Kwame Alexander and Chris Colderley explain why we need to read and write more poetry in (and outside of) the classroom
I tried to do the same thing for her when I was twelve.
I hadn’t saved my allowance so I couldn’t purchase a Mother’s Day card, let alone a gift. I decided to write a poem instead. It wasn’t great. (The first line was “I hate Mother’s Day.”) The funny thing was that when she read it, she simultaneously smiled and cried (a river). The rainbow of emotion on her face was incredibly inspiring. My little poem brought her so much joy, and that made me want to continue writing, to continue to make words dance. Since then, I’ve spent my life expressing the wonders and woes of life through verse.
A poem is a small but powerful thing. It has the power to reach inside you, to ignite something in you, and to change you in ways you never imagined. There is a feeling of connection and communion—with the author and with the subject—when we read a poem that articulates our deepest feelings. That connection can be a vehicle on the road to creativity and imagination. Poems are the human soul condensed for our pleasure. When done right, they can inspire us—in our classrooms and in our homes—to write our own journeys, to find our own voices.
Why We Need More Poetry
Northrop Frye (2002) claimed, “Poetry is the most direct and simple means of expressing oneself in words” (p. 58). Yet poetry is not given as much attention as it deserves. It is a genre that is neglected throughout elementary and high school, as well as in teacher-education courses (Certo, Apol, Wibbens, & Yoon, 2010). There are many reasons (and excuses) why more poetry is not in classrooms. Many teachers lack the confidence to teach poetry, because they lack the experience in and knowledge of the field. Reid (2006) says teachers “believe they have not been prepared to teach poetry. Lack of experience, lack of preparation, and lack of confidence quickly add up to lack of interest if not complete apathy” (p. 9). The disappearance of poetry from classrooms has generated a cycle of indifference among students (Parr & Campbell, 2006). Morag Styles, professor of children’s poetry at the University of Cambridge, suggests “the lack of confidence of generations of teachers in tackling poetry has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as pupils are not inspired to read it for pleasure” (2011).
During one of my very first author visits, I remember a high school English teacher warning me that her students may not be engaged in, or responsive to, my presentation, as many of them abhorred poetry. I asked her if she taught poetry, and she shared that she had taught it begrudgingly, as it was not her favorite either. I could relate.
When I was in high school, I was disinterested in the poetry we learned in AP English. It was inaccessible, unrelatable, and, quite frankly, boring. That is not to say that it was not valuable, because it was; these were the literary stalwarts of the canon, after all. True, we were learning, but our human souls weren’t being moved in some significant way. And if you want a student to be moved by poetry, if you want to be moved by poetry, then you must share poetry with which you connect on an emotional level.
So many of us have been immersed, since grade school, in so much staid and incomprehensible poetry that we feel disconnected from it, often scared by it. We’ve been taught that in order to understand a poem, we must first dissect it (we dissect frogs, not poetry), and so we’ve never felt what poetry feels like. We’ve never developed a sense of joy from reading between the lines. We’ve never smiled like the sun. We’ve never cried a river. I say poetry is a ladder, and we should carefully and intentionally take each step, and work our way up. This way, we are more apt to find our way to a higher appreciation of language and literature.
There are a plethora of good reasons for teaching poetry in schools. Faced with the demands of data-driven decision making and a cacophony of instructional practices, teachers have to discern the approaches that will have the greatest impact on student engagement and learning, as well as on growth (Holbrook, 2005). Poetry instruction offers a range of possibilities for improving reading and writing and increasing student motivation (Cecil, 1994; Routman, 2001). For the purposes of this article, we will focus on improved writing.
And I Have You
Rain has drops
Sun has shine
Moon has beams
That make you mine
Rivers have banks
Sands for shores
Hearts have heartbeats
That make me yours
Needles have eyes
Though pins may prick
Elmer has glue
To make things stick
Winter has Spring
Pepper has mint
To make it sweet
Teachers have lessons
Soup du jour
Lawyers sue bad folks
All and all
This much is true
You have me
And I have you
— Nikki Giovanni (used with permission of the author)
The Writing Benefit
In 2006, I started Book-in-a-Day, a student-run publishing and poetry program. The program was built with the belief that students can become engaged writers and avid readers when they assume complete responsibility for becoming authors. Poetry became the primary vehicle for this project because its inherent conciseness was less intimidating to even the most reluctant writers. In addition, it allowed students to produce a piece of work within the constraint of a five-hour workshop.
Since the program’s inception, students have written and published more than 70 books of poetry. A few have gone on to publish other books (one wrote a novel at age 17 and received a book-publishing deal from Simon & Schuster), and most have developed a level of writerly confidence that I believe poetry encourages. Through poetry we can tap into students’ emotional intelligence, and we can connect with them in powerful ways, both academically and socially.
Poetry is a tool that facilitates and improves student writing in many ways. It uses carefully chosen words to express emotions, feelings, and ideas in ways that prose cannot. Over the years, countless students—reluctant writers—in the Book-in-a-Day workshops have embraced poetry simply because it “looks easy.”
Poetry engages students in writing in ways that other genres do not. Because poetry does not have the same demands as prose, it offers students greater freedom to express themselves through writing (Routman, 2001). The shorter form and the relaxation of grammar rules give young writers the chance to convey feelings and experiences without the restrictions of other writing forms. The scope of poetry also allows students to express themselves in many different ways by experimenting with different styles and forms. Success with poetry writing can create enthusiasm that then makes other writing tasks feel more manageable.
Poetic elements also are present in all forms of communication. Poetry develops knowledge of the way words can accomplish various effects. The ability to use accurate and precise language is a talent that can increase competency in situations demanding high levels of communication and reasoning (Shuman, 1993).
Students are most successful when teachers begin by demonstrating strategies for reading and writing poetry. Modeling reading and writing processes through think alouds and explicit teaching gives students exposure to the vocabulary and thinking skills needed to move past superficial judgments to a deeper awareness and understanding of poetry. Further demystifying poetry through the gradual release of responsibility—read alouds, group sharing, and independent reading—prepares students to take risks as they assume greater self-sufficiency for learning.
In my workshops, I try to facilitate new forms of expression by selecting and sharing rhymed and unrhymed poems. Students need many opportunities to explore literary devices—such as alliteration, metaphor, onomatopoeia, and simile—as interesting ways of describing the world. They also have to practice using line breaks, enjambment, and repetition to add poignancy and interest to their writing. There are many mentor texts that provide students with new forms to express themselves.
“Lemon Tree,” by Jennifer Clement, is a good example of poetry that does not rhyme. Instead, Clement uses careful word choice to appeal to the senses and to create vivid images for the reader.
If you climb a lemon tree
feel the bark
under your knees and feet,
smell the white flowers,
rub the leaves
in your hands,
the tree is older than you are,
and you might find stories
in its branches.
— Jennifer Clement (Used with permission of the author)
Students can use this text as a guide to create their own “If you” poems. The first step is to pick a familiar item and list some smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and feelings associated with it. Using the poem above as a model, the students organize their sense phrases into an “If you,” poem.
We conclude each of our Book-in-a-Day workshops with an open mic, where each student is able to share original work. The sharing component creates a sense of pride and of enthusiasm for poetry, and gives students the confidence to move on to other poems or genres. Also, students that struggle with comprehension and composition acquire understanding and insight from talking about and sharing poetry with others.
If you find a grilled cheese sandwich
Touch the warm bread with your fingers
And feel the crispy crust
Watch gooey cheese
Smell the buttery bread
Taste it all come together
— Dylan H. (fourth grade) Book-in-a-Day (2012)
I may not have struggled with composition, but I definitely struggled with cool. That’s right, cool! Once, I met a young woman at a book signing. She looked smart, dressed classy, and smiled a lot. And, to top it off, she’d purchased my book. She came up to the table for an autograph and I was spellbound. Words failed me (kinda ironic, right?). I lacked the confidence to let her know just how I felt in that moment: I was crushing. We exchanged email addresses and I did what any self-respecting poet would do:
I could autograph
on yr tongue
write each letter
Have you sing
I could autograph
After she read the poem I’d written her, she sent me an email that said, “Here’s my number, give me a ring.” And a few years later—get this—she married me. Poetry works, people. It worked for me, and it can work for you. Perfect (1999) claims poetry “nurtures a love and appreciation for the sound and power of language. Poetry can help us see differently, understand ourselves and others, and validate our human experience. It… enhances thinking skills, and promotes personal connections… Such attributes deserve a closer look” (p. 728).
Come see for yourself.
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Kwame Alexander is a poet, an educator, author of 18 books, and recipient of the 2015 Newbery Medal for his novel The Crossover. The founder of two literacy organizations, Book-in-a-Day and LEAP for Ghana, he regularly travels the world presenting writing and publishing programs at schools and conferences. Kwame has owned several publishing companies, written for stage and television (TLC’s Hip Hop Harry), recorded a CD, produced jazz and book festivals, hosted a radio show, worked for the U.S. government, and taught high school. In 2015, Kwame served as the Bank Street College of Education’s first writer-in-residence. Look for his new resource coming this fall from Scholastic Professional: Kwame Alexander’s Page-to-Stage Writing Workshop: Awakening the Writer, Publisher, and Presenter in Every Student. Visit him at KwameAlexander.com.
Chris Colderley is a poet and elementary school teacher in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. He was awarded a 2012 Book-in-a-Day fellowship to study and write in Bahia, Brazil. His articles and poems have appeared in Inscribed Magazine, Möbius: The Poetry Magazine, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Teach Magazine, and Tower Poetry. He is the co-author, along with Kwame Alexander, of the forthcoming children’s book Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets and Poetry.