Simple Poems, Powerful Teaching: Experiencing Poetry in Content-Area Classrooms
Roses are red, / Violets are blue, / Sugar is sweet, / And so are
you―a simple poem that most of us first heard when we were little. We
made up variations involving stinky feet and other sordid body parts as we learned
to play with the language of rhyme. But what about the learning involved in these
thirteen words? We learned about flowers―roses are red and violets are blue (albeit on the purple side).
We also learned about the taste of sugar―it is sweet. A lot was learned without
our even knowing it. Mixing content learning with poetry can be a powerful way to
synthesize information as we delve deeply into meaning while squeezing out extraneous
words and composing a few well-thought-out lines. This article first presents a
brief overview of content-area reading and the power of poetry and then discusses
ways that we can lead our adolescent students into creating poetry that not only
is beautiful in form but seeks to inform as well.
Reading and Writing in the Content
According to Moore, Moore, Cunningham, and Cunningham (2006, p. 2), there are three
compelling reasons to teach reading and writing in our content-area classrooms:
- Reading and writing are tools for learning.
- Literacy requirements continually increase in school and society.
- Content-area teachers can teach content-area reading and writing best.
Whether through textbook or thematic text sets, content-area teachers continually
ask students to read for understanding and then do something, such as write, draw,
compute, etc., with the information they learned. Increasingly, mandated assessments
like the Ohio Achievement Tests require students to show their learning in all subjects
through writing. Gone are the days of simply figuring out the answer to an equation
as students are now asked to explain their thinking processes as they worked their
way through the problem. Effective content-area teachers, rather than lecture about
isolated facts, try to help their students inquire into the big ideas of their subject
(Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). They get their students thinking about the
why more than just the what and
who. Ideally, students are involved in discovering the major themes
and concepts and how they are related to each other (Allan & Miller, 2005).
Classrooms are filled with active reading and discussion as students struggle with
understanding how scientific hypotheses are connected, identify the flaws of historical
thought, or find real-life applications of the Pythagorean theorem.
Recently, the International Reading Association (IRA), National Council of Teachers
of English (NCTE), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and National
Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) designed Standards for Middle
and High School Literacy Coaches (IRA, 2006). This document calls for
educators to be prepared to "develop content knowledge at the same time that they
improve student literacy" (p. 2). Paying close attention to the needs of adolescent
readers and writers, these professional organizations assert that high school graduates
need to be expert readers, writers, and communicators, and it is our responsibility
to make this happen (IRA, 2006). Knowing that middle and high school teachers choose
their profession mainly because of their love of a particular subject area (Daniels
& Zemelman, 2004), we nonetheless need to reach beyond our particular subject
and teach our students to be readers and writers.
The Power of Poetry
Contrary to my previous personal belief, poets do not have to think deep, troubled
thoughts, have long hair, and wear bulky sweaters and Birkenstocks. Poets come in
all ages, races, genders, and emotional states. Poetry can be as simple as "Roses
are red..." or as inspiring as Maya Angelou's (1993) Life Doesn't
Frighten Me. Karen Hesse taught us about the hardships of life in the
Dust Bowl through free verse poetry in Out of the Dust
(1997). The life of Danitra Brown is vividly described through multiple poems (Grimes,
1994), and images of teenage angst ending in violence are shown in
The Brimstone Journals (Koertge, 2004).
Graves (1992) states, "Poetry brings sound and sense together in words and lines,
ordering them on a page in such a way that both the writer and reader get a different
view of life" (p. 3). Each poet mentioned above did just that for the reader. Poetry
squeezes the essence out of an idea and presents it in far fewer words than we would
find in a textbook. For example, a metaphor, a common poetic device, makes the writer
think in terms of image making as she or he sees things in new and surprising ways
(Strong, 2006). Writing poetry also forces the poet to the upper levels of Bloom's
taxonomy (Learning Skills Program, 2003) as the writer analyzes and synthesizes
concepts, creating poetic verse. It exposes students to precise language, gives
them a sense of diction and syntax, increases students' language awareness, and
reinforces or introduces figurative language (Heitman, 2005). Poetry also allows
students to create word pictures as they express concepts and topics through original
means (Maxim, 1998).
According to Templeton (1997), "Poetry turns a unique lens on the world, making
the ordinary special" (p. 9). Taking these words to heart, let us now turn that
lens on content-area reading and writing and explore some effective ways to combine
content learning and the language of poetry.
Showing What They Have Learned Through
In many content-area classrooms, we frequently assess or ask our students to show
what they have learned through some kind of test or essay-type written assignment.
What I am proposing in this article is that we expand our students' choices about
how they will show us what they have learned through writing poetry. The important
thing to remember when doing this is that the poem must show what
the poet has learned about his or her topic. Differing from other types
of poetry, content-area or nonfiction-based poetry is a teaching tool about a subject
area. In essence, the poet is using the poetic format to teach the reader something.
No matter what kind of poetry you choose to use in your classroom, remember that
the reader must learn something about the topic from the poem. When assessing the
poem, I suggest that this simple guideline be a large part of your grading rubric.
In this section, we will explore a few poetic formats that work well with content-area
learning, adolescent students, and their teachers.
I Am Poem
The I Am poem (Me, 1987) format is simple in design
and easy to use as students complete a series of short prompts (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. I Am poem format.
When using it in a content-area classroom, the students must show what they have
learned about a person by understanding what that person fears, wants, needs, worries
about, understands, dreams, etc. They can change the prompts if need be to include
other aspects of the topic. Completing these prompts shows an in-depth understanding
of the person researched. Another way to conceptualize this poem is through giving
voice to some thing, place, or event. Looking back at Bloom's taxonomy (Learning
Skills Program, 2003), the poet who creates an I Am poem for a thing (or a person)
is synthesizing and analyzing information to describe or imagine its fears, hopes,
dreams, and so on. This kind of poetry also demands that the poet present information
from a totally different perspective, thereby asking the reader to think of this
topic in a more sophisticated way. I am including two examples of I Am poems that
do just that. Catie Reeve, when researching multiple sclerosis, wrote an I Am poem
describing what happens to the human nerve when it is diseased, and Ann Scotti wrote
one from the perspective of heroin (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Catie Reeve's and Ann Scotti's examples of I Am poems.
What did you learn about the effect of multiple sclerosis on the human nerve? What
happens when the nerve gets scarred? What did you learn about the effect of heroin
on the addict? How does the addict feel when using heroin? How does the addict actually
use heroin? Both authors maintained the integrity of the poetic form; yet each used
it to teach the reader about her chosen research topic.
Poems for Two Voices
Paul Fleischman (1988) developed the format for the poem for two
voices in which two (or more) characters speak to and with each other,
having a poetic discussion. The voices can put forth different viewpoints, perspectives,
or feelings about any chosen subject. When writing a poem for two voices, it is
useful to choose two different voices and then construct the poem side by side,
one line at a time. When the voices speak separately, they are on different lines;
when they speak together, they are on the same line. In doing this, the poet needs
to understand the different characters, viewpoints, etc., well enough to portray
how she or he would really respond. In addition, the poet needs to understand the
relationship between the characters so the poetic discussion maintains the integrity
of the multiple voices. When researching Japanese internment camps, LaQuita Timberlake
chose to write a poem for two voices from the perspectives of an American and an
interned Japanese American (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. LaQuita Timberlake's poem for two voices.
The poem speaks in the voices of two American citizens, both afraid of what has
happened to the country they love. Do you hear their fear? What did you learn about
where many Japanese Americans lived? What happened to their families? Their possessions?
What was the feeling of these two people? By setting up this conversation between
two conflicting parties, the poet shows a depth of understanding about this difficult
time in our history and teaches the reader through giving voice to multiple perspectives.
Similar to list poems in which the poet uses simple lists of words or short phrases,
a class poem is constructed by a group of people, each
contributing one sentence to create a poem. I frequently use this poem format on
the first day of school to get my students used to the idea that we will be writing,
reading, and performing poetry on a regular basis. Introducing the writing of poetry
using this format eases the new poet into the process by writing one simple line,
with the end product being a multiline, well-written poem. There are many ways to
introduce the class poem. When using it in a content-area class, I begin by reading
an informational picture book aloud to the class and then put a writing prompt on
the board. I give each student a sentence strip, a dark marker, and a piece of masking
tape and ask students to finish the given prompt. When they are finished, they roll
the tape onto the back of their strip and tape it to the board under the prompt.
After all lines, including mine, are up, I read the poem to the class. I then ask
them if there is anything they would like to move around or change and use this
time to discuss the idea of stanzas and grouping. When they are finished making
any revisions, I read the poem again, number the strips, and remove them from the
board. The poem is then word-processed, and copies are made for each member of the
class. The class poem in Figure 4 was written by a class after reading the book
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni (2005). The prompt was "Rosa
Parks taught me..."
Once again, what did you learn about the life of Rosa Parks from this poem? What
life lessons did my students learn? This poetry is a group statement of learning
from multiple perspectives. In the spirit of reader response theory (Rosenblatt,
1938/1983), each student brought her or his background knowledge into the understanding
of the book and responded with a simple sentence reflecting individual learning.
Other Forms of Poetry
It has been my experience that once students have written poetry using the above
formats, they frequently choose to write free verse or some other poetry using different
rhyme schemes. By first flexing their "poetic muscles" through a given format, they
have gained confidence in themselves as poets. When this happens, all kinds of poetry
can burst from their minds as they have realized the ease of putting their research
into this powerful writing tool. Having researched the different kinds of multiple
sclerosis, Catie Reeve wrote the four-stanza poem found in Figure 5 in which she
teaches the reader about this difficult subject.
Figure 5. Catie Reeve's poem.
There is no way to make multiple sclerosis an enjoyable topic to research or read
about, but Catie did an amazing job of describing this potentially devastating disease.
What did you learn about the different types of MS? Which type is worst? What is
the difference between the four types? I believe this poem is an excellent example
of a well-researched piece of writing. The poet took her research and squeezed the
essence of her learning into those four stanzas.
Share the Joy
Poetry is a beautiful experience for both the poet and the reader. For some reason,
however, we give poetry over to the English teacher and rarely allow it into our
content-area classrooms. Why don't we all participate in the joy of the poetic experience?
And think about this―rather than reading the usual five-paragraph research paper
about multiple sclerosis, wouldn't it be much more interesting to read Catie Reeve's
poem? The evidence of her research and learning drips from every line. One aspect
of teaching that stays with me, whatever grade or area I teach, is the joy of being
amazed by my students. Bringing poetry into the content-area classrooms has been
an amazing experience for both myself and my students. In short, it's time for content-area
teachers to plunge in, let their students' poetic researcher selves emerge, and
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Editor's Note: We think these poems are wonderful,
and we would love to share others with our readers. Send us your students' content-area
and nonfiction-based poems, and we will publish them in a special place on our AdLIT blog.
(You will also need to send us written parental permission to publish them.)