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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.

Resources

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

Rethinking Schools also has fantastic resources:

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Shelby Creed's picture
Shelby Creed
Ninth Grade English Language Arts Teacher from Austintown, Ohio

I have been teaching poetry for years and struggled with how to get my students excited about it. WE do have the need to deconstruct, analyze and discuss poetry for state testing but I think it is also important to enjoy the poems. With this in mind I have created a "Beatnik Day" where my students prepare a poem they have written or, if they wish, a poem that they find that speaks to them on a deep level. They must write a rationale for their choice and create a visual presentation to accompany it. They then practice their poem in small groups and pairs in order to prepare for their presentation. I turn the classroom into tables with tablecloths and led candles. They eat popcorn and watch the performances of their fellow classmates. They snap...not clap for each performance. They LOVE it. This day gives them a chance to be exposed to different types of poetry in a fun atmosphere.

CC12's picture
CC12
Elementary Teacher

Very good and inspiring post. I completely agree that we need to teach poetry. It helps students find their creative side and realize that they can be creative at school too. It is also a great way to improve students vocabulary and to challenge them to find new ways of expression.

Robyn's picture
Robyn
7-12 English Teacher in Rural South Dakota

I agree with the premise of this article. So many times our students base their knowledge of poetry on stereotypes rather than exposure. Exposing my students to poetry in a variety of ways, including as Shelby posted, performances, analyzing, etc, has gotten many, if not excited, at least open to the concept of reading more than simply prose.
I particularly enjoy the days my students come to me with a song, assuring me that it fits into the lesson because "music is poetry, Ms. L." or even more, when they recommend a link to share with the class because they found an exciting performance of spoken word online.
Yes, we need this in our lives and in our classrooms.

Janet F.'s picture
Janet F.
Elementary teacher and consultant

This is so true! I used poetry all year long with my students and now in the rooms I visit and volunteer in. Elementary students easily and eagerly will learn over 40 poems by heart during the school year and enjoy more using the approach I have found. Here's the secret: make it fun, but not silly, engaging and delightful in a natural way. AND no pressure, no test, no homework and no requirement to participate, but they will!! It is so much fun to see the children learn advanced vocabulary this way and begin to understand more sophisticated language. Can be used to teach various subjects and also is a way to stronger, more intentional writing. Poetry learned by heart is fabulous and the kids who have done it love it.

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