Literacy

The Power of Poetry in Primary Classrooms

March 4, 2015
Illio of a hand and arm in a suit holding a feather quill pen

There are many modern poets saying valid and beautiful things about the world, but few people are buying their books. Walk around any book shop and you might struggle to find the typically tiny poetry section. The art of poetry remains something literary, academic, and removed from ordinary reading habits. Yet poets go to great lengths to demonstrate that poetry is diverse, accessible, and relevant. After all, song and rap lyrics are widely-loved forms of poetry. There is also poetry, as they rightly point out, in text and Twitter feeds.

Beyond Forced Rhyme

However, if you ask most teaching colleagues and parents to share memories of learning about poetry, they recall, often with pained expressions, intensely studying a small number of poets in high school, where they had to analyze poems word by word. They will also talk about the type of rhyming poetry learned in elementary school.

Rhyme is an excellent way for young children to develop an awareness of language, phonic patterns, and rhythms. The problem is that children's experience of poetry is so dominated by rhyme that when they come to write, they are distracted by the need to create rhyming couplets. It comes as a surprise to them that poetry does not have to rhyme.

Despite poetry being a required writing form in most curriculums, it is often rushed and sometimes abandoned altogether due to inevitable pressure on the timetable. This is a tragic shame given the many benefits of teaching poetry. Here are my top five:

  1. Poetry broadens reading choices, as there are numerous excellent poetic picture books and poetry collections.
  2. This distilled form of writing naturally focuses on sentence-level skills with its purposeful selection of adjectives, adverbs, powerful verbs, specific nouns, etc.
  3. This makes poetry a perfect writing form to study immediately after holiday breaks when students typically show regression in the quality of written and spoken communication.
  4. Being such a small amount of writing, poetry is less intimidating for writers new to English. Along with storytelling, it has given my English as an additional language (EAL) students their first opportunity to write English and orally share their writing.
  5. Poetry can be written about any subject, imaginary or factual; about personal experiences or concepts; about emotions or facts.

10 Poetic Days

My poetry units typically take around two weeks of daily, hour-long poetry lessons. I teach free or blank verse forms that have no rhyming patterns and no special rules about numbers of lines or line breaks. My focus is on language choice and authentic, personal expression. I would break those two weeks down into the following flexible sections:

  • Days 1-2: Immerse students in studying model poetry texts. Children borrow poetry texts for home reading during the whole unit.
  • Day 3: Identify the writing skills to focus on (for example) similes, alliteration, imagery, etc. Begin practicing these skills with language games.
  • Days 4-5: Plan for this section by gathering ideas from around the world. Share work in progress with peers and with teacher-student conferencing throughout.
  • Days 6-7: Model how to develop the ideas into quality sentences with well-chosen language.
  • Days 8-9: Model forming the finished verses, thinking about line breaks, and reading with expression, while editing along the way.
  • Day 10: Share and celebrate with an outside audience, such as other classes and parents.

One of my favourite activities is taking the children on a poetry walk. This can happen in the first week, and it involves leaving the classroom and walking around the school or visiting local parks, museums, or art galleries. We seek out inspiration by using our senses in a kinesthetic manner. If you're studying "energy," then go out and find it in the world around you. One eight-year-old Turkish-German student first saw himself as a writer when he wrote poetically about the energy of a coin falling through the slot of a canteen snack machine.

The Colors of Poetry

They say the best gifts come in small packages. Poetry is that gift, so I want to end with a present from some of my students here in China. We just completed a unit that explored feelings, thoughts, people, and places associated with colour. Below are selected verses from longer poems by five students that reflect the range of ability in my class. Every student here has English as a second language, and the first verse is by a boy who has just started writing in English. I have replicated the verses exactly as written. Enjoy!

Red is the colour
of the little camp fire
angry burning in big
green forest.
Blue is the colour of
the beautiful eye shadow
sparkling on my mom's lovely eye
because it looks nice and pretty.
Red is the colour of the
tasty strawberry jam on the clean table
nearly falling down like the wind
because it is placed bad on the sharp edge.
Purple is the colour of
the beautiful miniature
butterfly
that is flying slowly
around a huge, tall tree
because she is finding
food.
Yellow is the colour
of the squishy sponge
relaxing calmly
at the of the
bottom
deep
dark ocean.
I bet the ocean is bored of him.