Usually I write about writing poetry in my Poetic Pursuits columns, but this time, I want to share some thoughts about how teachers can read poetry to young kids in a way that makes those kids eager to listen to and love poetry.
I offer this info because I think many teachers are uneasy with poetry. Let’s face it, when there are no right or wrong answers, it’s hard to teach something. So what I encourage teachers to do is to simply expose young kids to poems—lots of poems!
Teachers are constantly expected to teach more and more material, and poetry often falls by the wayside. But poetry belongs in the classroom! It improves kids’ reading, fluency, and comprehension skills. It exposes them to the richness of language and the wide variety of words people use to express themselves.
One 30-second poem might allow your students to see the world from someone else’s point of view. In these times when teachers teach empathy, diversity, and tolerance, poetry can be a powerful tool.
Another poem might make your students appreciate something in the natural world that they’ve never noticed before. As we try to instill stewardship to kids, I think getting them to value our earth is the first step.
I don’t mean to say you should be reading “lesson poems” to your students. But I think a steady, long-term exposure to poetry will help kids learn to think, to ask, to wonder. And isn’t that what we hope students will do?
So, how do you get started sharing poems in your classroom? Really, it’s a simple process.
Whenever you have 3–5 minutes, just follow these steps:
- Present: Read a poem out loud. Slowly. Repeat.
- Ask: Ask students what they thought of the poem.
- Listen: Really listen to what the students have to say. Don’t worry about labeling their responses as right or wrong.
- Share: Share your own response to the poem. What did YOU like? Dislike? What don’t you understand about the poem? It’s OK to admit that you’re not quite sure what the poet meant!
If someone doesn’t like a poem, that’s fine! You won’t like every single poem, either. Nobody should feel guilty for not liking a particular poem. The point is to start talking about poetry and to encourage kids to have opinions about it. And part of the fun of teaching poetry is the challenge of finding different kinds of poems that specific kids will enjoy.
Here are a few tips and ideas for sharing poems in your classroom. (For more details and lots of poems to share, including presentation tip examples, check out my roundup of tips for reading poetry to your students from National Poetry Month 2015.
The key to successful poetry reading in the classroom is variety. If you read the same kinds of poems all the time (sweet, rhyming poems, for instance), the kids who don’t care for that type of poem will just tune you out. But if you throw free verse, rhyming, humorous, serious, sad, scary, and silly poems all into the mix, you’ll keep kids on their toes. They won’t like every poem, but if you present poems in a fun way, kids will pay attention to see what you’ll do next. A few possibilities for choosing poems:
- Connect to the season.
- Pick a poem for a specific kid.
- Tie in with a content area.
If you’re a ham, great! But even if you’re not, these simple tips will help you improve at reading poems to the kids.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
There are many questions you can ask about ANY poem. What I hope you’ll notice about these questions is that kids can’t get them wrong! As students realize that their opinions are valid, that they won’t be corrected, then they’ll get more vocal about their likes and dislikes. Your classroom will fill with lively discussions and kids who have lots to say on the topic of poetry.
- Who liked this poem? Why?
- Who didn’t like this poem? Why?
- What was your favorite word in this poem?
I bet you can come up with at least 5 more questions you can ask about any poem.
SHARING YOUR OWN RESPONSE TO POEMS
Your role as a teacher in poetry appreciation is not to tell the kids the right answer about a poem. Your role is to point out things about a poem and encourage them to form their own opinions. The best way to teach kids how to respond to poems is to model that response yourself. So sharing how you feel or think about a poem is an important part of your poetry time.
The more time you’re able to spend on poetry response, the more insightful, specific, and outspoken your students will become. It just takes some practice, on both your part and theirs.
- Here are a few sentence starters you can use as you learn to respond to poetry.
- This poem reminds me of the time that _______________.
- I’m not a huge fan of this poem, but I do really like this phrase from it: ________________.
- This poem makes me feel _________________.
- I wish the poet had included _________________ in this poem.
I recommend waiting to share your response last, after the kids have had a chance to offer their own opinions. Otherwise, the people-pleasers in your classroom will desperately want to feel exactly the same way you do.
SNEAKING POEMS INTO THE DAY
Even in a busy school day, there are moments when you could pull out a poem to share with your students. Sometimes there will be enough time for a little feedback from students; other times you might just read the poem (twice) and move on to the next activity. You might find it helpful to have a signal that it’s time for poetry: a flickering of the lights, a handclap, or some kind of secret hand signal you and the students agree on.
Here are three possibilities for poeming throughout the day.
- Right after morning announcements/broadcast
- When kids line up to leave for lunch
- After kids gather up their supplies at the end of the day
GETTING KIDS INVOLVED
Want your students to do more than just listen? Excellent! That’s the whole idea. After a month or two of sharing poetry with your students on a regular basis, they should be feeling pretty comfortable with it. Make sure to give them the chance to get more involved.
- Let kids pair up and find poems to present (or to have you present) to the class.
- Post a poem on a bulletin board and have students draw pictures to illustrate the poem. Post their illustrations around the poem.
- Read echo poems. You read a line, and then your students repeat it back to you. Then you move on to the next line. This helps students practice reading fluency, and it works best with rhyming, rhythmic poems.
In order to devote regular classroom time to poetry, you have to come up with a way to assess students? progress in that area. But how do you assess the students’ reading of and comprehension of poetry? To me, the key is to reward students’ efforts. Give credit for participation in discussions. Give assignments kids can’t do wrong, like choosing a poem to read out loud to the class. To really instill a love of poetry in kids, they can’t fear it. And if they’re afraid of doing it wrong, they will fear it. So in the primary grades, keep poetry assessment very basic. Here are some possibilities.
- Ask for volunteers to read poems out loud. This might work best, at first, if kids volunteer to read poems you’ve already read aloud to them.
- Have the students group read poems out loud. Many poems can be read with alternating lines or as a chorus, and it’s a great way to get kids up in front of the room in a not-too-scary way.
- Give participation points for kids when they answer the questions you ask about poems. Points aren’t dependent upon being right or wrong. There are no wrong answers!
If you’re feeling uncertain about using poetry in your classroom, I just ask that you give it a try. Make a commitment to share and discuss a poem with your kids three times a week for the entire next grading period. If you aren’t feeling more comfortable with and enthusiastic about poetry by the end of that period, ok. But what I hope is that you will have found some poems you really like and others you really can’t stand. I hope that you’ll have learned, along with your students, that a response to poetry is personal and subjective, and there’s no right way to feel about a poem. So you can’t be wrong!
By jumping enthusiastically into a poetry experiment, you’ll take your students on a grand journey, one that starts with poems and ends with the world.