The Power of Poetry in the Elementary Classroom

In almost every single classroom across the United States, there are reluctant writers. These students may feel reluctant to write for a number of reasons; unmotivated by teacher-generated prompts, unable to connect with their day-to-day experiences outside the classroom, unsure of their abilities, or afraid of failure. In my classroom of 32 learners, I have a number of students that can fit in all of these categories. I have reluctant writers.

In my classroom, and in others across the nation, poetry is the solution.

Over the course of the past couple of weeks, students were split into two groups and given the task of creating a community poster. My cooperating teacher and I read a description of a fictional community and the groups were then charged with the task of creating their own unique interpretation. While I could go on and on about the amazing social-emotional skills this activity reinforced, I was more amazed by the students’ work. Their visions for their imagined community were incredible.

During a more recent government lesson, my students began to write “sense poems” describing their imagined communities. These poems are meant to spark students’ creative sides while approaching poetry from an unusual angle: social studies and government. Students were asked to place themselves in their created communities. I asked them to recall their senses: “I want to know what it is like to be in your shoes. In your community. Describe your world around you. What can you see? What can you feel? What can your hear? What can you smell? What can you taste?” Without any other prompting from me, the students crafted their initial drafts of their sense poems.

I don’t know why I was expecting anything less, maybe it was my adult reluctance towards writing poems on the spot, but my students’ poems blew me away. The overall level of student involvement in the assignment took me by surprise. Two students in particular, on completely opposite ends of the academic spectrum, discovered their voices during the activity.

One student, who is academically gifted, told me, “Mr. Stanford, I never knew I was a poet.” What a powerful statement. While we were less than a week departed from the ISATs, which required students to craft prescribed extended response essays, this student was able to immediately break away from the confines of the five-paragraph essay to craft a beautiful poem. Without any formal practice writing sense poems, this student was able to dedicate his entire mind, body, and spirit to their work. Poetry is accessible to all students.

The other student, who sometimes struggles to find an intrinsic motivation to participate in day-to-day activities, was also enlightened. I discovered during a meeting with the student’s mother that they often spent their free time writing verses in a notebook. As my other 31 students were working on their poems, I made my way over to this students and said, “I know you enjoy writing your own songs. The creative process it takes to craft a song is similar to the process it takes to craft a poem. You’re a poet and you don’t even know it.” The student looked up at me with a combination of shock and pride. As his teacher, I looked into the eyes of an inspired learner. Poetry can unlock doors that students had never imagined could be flung open.

Both of these student have approached me multiple times since we began crafting poems asking if they can bring in some of their work to share with the class. If those aren’t intrinsically motivated students, then I don’t know what are. Again, poetry can unlock doors that students had never imagined could be flung open.

Beyond the individual student achievement, a greater point can be made by these two anecdotes: poetry can be infused into any content area. Students shouldn’t only be exposed to poetry  during a prescribed “unit.” Classroom teachers shouldn’t ask students to craft poems once a year. For my students, they were not anticipating they would be crafting free-verse poems government.

A recent Edutopia article provided five reasons why infusing poetry into the classroom is a necessary step for all teachers. All of these reasons are applicable in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms:

  1. Poetry builds a strong classroom community.
  2. The rhythms, sounds, and beats of poems are more accessible to students, even if they cannot understand the written words.
  3. Poetry requires active listening.
  4. Poetry breaks the normal “rules” of the English language, making it more accessible to English Language Learners.
  5. Poetry fosters social and emotional skills and develops flexible learners. 

In addition to all of these reasons, students just enjoy a change of pace when it comes to their language arts curriculum. However, classroom teachers should not only teach poetry during April (National Poetry Month) or a poetry “unit.” Poetry should transcend the “unit” format. Interdisciplinary connections can not only help to bolster student exposure to new material, it can also help to inspire reluctant learners to take a chance.

And the purest form of learning occurs when students take chances.

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