Some elementary school teachers avoid poetry because they believe it is too difficult for students to understand, they fear that poetry is too boring to generate enthusiasm for reading and writing, or they worry that they don’t have the knowledge to teach poetry effectively. This lack of confidence and enthusiasm for poetry has led to a situation in which pupils are not inspired to read or write poetry for pleasure. What a shame!
Poetry changes the way the reader and the writer view the world. It helps students see differently, develops their critical thinking skills, and promotes personal connections. It provides many opportunities for students to define their relationship to the world and to others in it, as well as to become capable, perceptive writers. Even children who struggle with written expression and who don’t like writing, find a voice in poetry. Without opportunities to explore poetry, students may be missing out on these possibilities for growth.
Teachers committed to delivering poetry in the classroom understand the benefits because they have witnessed its power to educate, inspire and motivate. There are many ways to encourage students to embrace poetry. In my experience, the most effective method is to have students write their own poems. Following are two short lessons for plunging into poetry.
The Power of Time and Place
One technique to introduce poetic expression is preposition poems. Prepositions add description to a text by clarifying how, where, and when something is happening. In preposition poems, students begin each line with a preposition. This form is a great way to help students develop their powers of observation and description. At the same time, prepositions help young writers develop line breaks by using phrases as guides. The end result can be very poetic and lyrical.
- Introduce prepositions by reading aloud the book, Behind the Mask by Ruth Heller.
- Explain that this part of speech helps to describe objects or events in relationship to other things.
- Generate a preposition checklist with your students.
- Choose an object in the classroom and ask them to describe it using prepositions.
- Construct a shared poem using some of the phrases. It might look like this:
My Favourite Book
Across the hall
To the library
On the shelf
Against the back wall
Underneath the broken ceiling tile
Above the easy fiction
I found my favourite book
- This introductory activity will give students the confidence and knowledge to begin writing their own phrases. Ask them to choose an object or event and use the preposition checklist to describe it in as many ways as they can. When they have completed a list of 20 to 25 prepositional phrases, they can start selecting interesting prepositional phrases and arranging them to highlight a central image—chronologically, top to bottom, left to right, etc.
The Power of Rhythm and Flow
Another way to develop children’s writing is to introduce them to participles as a form of poetic expression for building rhythm and flow. In the picture book, Black Cat by Christopher Myers, participle phrases, such as “scraping paint from fire escapes” and “hearing the quiet language of invisible trains,” describe the travels of Black Cat through the urban streets.
After reading Black Cat aloud, discuss the way Myers uses the repetition of participle phrases to create rhythmic sound. To avoid too much confusion, limit the discussion to present participles— verbs used as an adjective and ending in -ing.
- In the next part of the lesson, focus on a familiar routine—like coming to school— to practise developing and using participle phrases. Examples of common phrases might include jumping out of bed, eating cereal, or closing the door.
- Use the phrases to create a shared poem.
- Once the group has completed the shared poem, students can move to writing their own participle poems. Ask them to focus on a “journey” that they take regularly, like warming up for a dance lesson, getting dressed for hockey, or going to grandma’s house. When they have compiled a list of 20 to 25 participle phrases, they can choose the most interesting ones to tell a story. One grade four student used participles to create a poem about her school lunch break.
Monkey Fun at School
Eating my sticky lunch
Wandering toward the music room
Listening to the teacher talking
Skipping outside for recess
Dashing to my favourite tree
Swinging from branch to branch like
Banging my free fist against my chest
Screaming like I’ve never screamed before
– By Teresa B
Writing poetry can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience for students, and these lessons demonstrate that poetry can be simpler than it seems for teachers
Heller, R. Behind the Mask A Book About Prepositions. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1995.
Myers, Christopher A. Black Cat. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Colderley currently teaches Grades 4 and 5 Language Arts at Pauline Johnson P. S. in Burlington, Ontario. He is a 2012 Book-In-A-Day International Fellow, and has conducted several workshops on teaching writing to junior students and using poetry in the classroom. His poetry has appeared in Inscribed Magazine, Möbius: The Poetry magazine, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Quills Poetry Magazine, and Tower Poetry.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2012 issue.