Breathe Life into All of Your Lessons with Poetry
by Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg
In my classroom, poetry is the river of life that runs through everything we do. While some may find it one of the easiest and most convenient items to trim from an already packed curriculum, I search for places in every unit where I can add poetry that supports and fortifies all aspects of my English and language arts classroom instruction.
If you think about it, poetry is the one facet of our content area that encompasses all of our core teaching benchmarks: reading and literary analysis; writing and conventions of language; speaking and listening. It’s all right there in each concise, deliberately selected and crafted group of words that we call poetry. If only we could harness a poem’s power and unleash it to reinforce the lessons that we already teach in our classroom…
It is possible.
Since becoming a PA Writing Fellow back in 2000, teaching poetry is one of my absolute favorite things to do in the classroom with kids of any age. Until that one intensive summer so long ago, I think I felt a little… intimidated by poetry, even as an adult. I mean, what if my interpretation of a poem was completely different from what the teacher’s guide said? And how on earth can you possibly place a grade on a child’s emotions that he or she was brave enough to put down on paper? What I’ve learned is that poetry isn’t just about hearts, flowers and sunshine. It’s not just something girls do in their private notebooks or that old men wrote long ago in language we can’t understand. Poetry breathes with the essence of life. (I know, that sounded so poetic, right?) Seriously, though, it can breathe life into your existing lessons, too. We need to reclaim our classrooms and establish a culture where myriad forms of the written and spoken word are valued as potential opportunities to deepen understanding of our content (as well as all content areas in the humanities).
Because I love poetry so much, I always start out the school year writing poetry. It helps me to get to get to know my students, and, frankly, it’s a great way to set the bar for expectations for the year. With my eighth graders, we start off with Six Word Memoirs (www.sixwordmemoirs.com) and two versions of the “I Am” poem. Students self-select the one they feel most comfortable with. One choice has the traditional stems or line-starters, but the twist is that they have to select one specific setting or moment in time to form a cohesive poem from beginning to end, instead of just linking random thoughts. The other choice has different line-starters, and is more of an extended metaphor. With my seventh graders, we start out by analyzing a PAWLP favorite, Gerald Stern’s poem, Saying the First Words (1984), and then I model writing a class poem using the common line-starters from the poem before they write about their own wildest dream.
Teaching poetry is more than just following formulas and writing from pre-determined stems. There is so much to be learned beyond the poem itself. Later on in the year, I do a poetry mini unit to give my students an opportunity to explore various methods of writing free verse poetry, and to submit for publication. In addition, teaching poetry recitation in this unit great practice for our speeches and debates in the spring.
Because poetry is generally a more concise written form, every decision that a poet makes matters. Word choices, white space, punctuation, things said, and things left unsaid– With the right mentor poem, all of these are opportunities to teach voice and conventions, and that translates into any genre of writing. For example, I specifically incorporate poetry to teach the use of ellipsis to articulate omission in informational writing or hesitation in narrative, and I use it to teach the use of commentary (or em) dash and colon as a way to highlight something important in our writing. I also use poems to demonstrate how the hyphen (or en dash) can join individual words to create unique just-the-right-word adjectives.
As a rule, poetry is designed to be impactful in some way. It should be both expressive and creative, and its content should also hold meaning within the words and beyond them. Poems can help us understand other cultures, other eras, other circumstances than what we experience in our daily lives. By drawing on common emotions, poems can also help us understand others and empathize as people with a common humanity. Pairing poems with current events, historical speeches, non-fiction texts, short stories, or excerpts from novels they are reading offers an incredible and natural starting point for discussion. With coaching, kids can learn to think about, comprehend and express common or even conflicting themes and perspectives on similar topics. Through this repeated experience, they learn to engage in deep discussions drawing connections between and among various texts for support. I always include at least one poem in our materials as we prepare for Paideia or Socratic Seminars. I find that pairing poems with other genres of text help my students connect to the material or topic on a deeper, more personal level.
According to the Poet Warriors Project (www.poetwarriorsproject.org), poetry can be useful to teach others; it can empower others to make change; it can create change in a peaceful, powerful way. But the most important change it will create is in yourself. This is absolutely true for both teachers and students.
It’s time we stop being afraid of poetry and of the murmurs of discontent that we are certain will arise from our students at the mere mention of the word. Instead, we’ve got to start making poetry more accessible to our students by including it as a part of our everyday lessons. With increased exposure to close reading, analyzing, listening, speaking and writing poetry, students become less intimidated by its structure, and they learn to embrace it as a form of communication that can forge understanding and empathy of personal situations and feelings, and one that can also serve as a bridge through time that reveals struggles and celebrations throughout history and circumstances from a more personal perspective.
Even if you don’t feel super-comfortable teaching poetry, National Poetry Month is the perfect excuse to dig in, get your hands a little dirty, and experiment with the possibilities right alongside your students!
Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg is an experienced teacher, writer and consultant who is fascinated by behavioral economics and thrives on inspiring students to think critically by connecting their studies to the world around them. In her two decades of middle schoolteaching, she has guided hundreds of students on their journeys to becoming published authors. Vicki is inspired by the students and teachers she meets, and she enjoys speaking at conferences and providing workshops for teachers, writing groups and classrooms. Becoming a PAWLP Fellow in 2000 changed her life forever! Check out her new book, The Author’s Apprentice, and follow her on Twitter @VMeigsK.