry does help writers across genre lines, so if a teacher needs it to be, this book can serve as proof that poetry is important.
Stacey: I loved your entire book, but had a special appreciation for chapter six, “Writers Select Titles” since I have always had trouble crafting strong titles. Share some of the ways you believe poetry can help writers create titles in other genres of writing.
Amy: By studying the titles of poems (a lifted line, a repeated word, a mysterious clue), writers can imagine title possibilities for all kinds of texts. We can also study informational book titles to get ideas for poem titles or short story titles to find ideas for article titles. I love how craft is craft and we can carry it in a little red suitcase from genre to genre.
Stacey: I noticed you used templates or sentence starters to help kids write in just a handful of the “try it” sections (pgs. 142, 206, 219) in the book. To me, this shows deep respect for children in that you’re trusting they don’t need templates to write poetry. Would you explain how you envision teachers can use other templates or sentence starters, in general, as scaffolds that are meant to be taken away as students become more adept at writing poetry?
Amy: I do not generally follow templates when writing, but sometimes others’ words can help me get going or stretch my usual pattern. This is where I believe deeply in notebook-keeping as a way for writers to play with words and phrases, to experiment with lifting lines from others’ work and from their own notebook pages, writing off them and seeing where words bring them. My blog, Sharing Our Notebooks, is all about highlighting notebook play. As writing teachers, we must be deeply committed to helping children ride the roads of writing without training wheels and templates.
Stacey: In chapter one, you listed at least three books for every lesson to help writers find ideas for poems. Seeing as classroom teachers’ budgets are limited, what are your five must-have poetry books to have on-hand for grades 2-5 and 6-8?
Amy: Oooh, I am not good at such lists at all. However, I would recommend checking out books by winners of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children as well as the winners of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Awards. Don’t miss KNOCK AT A STAR by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy Kennedy or Bernice Cullinan’s books A JAR OF TINY STARS and ANOTHER JAR OF TINY STARS. I also recommend reading works by our present Young People’s Poet Laureate, Margarita Engle. as well as books by past Young People’s Poet Laureates.
For all children, I recommend sharing books that do not rhyme as well as books that do rhyme and books that address serious and beautiful topics as well as humorous books. Visit my friends at their blogs and me (at The Poem Farm) on any Poetry Friday, and you’ll learn about all kinds of great poetry books new and old.
Stacey: What are three big things you’d like teachers to take away from Poems Are Teachers?
- Poetry is not scary, nor is it not about filling in a form.
- Poets use the same literary techniques as other writers, simply in fewer lines.
- Children and adults are drawn to beauty and truth and wonder, and writing poems is a way to explore our humanity. Our students deserve this, and our world needs it.
Stacey: What are you working on next?
Amy: I am still excited about my new READ! READ! READ! illustrated by Ryan O’Rourke (WordSong), and I look forward to two books this spring: DREAMING OF YOU (Boyds Mills Press), a lullaby bedtime book illustrated by Aaron DeWitt and WITH MY HANDS: POEMS ABOUT MAKING THINGS (Clarion), a poetry collection illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson. And I’m scribbling away in my notebook working on a couple of story picture books and poems poems poems.
Stacey: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want me to include in this post?
Amy: Thank you so much, Stacey, for hosting me here at Two Writing Teachers. It’s an honor to visit your home online! I am happy to offer a copy of READ! READ! READ! as well!
Stacey: Thank you, Amy! It was a pleasuring hosting you!
This giveaway is for a copy of Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres (Heinemann) and READ! READ! READ! (WordSong). Thanks to Heinemann Publishers for donating a copy Poems Are Teachers and to Amy, herself, for donating a signed copy of Read! Read! Read! One reader will receive a copy of both books. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.) For a chance to win these books, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Thursday, November 2nd at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced at the bottom of this post no later than Monday, November 6th. Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Heinemann and Amy will ship the books to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.) If you are the winner of the book, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AMYLV BOOKS. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Comments are now closed. Thank you to everyone who left a comment.
Linda Mitchell’s name was selected using a random number generator. She’ll receive copies of both books. Here’s what Linda had to say:
I think I’ve had as much fun reading the comments as the blog post! Look at all the people who would like support in bringing poetry to young people! There IS hope. Thank you Amy V. for such a solid three-legged stool for us to stand upon and thank you Two Writing Teachers for your very generous interview and giveaway. This book is already a rock star to me!
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.