As someone who reads and writes poetry, I’m unsurprisingly a big advocate for its power to engage, inform, and educate learners of all ages. Over the years, I’ve used poetry as frequently as possible while teaching elementary and middle school students. This includes both reading and discussing poetry, along with writing poetic responses and experiencing the writing process as a poet.
I do this as a way to offset the fact that poetry is underrepresented in current curricula, often fighting for space and struggling to be utilized by teachers whose own experiences of poetry at school might have been underwhelming or discouraging. I try to squeeze in mini-units of poetry whenever I can and hope that sharing my process allows others to do the same.
Here I’d like to share three fairly straightforward ways to bring poetry into the classroom in the early elementary grades.
1. Try a 1-Week Mini-Unit
Ideally, I would love to have two weeks for a unit of poetry, but a week is all I can manage in the current curriculum. Even then, I’m taking a week out of nonfiction or fiction writing units to achieve this, so it ends up being a whistle-stop tour of the poetic process.
Day 1: Introduce the poetic concept, discuss student ideas and questions, and record ideas as words or phrases in writing journals. The teacher models with their own ideas.
Day 2: Take words and phrases and develop them into complete sentences, incorporating a grammar and/or vocabulary goal from the writing unit. The teacher models with their own poetic sentences.
Day 3: Students pick their favorite sentences (at least three) and show how to edit them with more descriptive vocabulary. There’s also a focus on correctly spelling any high-frequency words. The teacher models with their own poem.
Day 4: Model how to publish the lines as a poem on the page. Students then publish their work.
Day 5: Share the work with each other as a whole class. The teacher models how to read poetry aloud.
2. Introduce Poetry with Model Texts
For my first-grade students, this is usually the first time they have written poetry. Early on, one of my students asked one of the most important questions in poetry: “What is a poem?” To answer this, I use model texts before and during the week to help the students become used to what a poem is, what it looks like, what writers focus on—language and images, etc. I also focus on the students’ independent reading and have them choose poetry books from our class library.
What I especially like about the above two books is that they take a break from the way that poetry is commonly presented to children: as lines and verses filled with rhyme and humor. While they are wonderful tools, writing a poem with rhyme has the pitfall of focusing on what words rhyme with another word. Instead, I model free verse poetry (a poem with no particular rules of rhyme or structure) that sometimes includes occasional rhyme and repetition.
The key is to focus on the words that describe images and the overall purpose of the poem. This helps students express what is in their imagination without getting tied up in form and structure—elements that they will study in the years to come.
3. Ideas for Mini-Units
1. The Secret Sounds of Spring: Our next mini-unit will combine our science unit on sound with an opinion-writing unit at the start of spring. I will take students on a poetry walk around the school to find all the secret signs of spring but focus on what they might literally and creatively sound like. An excellent prompt poem for this is Roger McGough’s “The Sound Collector.” The types of sounds we’d be listening for might be the yawning of awakening trees, the baby talk of leaf buds, and the excited chattering of birds.
2. Thankful for Poetry: The week before the Thanksgiving holiday, we took a week to create a poem about what we were grateful for in our lives. This was the first time my first-grade students had ever written a complete poem (though some had written poetic sentences with my wife, a kindergarten teacher at the same school). The week culminated in our presenting a class-created line of gratitude for the Native Americans of Oregon at our first school assembly of the year—a student’s suggestion! My model text for this unit was Chief Jake Swamp’s Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message.
3. The Spirit of Winter: The week before our winter holiday, we created poetry imagining that winter was a living creature. This connected well with our nonfiction teaching book unit in which the students had been researching a chosen animal. It allowed students to use their new scientific vocabulary and understanding as well as build longer sentences using and—a grammar goal. For this unit, I used image prompts from the internet and wrote my own sample poem.
4. The Poetry of Emotions: Toward the end of the school year, we write realistic fiction texts. For this unit, our students write poetry about their emotions. They choose an emotion and describe what that emotion looks, feels, sounds, tastes, and acts like. This exercise expands their descriptive vocabulary around a realistic subject that can be applied to the writing.
The Many Benefits of Poetry
Poetry may contain fewer words than students are used to in reading assignments, but the heightened focus on vocabulary, sentence construction, and meaning ultimately serves to heighten their writing and thinking skills.
My first-grade students enjoy seeking out and using new, complex words that we call “wow!” words. Having no required template for the poems means that students are free to explore and experiment. They surprise themselves with what they write, and their unique voice and creativity can shine. They can and will be poets.