Since I’m a poet as well as an elementary school teacher, I’m always keen to show how poetry develops students’ creative writing skills, expressive communication, and emotional intelligence. As a form of writing with few words that must be well chosen, poetry is ideal for English language learners. And the richness of the language and complexity of the imagery make poetry a wonderful way to help confident writers continue to develop.
Poetry can be used to explore any subject, fiction or nonfiction, and when they use it on a regular basis, children realize that being a poet is, like being a scientist or artist or mathematician, part of the natural human condition. However, it can often be a struggle to fit poetry in among big fiction and nonfiction units of study, which, like hungry predators, gobble up the curriculum time and the literacy focus. So the question is: How can you regularly feature poetry in your teaching?
In the last academic year, I started experimenting with introducing mini-units of poetry once every six to eight weeks, coinciding with the start of a new unit of study. The mini-units are around four or five lessons long and always focus on free-verse, non-rhyming poetry. Free verse has no particular rules about line lengths, rhythm, or rhyme. There are many different forms of poetry to discover, but young students need the freedom to act poetically. These mini-units are perfect straight after holidays and/or for introducing new topics and writing skills in a creative and accessible manner.
Read examples of free verse with your students to challenge the restrictive idea that poetry has to rhyme. While rhyme is useful for developing language, a slavish devotion to it reduces the act of expressing powerful emotions and thoughts to straining to find a word that rhymes with orange.
Lesson 1: Go on a poetry walk. A poetry walk is a walk around an environment to collect ideas. I often use a planning frame that helps focus students on what they can see, hear, and feel—physically and emotionally. Each student collects their own ideas, with the teacher modeling how to look at the world with an inquisitive, poetic eye. Have students write their ideas in notes or fragments to encourage speed and output.
Lesson 2: Write up the best ideas as improved sentences. This lesson is important in modeling how writers take ideas and create rich, descriptive sentences. Working recently with Grade 4 on poetry about how early summer expresses itself, I created a new strategy whereby students write the basic sentence and leave clear gaps for new adjectives and adverbs. They then go back and add the improved language and, as the sentences grow longer, conjunctions and commas. Previously I would have had the students edit in the space above the initial sentences, but leaving gaps instead serves to better visually register the need for wider vocabulary, and it help students maintain neater writing. Students are often amazed at how quickly their writing improves at this stage.
Lesson 3: Write a poem. Next I show the students how to turn their sentences into a poem. I model rewriting the sentences using line breaks. I show how poets have many choices about how to lay out a poem and explain that the key thing is allow time for the reader to appreciate each image. The result is breaking a sentence over several lines, creating verses. This helps builds an awareness of rhythm and poetic form but, being free verse, leaves a lot of room for personal interpretation.
Lesson 4: Read aloud. Being originally in human history and culture a verbal form, poetry deserves to be read aloud. This requires those listening to focus on being an attentive, appreciative audience, and the reader to focus on developing their confidence in expressing themselves. Often students are initially shy to share their work, but there are always some brave souls, and if you model positive feedback at this stage, most students will want to have their turn on the stage.
Lesson 5: Repeat one of the above. There is room in the week for an extra lesson of any of the above, but I usually give lesson 2 more time as it is so worth developing those key sentence-level skills.
These mini-units will have students begin to see themselves as poets with a voice worth expressing and listening to. If this process is repeated throughout the year and across grades, a real culture of poetry could be generated. My dream is to achieve this at a school and have students feel that being a poet is just another wonderful facet to being a well-rounded, creative citizen of the world.