Since Covid-19, many schools have been prioritizing social and emotional intelligence, well-being, and belonging. Each morning, our classes begin with community meetings and using curriculum materials designed to help promote life and career readiness. I’m always looking for ways to introduce more opportunities for reading and experiencing poetry. Why is this?
Poetry is the ancient art form of using language to express the human condition and the human heart. There are many wonderful poems expressing every facet of what it means to be alive, to have emotional experiences, to feel and think. Therefore, poetry is the natural companion for any program rightly looking to develop students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Poetry has been doing this in societies around the world for thousands of years.
Introducing Poetry and Emphasizing Attention to Detail
Prior to starting this work, I’d already used poetry to begin the year and help the students set goals for their personal growth. I also managed to squeeze in some haiku poems by famous Japanese poets Basho and Issa to help stimulate student interest. I discovered right away that my students had little experience reading and reacting to poems, so this reinforced my instinct to use shorter works.
I structured the introduction of a poem in the following nine-part manner, which is a condensed version of the process I use when analyzing poems:
- Read the poem once with no commentary. I tell my students it takes at least two hearings of a poem to start to see it in your mind’s eye.
- Read the poem a second time.
- Ask the students if there are any words they don’t understand. I find this a vital teaching tool at the start of the year, as I want students to be confident enough to ask questions, to tell me what they don’t know and help inform each other.
- Reread the poem one final time if there are a lot of new words.
- Ask the students what their favorite image in the poem is and why. The explanation can be limited at first, so try to encourage personal connections to their own lives or wider reading.
- Ask the students what words stand out to them and why.
- Ask the students if they notice anything about the form of the poem. Generally, I find that students are developing the vocabulary to talk about structure and poetic devices, and it requires time in reading lessons to do this. However, some poems, such as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams, have a strong visual component that students love observing. (Hint: the verses look like an object described in the poem.)
- Ask the students what the poem means to them. Try to avoid asking what the writer meant by the poem. This is a common trap that teachers fall into, and poets will tell you this isn’t important. Poetry is, after all, an art form in which the writer shares an experience with the reader and the reader takes from it what they want or can.
- Repeat the above as often as you can. Trust that the more you do it, the more students will participate and become comfortable with this kind of conceptual thinking.
Matching Poems to SEL Learning Goals
After that mini-poetry project, I began planning for the next week’s community meeting lesson. During this I was always thinking: What poems could match the central goals and help introduce the topic? How can poetry help inspire the kind of deeper thinking that’s required of my students? It’s sometimes a challenge to get there, given that this work is scheduled for 7:45–8:00 every morning, when students are yawning, digesting breakfast, and wishing they were still back in bed.
I want the poems to be relatively short, given the narrow span of time; diverse in their authors; and accessible in their content. The poem has to be immediately understood—this isn’t a poetry analysis lesson. Below are some examples of this matching exercise.
Building connections in our class community: “Remember,” by Joy Harjo, the first Native American to become the United States Poet Laureate. I used a beautiful new picture book version of this poem that evokes wonder at how we are all connected and precious.
Sharing and recording unique dreams for your future: “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” by W.B. Yeats. As the poem refers to treading softly on dreams, I had the students record their dreams on templates of feet and put them up on display.
How to ask for and offer help to each other: “Helping Hand,” by Czech poet Miroslav Holub. The short poem considers the pros and cons of helping people throughout human history.
Rituals in our home life: “Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders,” by Gary Short. The poem refers to an activity at recess that became a ritual for the writer and his class.
Understanding that we all like and dislike different things: “Boy and Egg,” by the Poetry Foundation’s former Young People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye. The poem is about a boy who is different to his friends, sensitive to the delicate aspects of nature.
Keeping Poetry Prominent
I will continue using poetry in this manner the entire school year. This way, I’m able to blend a little piece of powerful literature in with SEL content. I feel this is a small victory in my ongoing battle to keep poetry alive in our school system, which is under pressure to deliver results, fill in gaps, and deal with so many issues in modern society. Poetry has always been and can still be a vital tool to help with the latter. Poetry can help students develop emotional intelligence and social skills; expand students’ use of oral and written language; inspire students to become deeper, critical thinkers; help us all become better versions of ourselves. This is why poetry and education are a perfect match.