Vida, what can students learn from reading/writing poetry that they might not be able to learn from other forms of writing, or for that matter, other forms of art?
Poetry is so attractive, lending itself for pure enjoyment of reading it and enjoying the poetic language, rhythm, and feelings conveyed. I am sure many teachers would agree that poetry is the most suitable form of writing to introduce figurative language, develop reading fluency including expressive reading, encourage imagination, and introduce new vocabulary from different content areas in an artistic way. Its variety allows students with a wide range of reading abilities and interests to enjoy reading in a non-threatening way. I want my students to learn that poetry can feed their souls with a special “food” it offers in abundance: imagery, rhythm, music, language, play, expressions, and that it can also be a seed from which their poetic souls can rise and grow to unimaginable heights.
What books do you particularly enjoy sharing with your students? Why do you particularly enjoy sharing these titles? Can you give a few specific examples from a book or two?
When I was taking classes toward my master's degree in literacy education, I was introduced to a variety of master poets and writers. Thanks to my professors Dr. Terrell Young (for all literature and all reading classes) and Dr. Sylvia Vardell (poetry class), I was totally immersed in an enormous number of fabulous books that just swelled my soul and mind with superior writing craft and beauty of language and form. Books by Ralph Fletcher, Janet Wong, Sharon Creech, Georgia Herd, Nikki Grimes, Langston Hughes, Paul Janaczko, Douglas Florian, Jack Prelutsky, to name just a few, became a regular part of the Poetry Bag that I carry with me to school, to conferences, meetings, and teacher trainings, sharing my excitement with my students, colleagues and other audiences.
It is difficult to pull out a couple of books that I prefer over others. I can only say that Ralph Fletcher’s superior, honest, clear writing craft and his way of sharing poetic imagery through simple and yet strong word choice is the most appealing to me. When I read poetry to my students, I read from his books first, so that they can experience my connectedness to this poet's work, and I usually explain this to my students.
For example, I tell my students how I felt the first time I read the poem "Wind" from Ralph Fletcher’s book Ordinary Things: Poems from a Walk in Early Spring: It was early spring, 2007. It was just about nine years since my family had arrived to the U.S.A. Nostalgia hits hardest in the spring because of familiar things and events related to spring in my country. Fragrances of blooming herbs on the hills around my city, the fragrance of early almond tree blossoms that filled my senses with everlasting memories, the wind that was cold and felt like it did not belong to that place at that time but still felt familiar and dear…and then I came across the poem "Wind." And I read it and reread it several times and stopped only in disbelief that there was someone living in New Hampshire who somehow felt “my” spring and wind from across the ocean the same exact way I did and was able to translate these feelings into such a beautiful and powerful poem.
After I talked about this poem and the connections I made reading it, I ask my fifth graders to talk to their peers at the table about similarly strong feelings they have about something important to them and then to write a poem about it. I had wonderful creative responses such as the following one:
THE TWO SIDES
When I was little,
My mother would say,
“I wish your uncle could come!”
And she’d sigh.
“Who is my uncle,” I’d ask.
“He is a wonderful, delightful man,
she would say,
and her eyes would fill up with tears,
and her face would frown.
“Can I go to see him, I’d ask
And mom would look up and say,
“It is so far.”
“How far, “I wouldn’t give up.
It is like two sides of the world,
My brother is on one side
And we are far away
on the other side.
You’ll see him
Some other time,”
“No, I want to see him now,
My sides are both sides,”
I said, and mom looked at me.
And she knew I was going to go…
She let me go during winter break
To see my uncle because
she realized that I DO have
two equally important sides
and that I don’t give up easily.
Please describe some of the poetry activities you do with your students. Can you speak to your students’ reactions/responses to these activities?
I incorporate poetry into my teaching every day. The Poem of the Day is read after the Pledge of Allegiance is recited. Sometimes it’s related to an approaching holiday, sometimes to a season, the weather, a unit I’m teaching, or it is just so beautiful that I simply must share it. The students are invited to share their poetry or poetry they find in books that they'd like to share, as well.
I established an Annual Poetry Contest in the two schools where I worked since starting to work as a teacher in the U.S. From Nov. 1 through Nov. 30 , students are asked to turn in up to three poems (topic, format, or language of their choosing). Then, a committee of 5-6 teachers evaluates the entries, and 12 poems are chosen for the school poetry calendar. The winning poets and their families are invited to a Family Poetry night organized in their honor. The winners read their poems and their families are invited are invited to read some of the poems. It always turns into poetry celebration. The students receive a free calendar and a free poetry book, bookmarks, poetry notebooks, pencils.
Two years ago, I sent 30 poems written and illustrated by my students to the publishing company and our first poetry book named We Are Comets, We Are Poets! (Our school’s mascot is a shooting comet!) was published in spring of 2010.
Last year, out of 372 entries for the contest, in addition to the 12 poems chosen for the Poetry Calendar, 64 poems were chosen for the Poetry Quilt that is permanently displayed in our library. The winning students received their free copy of a book, a reception, and a pizza party in the library.
Also last year, during the month of April (Poetry Month), I ran a variation of Poetry Slam in our library. The students were to find and practice their favorite poem and come to the library after they eat lunch to compete in performing poetry. The activity was well attended every time and the students asked if we can continue with it after the poetry month is over.
Several colleagues at my school are poetry lovers too who incorporate poetry in their teaching on a regular basis. They and many others are supportive of what I am doing in the library and willing to help, which is very significant in showing students that we all value poetry as an important part of reading, learning, and enjoying language. Others are appreciative and willing to try when I approach them with ideas or ask them to encourage their students to read and write poetry. The students are receptive and willing to try writing or sharing poems.
Recently, my colleague and I started a Reading Blog with her second-grade class. I post a question to the second graders, and they come together as a class to answer my question. Their excitement and learning motivation are enormous. At this time, they are gathering powerful words from their reading material so that they are ready to write poetry. The students make a list of quality adjectives and strong verbs they find in the books they are reading, and then they write their poems in writing journals. Then, the students turn their poems in to the teacher, and she posts them on our blog. My colleague reports that this activity has incredibly stirred up enthusiasm for both reading and writing in all her students. And I noticed the same in the library. They dash to the shelves with poetry books; they are leaders in discussing poetic language and poets' craft; and they write fantastic poems. In all, there are endless possibilities. It only takes an enthusiastic, knowledgeable teacher who is willing to explore. And I truly believe that most of us are just that.
The activities/events above are just some of the many I incorporate into my library's everyday life.
What has been most surprising to you about incorporating poetry teaching into your curriculum?
I know that if we look through history of great poetry, male poets considerably outnumber females. Even if we add in great female poets who may have been ignored because of society's perception of "woman's place" of the time, we are still left with the fact that men showed their ability to be great poets. Despite this, it was to my surprise that boys would take on the invitation to perform poetry in front of an audience and to write poetry as easily and willingly as they did (because of the stereotype that perceives poetry as a “girly” thing). Generally, the boys start shyly, but when encouraged and given a lot of examples of wonderful poems by great poets, they loosen up and become leaders in poetry writing and performing.
(check back tomorrow when Vida shares some favorite resources, including poetry blogs!)