back to school · COVID-19 · poetry · Seen, Valued, Heard: Writing to Establish Community Blog Series

Seen, Valued, Heard: Poetry to Establish Community

Click on the image to read the poem by Julia Alvarez.

The 2020-2021 school year will likely be different than any other school year we’ve ever known. While last year ended with emergency remote learning in most places due to COVID-19, the year began like all others before. We had the opportunity to get to know our students deeply and establish classroom communities. I teach on Long Island in New York and Governor Cuomo just announced that schools can reopen at this time. The district where I teach will have elementary students in the classroom each day. In other words, I am heading back to teaching in a school building. Plans are in place for remote instruction should an outbreak of COVID-19 occur. I will need to be flexible, as everything I knew and could rely upon about a school day is changed.  Social distancing in the classroom will change the very essence of how I taught- no longer will students gather around my rocking chair, no longer will I sit close by as a student reads to me, no longer will students work in teams on group challenges and projects. There will be so much to learn about how to teach well in this new reality. There is much that will be out of my control when it comes to teaching my third graders this year. 

Here’s what I can do: Whether I am teaching behind a face shield or mask, or through the screen on Google Meet, I can find ways to connect with each student. I can create opportunities for each student to be seen, valued, and heard. Writing is one tool I can use to get to know each child and build a classroom community, because that still matters. With so much that we don’t know and can’t control, it still matters that our students feel connected to us and each other.

Poetry can be a powerful bridge from who we are as individuals to who we are as a class community. By allowing students to share their identity, and then sharing those poems together as a class community, students can learn more about themselves and their classmates while growing as writers. Poetry can be scaffolded for our youngest learners or our EAL or special education students. It can also allow students to show their creativity and sophistication with language, enriching those who are ready for a challenging task. As you plan your back to school lessons and activities, I hope you might consider poetry as a way to get to know your students and build a class community.

In her book, Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres, Amy Ludwig Vanderwater writes, “Poems change us. Anyone lucky enough to have been read poetry as a child carries certain lines forever, and anyone who has found poetry as an adult knows to hang on as if to a wild horse. For poems wake us up, keep us company, remind us that our world is big and small…” 

Sarah K. Ahmed writes, “Poetry is accessible and identity has been a long-time theme of poetry. Identity poems can be be used as icebreakers but, like identity webs, they are more than that. They are a window into the lives of your students, a stepping-stone toward rapport and mutual respect in your room.  As with any tool for starting to build community, the focus is on how you use the tool itself. If we use poems as a way to learn about the kids – reading the poems, responding to them, conferring with students about the things they wrote, having peer conferences – we are sending the message that kids’ backgrounds are valuable not only to them but also to the classroom community.” (Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Build Social Comprehension, pages 21-22)

Please click on the presentation below. It includes lessons, templates, examples, videos, mentor texts and more for different forms of poetry you could introduce to students as a way to get to know them better and build your writing community. Please adapt these ideas to meet the needs of your students, whether you are learning in person, in a hybrid model, or fully remote. 

You can visit the Google Slides presentation here as well.

Poem of Closing Thoughts

A raging global pandemic,

political unrest

a national racial reckoning,

through the dust of this wreckage,

we see the children.

Children need us

to help them feel safe,

welcome, valued,

appreciated, challenged.

The children need us

to have high expectations for them,

with understanding hearts.

The children need us

to be hopeful

and joyful about learning,

despite our own sadness,

fears and anxieties

about teaching

in this new way.

It’s been a traumatic time

for the children in our country,

in varying levels.

In these first few weeks of school, 

we seek to know our writers

as humans first, learners next.

Poetry: a way 

for children

to be seen, 




How do you envision poetry helping you learn more about your students? How will poetry bring your classroom community closer together in this most unique year ahead?


Book Cover of En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students by Carla España and Luz Yadira Herrera.
  • This giveaway is for a copy of En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students . Thanks to Heinemann  for donating a copy for one reader. Please note: You must have a U.S.A. mailing address — Sorry, no FPOs — to win a print copy of this book.
  • For a chance to win this copy of En Comunidad, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 9th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 10th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book 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, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SEEN, VALUED, HEARD. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

9 thoughts on “Seen, Valued, Heard: Poetry to Establish Community

  1. Lucky the child who is part of a classroom where poetry is celebrated…regularly! Poetry was not emphasized during my school years, but I am sure I was exposed to it now and then. I have had poetry droughts and times when it has been raining poetry on my life. I am so glad poetry is in the world, and so glad I will be reading about everyone’s efforts to make poetry a big part of the year ahead. Since I am retired I will not be able to use poetry in my classroom, but I look forward to the conversation. Good luck with sharing your passion for poetry with your students this school year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kathleen – Wow!
    You have really provided such a comprehensive toolkit for establishing community through poetry in this post. I love the format of your slides and the practical application of each poem type. Thank you for linking your own examples to envision how the poetry comes to life. I especially like the thoughtful notes on how to engage students in a variety of learning models. In the past, I have used the “I Am” and the “Where I’m From” formats to start the school year. I may consider trying one of the other types, especially if we are remote. Love Sara Ahmed’s Being the Change lessons for the start of the year. Plan to re-read it in the coming weeks! Thank you!

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  3. Hi Kathleen – you are a wealth of inspiration (which you also. Ack up with how to’s). Thank you. I. My third grade class in Western Australia I use a class poem to bring us back together mid-year as we return from our holidays. It’s a collaborative Holiday Memories poem to which each student contributes a verse. I scaffold it to a sentence , then expand it with adjectives and vivid verbs as we extrapolate the key event to make it shin. Then I confer with each student to create the 4line verse by positioning the words across 4 lines. Then we share the final result. It builds identity and highlights our different interests too.

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  4. Poetry IS a bridge-builder! It is so easily scaffolded or differentiated for all students. It allows students to use and play with language without constraints of grammar or conventions… and students love writing it. They love creative freedoms. With its generally condensed form, poetry is less daunting than longer types of writing. At my school we used several of the activities here with students and their families on one of our Family Literacy Lunch days; as I read your post I was thinking how poetry – and these on identity, especially- can even be bridges for families as students work on these at home. Thank you for the honesty in your own poem, in regard to what educators are facing at present (still so many unknowns) and also for your vision of strength for the kids. Poetry is a powerful way to begin moving forward – with the gift of these excellent resources.

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  5. Goodness, Kathleen- this is beautiful and important information. Like you I am in a building to begin the year. Your words are wise and encouraging and I am so very grateful for this series from the amazing TWT team this week.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Kathleen, Thank you for this Saturday morning gem! I just gathered so many take-aways from your post! We are starting a school-wide effort of diving much DEEPER into identity this year and spreading that search throughout our entire school. I have Being the Change literally right in front of me and Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s, The Poem Farm, is a constant in any classroom I teach. I started teaching with a Poem of the Day a few years ago, and now, more than, ever, I am energized by the thought of those poems entering the classroom, virtually or face-to-face as we enter this new school year. Thank you for sharing your ideas!

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