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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Let me start with this: We need poetry. We really do. Poetry promotes literacy, builds community, and fosters emotional resilience. It can cross boundaries that little else can. April is National Poetry Month. Bring some poetry into your hearts, homes, classrooms and schools. Here are five reasons why we need poetry in our schools.

Reason #1: Poetry helps us know each other and build community. In this blog, I described how poetry can be used at the start of the year to learn about where students come from and who they are. Poetry can allow kids to paint sketches of their lives, using metaphor, imagery and symbolic language to describe painful experiences, or parts of themselves that they're not ready to share. Poetry allows kids to put language to use-to make it serve a deep internal purpose, to break rules along the way (grammar, punctuation, capitalization -- think of e.e. cummings) and to find voice, representation, community perhaps.

Reason #2: When read aloud, poetry is rhythm and music and sounds and beats. Young children -- babies and preschoolers included -- may not understand all the words or meaning, but they'll feel the rhythms, get curious about what the sounds mean and perhaps want to create their own. Contrary to popular belief amongst kids, boys get really into poetry when brought in through rhythm and rhyme. It's the most kinesthetic of all literature, it's physical and full-bodied which activates your heart and soul and sometimes bypasses the traps of our minds and the outcome is that poetry moves us. Boys, too.

Reason #3: Poetry opens venues for speaking and listening, much neglected domains of a robust English Language Arts curriculum. Think spoken word and poetry slams. Visit this Edutopia article for more ideas. Shared in this way, poetry brings audience, authentic audience, which motivates reluctant writers (or most writers, for that matter) .

Reason #4: Poetry has space for English Language Learners. Because poems defy rules, poetry can be made accessible for ELLs -- poems can be easily scaffolded and students can find ways of expressing their voices while being limited in their vocabulary. Furthermore, poetry is universal. ELLs can learn about or read poetry in their primary language, helping them bridge their worlds. (This is not quite so true for genres such as nonfiction text that get a lot of airtime these days.)

Reason #5: Poetry builds resilience in kids and adults; it fosters Social and Emotional Learning. A well-crafted phrase or two in a poem can help us see an experience in an entirely new way. We can gain insight that had evaded us many times, that gives us new understanding and strength. William Butler Yeats said this about poetry: "It is blood, imagination, intellect running together...It bids us to touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrink from all that is of the brain only." Our schools are places of too much "brain only;" we must find ways to surface other ways of being, other modes of learning. And we must find ways to talk about the difficult and unexplainable things in life -- death and suffering and even profound joy and transformation.

On this topic, Jeanette Winterson, a poet and writer, says this:

"...When people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read in school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers -- a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place."

A final suggestion about bringing poetry into your lives: don't analyze it, don't ask others to analyze it. Don't deconstruct it or try to make meaning of it. Find the poems that wake you up, that make you feel as if you've submerged yourself in a mineral hot spring or an ice bath; find the poems that make you feel (almost) irrational joy or sadness or delight. Find the poems that make you want to roll around in them or paint their colors all over your bedroom ceiling. Those are the poems you want to play with -- forget the ones that don't make sense. Find those poems that communicate with the deepest parts of your being and welcome them in.


If you don't already have these two books, get them now!

Rethinking Schools also has fantastic resources:

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Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Randy Barron's picture
Randy Barron
Teaching Artist, Choreographer, and Dancer

Since poetry is so kinesthetic, it melds beautifully with creative dance. Try having your students choose poems that have a lot of movement potential and choreograph them in small, collaborative groups. A very nice added benefit is that you can ask them to share their dances without the text and let the observing students write poems from what they see. Then the choreographers can share their dance again, this time with the original text. You could even video the dance and try one or more of the student-written poems as dubbed-over sound to see how the choreography works with various texts. It's a natural and easy connection to make, and as you say, even the boys get into it because of the athletic challenges.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

What happens to the child who is more prose minded, or the student who prefers to create a video than to write/recite a poem? For the majority of our kids these ideas are a wonderful means of reaching out to their interests/skills, but let us not forget that all our children's interests/talents demand our respect, including the right to not engage in poetry. By all means we as educators can share our own interests/talents and perhaps inspire our children, just dont let it become a mandate hypocritical to the creative spirit of poetry.

Randy Barron's picture
Randy Barron
Teaching Artist, Choreographer, and Dancer

It's great to indulge student preference and choice, but it is also important that we help them stretch beyond their comfort zones. Everyone certainly has the "right" not to engage in any pursuit, but in a school setting, everyone also has the obligation to learn what they can from everything, regardless of personal preference.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

I respectfully disagree with the premise that educators must "stretch them beyond their comfort zones"; there is concept, "homo curaous" which contends that we are all born inquisitive learners, the world around us will stretch us, particularly in a day and age of the internet. Our job as educators thus becomes to support children exploring their areas of interest and/or talents which will naturally push far beyond our wildest dreams of stretching.

Randy Barron's picture
Randy Barron
Teaching Artist, Choreographer, and Dancer

I agree completely that we are naturally curious. Often we have the curious and the creative driven out of us by the factory school system. Children will indeed stretch themselves, but only in directions they prefer. We all prefer comfort and familiarity, but those things are also nearly always fatal to creativity and innovation. Children cannot be expected to know where to direct their talents until they try a wide variety of what life has to offer. And that includes, in my opinion, poetry.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Do we all prefer comfort & familiarity? It seems we have a divide over human nature though I'm always glad to hear from people with a slightly divergent position who agree w/ the basic tenet that we are born curious & do not need an adult to "motivate" or "engage" kids. Children will learn where to direct their talents by exploring as they see fit, in the experience of Free Schools children will ultimately try a wide variety of what life has to offer, thankfully this has become easier in the age of the internet. I certainly encourage my students & children to explore poetry when they show an interest, however in honesty, I for one have never found poetry interesting, probably b/c of my nerdy infatuation w/ solely non-fiction elongated prose.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

Both the blog post and Shelby's comment make an important point, which is that poetry is alive. Yes, it's important to learn the tools and techniques of writing powerful poetry, but not at the expense of the joy of it.

This seems like an appropriate place to share Billy Collins's Introduction to Poetry:


Norah's picture
Early childhood teacher, writer, life-long learner

Life is poetry in motion. Love the poetry you share with children, and they will share your love of poetry. Children whose lives have not been enriched by poetry have been shortchanged in the education they have received.

Katie E's picture
Katie E
passionate about cross-curricular integration

Many times students (well, all people) gain appreciation for what they NEED only when they consider it in the context of what they WANT. They may not think they need poetry until they consider how much they want good songs. I'd say that many students already like to quote relevant verses, critique artists, emulate rhythm or style, relate entire anthologies to various worldviews, and collect the work of their favorite masters. They also tend to revel in themes such as beauty/ugliness, acceptance/rejection, love/hate, leisure/work, hope/despair, and evil/justice. But when asked to use these same skills to analyze elements of poetry or literature, many teens become tone deaf. Yet a love of songs can usher students into a literary universe far beyond the confines of their mp3 earbuds.

If you like my premise, at the risk of seeming pushy (& to keep this comment from going on forever), you may like some of the teaching materials I offer at http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Well-Versed-Unit-1-Poetry-Cri...

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