As many teachers know, poetry can be a tough nut to crack in any classroom. The formal structure of poetry is something we don’t come across in everyday language, and the richly descriptive language of poetry can make it difficult for students. In addition, young people may not see the relevance of poetry in their own lives.
But as teachers, you can use the very things that make poetry challenging — its structure, the precision of its language and young learners’ unfamiliarity with it — to create inspiring lessons around language, culture and self-expression that help students progress as writers. As April is National Poetry Month, here are a few ways to use poetry to increase students’ cultural competence and enrich their learning:
1. Show students they are surrounded by poetic language. We can help students connect with poetry by reminding them that the songs they listen to are poetry, but set to music. When I was a teacher, my eighth graders and I read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 and discussed the similarities and differences between the sonnet and Bruno Mars’ song “Just the Way You Are.” It was thrilling for them to discover the connections of a contemporary pop song and a poem written more than 500 years ago, with a message that all of them could understand: love makes people beautiful.
2. Encourage students to use their own words — and their first language, if they are English language learners — to express themselves through the poetry. Poetry’s perceived rigidity can also prove advantageous. Having students rely on poetry’s formal aspects provides them with the structure they need to create highly expressive poems that are infused with their own personal voices and varied cultural experiences. Biopoems and Diamante poems work well in both elementary and middle grade classrooms. I encouraged my English language learners to use both English and their first language so they could easily express themselves, as exemplified here: “Hija de la luna...who fears war, muerte, and spiders…”
3. Use personalization strategies to stay relevant. My English language arts co-teacher used the book “If You’re Not from the Prairie” to inspire students to create a variation of a bio-poem in which students began their poem, “If you’re not …” Our students ran with this idea, and we ended up with a poignant and multicultural collection of poems. Students pored over copies of Red Hot Salsa, Paint Me Like I Am and You Hear Me? for inspiration.
4. Use blended poetry to connect better with students. In our unit about the Holocaust and human rights, we used materials from the Teaching Tolerance kit built around the Oscar-winning documentary “One Survivor Remembers.” Our students, many of whom are immigrants, used Gerda Weissmann Klein’s tale of loss and survival and of separation from family and country, to craft personal poems that connected the character’s own words with their own. This activity resulted in a global lesson in which students revealed their feelings of empathy toward someone from a different time and culture, and saw their own lives reflected in her experiences.
5. Publish your students’ poetry. As copy editor and compiler of these books, I noticed that even students who were normally reluctant writers continued to want to make finishing touches on their work. One of my most rewarding experiences as a teacher was to see my students excitedly passing their poetry books back and forth, looking for their poems and those of their friends. The poetry our students created instilled them with a sense of purpose, pride and ownership.
Are you inspired by the idea of a lesson or unit to celebrate National Poetry Month? Edutopia has great resources for teachers looking for ideas. The Poetry Foundation also has a lot of resources, including a large poetry database that you can sort by theme, interviews with poets and more. Colorín Colorado features an interview with bilingual, bi-national poet Francisco X. Alarcón, whose work will inspire the young poets in your classroom.
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