Using Poetry throughout the Curriculum

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    Using Poetry

    throughout the


    Polly Collins is an Assistant Professor and Co-Advisor for the Alpha Alpha Omega Chapter of KDP at Muskingum College. She is following her first career of 32 years as a classroom teacher with a new careereducating teacher candidates. Her teaching and research interests focus on literacy instruction.

    The Heart of the Tree Henry Cuyler Bunner (n.d.)

    What does he plant who plants a tree? He plants the friend of sun and sky;

    He plants the flag of breezes free; The shaft of beauty, towering high. He plants a home to heaven anigh

    For song and mother-croon of birdIn hushed and happy twilight heard The treble of heavens harmony These things he plants who plants a tree.

    A poem such as this may arouse the emotions connected to the science of ecology. Through those emotional con-nections, the poem creates a more personally meaningful and relevant study of ecology.

    Poetry and the Creation of MeaningPoetry is an excellent tool for encouraging deep interac-tion with text and meaningful response to reading. Poetry allows humans to express deep emotional responses in powerful ways. As text is read, Rosenblatt (1978) theo-rized, the creation of meaning involves the reader, the author, and the text. The meaning of a poem (or any other type of text) is created through the interaction of the poets experiences, knowledge, and written words with the readers experiences and knowledge.

    When students are reading a content-area textbook, they are using their experiences and knowledge, interacting with the text, and generally seeking information or look-ing for a solution to a problem. Those students, reading a poem on the same topic, will use their own experiences and knowledge in a much different manner. They will focus on the words and sounds of the poem and respond emotionally to the images that their interaction with the poem creates.

    Providing students with poetry as well as nonfiction reading on a topic deepens the students involvement with that topic. For instance, a student may read about metamorphosis from a textbook and learn that there are stages through which a butterfly grows from egg to adult. That student has read the text for the purpose of seeking information. Imagine the same student interacting with a piece of poetry about the change from larva to butterfly.

    by Polly Collins

    Incorporating poetry across content areas provides students with opportu-nities to make connections.In the content areas, poetry encourages interest, insight, and understanding. It is like no other form of written word in its ability to offer personal connections. Poetry reaches across all areas of life, and this universality invites teachers to embed it in instruction in all curricular areas.

    Poetry, for example, expresses the soul of historical events and provides the human perspective.

    First They Came for the Jews Pastor Niemller (1999)

    First they came for the Jewsand I did not speak outbecause I was not a Jew.Then they came for the communistsand I did not speak outbecause I was not a communist.Then they came for the trade unionistsand I did not speak outbecause I was not a trade unionist.Then they came for meand there was no one leftto speak out for me.

    In this example, the reader can access the wonderings of a victim of the Holocaust. In a way that no history text can, the poem offers insight into how it came to be that the peoples of the world allowed this event to occur.

    Consider this example of a poem that describes the wonders of an important part of nature.


    What Is Science? Rebecca Kai Dotlich (1999)

    What is science?So many things.

    The study of starsSaturns rings.The study of rocksgeodes and stonesdinosaur fossils,old-chipped bones.The study of soil,oil, and gas,of sea and sky,of seed and grass.Of windand hurricanesthat blow;volcanoes,tornadoes,earthquakes,snow.

    This poem defines science in a manner that is highly accessible to the reader. The vocabulary and length are accessible to all, yet the concept of science as a study of the how, the where, and the why remains. Variety

    Next, poetry, with its rich variety, addresses the interests and needs of diverse groups of students. This variety provides for differentiated instruction, allowing the teacher to ad-dress the increasing range of abilities and interests in todays classrooms.

    Some content topics are represented in poetry picture books. For example, pond life is represented in three forms in the book Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems (Sidman 2005), which describes each animals relationship to the pond in expository text, in poetry, and in enchanting illustrations. History is brought to life through strong ca-dences and rich illustrations in Longfellow and Bings (2001) The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. In Vherses: A Celebration of Outstanding Women (Lewis 2005), biographical sketches of women such as Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall are pre-sented in poetic verse. These picture books suggest an ad-ditional aspect of poetryhow it affords an opportunity to develop the next aspect of using poetry in the content areas, comprehension.

    What is science?

    The study of trees.Of butterfliesand killer bees,glaciers, geysers,clay, and sand:mighty mountains,the rolling land.The power of trainsplanes that soar.Science is thisand so much more.So into the earthand into the sky;we questionthe howthe whereand why.

    Butterfly Wings Aileen Fisher (1991)

    How would it beon a day in Juneto open your eyesin a dark cocoon,

    And soften one endand crawl outside,and find you had wingsto open wide,

    And find you could flyto a bush or treeor float on the airlike a boat at sea . . .

    How would it BE?

    The student reading this poem may create an image of the beauty and wonder of the process as well as con-nect the change from larva to adult to changes in his or her own lifeenhancing the meaning of change in two ways.

    Poetry: Accessibility, Variety, and ComprehensionFor teachers, poetry is a useful teaching tool. Teachers have used poetry effectively in early childhood classes for years to provide embedded phonics instruction, to develop fluency and, of course, to encourage proficiency in the language arts genre. Presented in the following section are three aspects of poetrys usefulness that may appeal to content-area teachers: accessibility, variety, and comprehension. Accessibility

    First, the poetic form is accessible to all readers. One special aspect of the usefulness of poetry is its readability. The poetic form is readable by students of varying skills. Moreover, poetry is most often succinct. According to Atwell (1998, 420) Like a telegram, it doesnt waste words. As a literary structure, poetry may present a less daunting reading task than a short story, novel, or chapter of a text. The brevity of poetry allows students to achieve quick success in reading and writing, oftentimes a beginning to a cycle that all teachers wish to inspire: success begetting success. Consider the following succinct description of the com-plex study of science.


    ComprehensionComprehension is complex, and good readers report

    using many strategies as they access meaning. One com-prehension strategyimagingis to visualize a movie play-ing while reading. Imaging has several purposes: fostering understanding, retaining information, and monitoring for meaning (Gunning 2005, 301). Also important to note is that imaging is a strategy which can be taught directly. Content-area poems that contain descriptions can be im-aged and contribute to readers creation of meaning.

    If a teacher is concerned that reading poetry picture books aloud to children will provide images rather than encouraging children to create their own, he or she should follow this advice from Glazer and Lamme (1990, 104):

    Read the poem to the students before sharing the illustrations in the book. Then children can form their own mental images first and next compare them to an artists interpretation of the same poem.

    The three aspects of the usefulness of poetry de-scribed here reveal the potential of poetry to engage students, meet individual needs within the group, and aid in comprehension. Together they offer a convincing argument for including poetry in the content areas as well as in language arts classrooms. The next section offers suggestions for putting poetry to use in the content areas through both the reading and writing of poetry. Into Practice: Reading PoetryTeachers in content-area classes can provide a scaffold for students use of poetry through Teacher Read Aloud. This scaffold fulfills two needs: a model of a reader who enjoys poetry and a way of providing many model poems that students may imitate as they begin to respond to learning through poetry. When poetry is read aloud for students, Linaberger (2004, 368) suggested, the reader should have an inner dialogue with the poet.

    Using a think-aloud of that dialogue also would scaf-fold students in a thinking process that would assist them as they continue their use of poetry. Consider thinking aloud for your students about questions such as these: What was the poet saying? Why did I love the sound of that word? Why did the poet choose that word instead of another? How did the poem connect to the topic of study? As students hear their teacher process the poem, they will learn from that model how they might approach a better understanding.

    Several sources make suggestions for teachers who are selecting poetry and reading it aloud (Academy of American Poets 19972007; Certo 2004; Hancock 2004; Linaberger 2004). These suggestions reveal similarities. One is that variety is the spice of life in the world of po-

    etry. There are many poetic forms, and students will enjoy the humorous, the rhymed, and the free verse teachers share with them. Another is that an introduction to the poet and his or her life likely will invite interest in the poem. When reading aloud, teachers are encouraged to read the poem naturally by attending to line breaks and rhythm (Certo 2004). Teachers also can provide many scaffolds for children as they write poems of their own. Into Practice: Writing PoetryAccording to Holbrook (2005, 4), poetry can help kids get it. She suggested that the creation of poetry teach-es writers to block out the distractions and focus attention on seeing the details. She stated that writing poetry helps people to learn about ourselves and our world (Hol-brook 2005, 7). When students create poems about topics of study, they enhance their comprehension through the connections they have made between the topic and their own lives, the topic and the world around them, and the poetry and the content texts they have read.

    Teachers aid students who are writing poetry in impor-tant ways. One is to use a whole class approach as a model to the process. The class can brainstorm ideas related to the topic and work together to craft a poem. The teacher can act as scribe for this process. Then students can move from this highly supported form of writing, to writing in small groups, and finally to independent writing. Another way to assist students as they write their own poems is to provide a variety of poetic forms. These forms can encour-age children to write using recipes for creating poems.

    One such form is the acrostic. Acrostics are excellent models for student response to reading. For example, sixth graders engaged in the study of ancient Egypt could create a poem summarizing information they gathered about this civilization during their study.

    Archaeologists diggingNile River flooding, creating fertile landCrocodile mummies buried in tombsInevitable heatEyes shadowed in blackNefertitiTut

    EgyptiansGreat PyramidsYellow desert sandsPapyrusTombs of the Pharaohs, known by all.

    Another form, whose invention is credited to Paul West (in Lipson 1998), is Alphabet Poetry. This format


    Schedule opportunities for students to share poetry with others in class. Model for your students by writing and reading your own content-area poems. Students may be invited to create their own Copy Book of poems they love. These poems could become models for poetry they may write one day. Poetry is written to be read aloud. In-vite your students to read aloud favorite poems connected to the area of study in your class or to share the poetry they have created in response to the content-area reading.

    Closing ThoughtsTeachers can gain insights about their students as the students respond to poetry and create poetry of their own. The creation of poems related to the readings from content areas such as science, mathematics, and social studies encourages students to process the informa-tion gained from those texts in meaningful ways. These student creations can represent windows for the teacher to view the meaning students are forming as they interact with content-area topics in texts.

    Educators know that learning is strengthened by con-nections between what students see in the world around them and what happens in school. Poetry in content-area classes enhances those connections by crossing traditional boundaries among subject areas to make reading and writing poetry in math, science, or social studies just part of being a member of a learning community.

    ReferencesAcademy of American Poets. 19972007. Tips for teaching poetry. New York: The

    Academy. Available at:, N. 1998. In the middle: New understandings about writing, reading, and learn-

    ing, 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.Bunner, H. C. n.d. The heart of the tree. Available at:

    bunner01.html.Certo, J. L. 2004. Cold plums and the old men in the water: Let children read and

    write great poetry. Reading Teacher 58(3):26671.Dotlich, R. K. 1999. What is science? In Spectacular science: A book of poems, ed. L. B.

    Hopkins, 1012. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks.Fisher, A. L. 1991. Butterfly wings. In Always wondering. New York: HarperCollins.Glazer, J. I., and L. L. Lamme. 1990. Poem picture books and their uses in the class-

    room. Reading Teacher 44(2): 10209.Gunning, T. G. 2005. Creating literacy instruction for all students, 5th ed. Boston: Allyn

    & Bacon.Hancock, M. R. 2004. A celebration of literature and response: Children, books, and

    teachers in K8 classrooms, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill/ Prentice Hall.

    Holbrook, S. 2005. Practical poetry: A nonstandard approach to meeting content-area standards. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

    Lewis, J. P. 2005. Vherses: A celebration of outstanding women. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions.

    Linaberger, M. 2004. Poetry top 10: A foolproof formula for teaching poetry. Reading Teacher 58(4): 36672.

    Lipson, G. B. 1998. Poetry writing handbook: Definitions, examples, lessons. Carthage, IL: Teaching and Learning Company.

    Longfellow, H. W., and C. Bing. 2001. The midnight ride of Paul...


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