Finding a Place for Poetry in the Language Learning Classroom

Poetry’s work is not simply the recording of inner or outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving.

– Jane Hirshfield, Academy of American Poets Chancellor

I know I am, as we say in America, “chomping at the bit,” when it comes to acknowledging National Poetry Month. March has yet to come to an end and yet I appear to be frantically crawling over the final few days eagerly anticipating the arrival of April.

It is hard to believe that I have not yet posted about my fondness of incorporating poetry into my classroom. In my opinion, poetry is a relatively unknown and less traveled avenue for students to wander and discover a whole new side of themselves as writers and learners. As Jane Hirshfield drew our attention to earlier, poetry is not merely a record of our selves, it is a complete shift in the way we view and perceive the world around us. In ways that five paragraph essay or non-fiction writing cannot, poetry calls upon our abilities to recognize our inner and outer selves as they appear naturally. Poetry is the unedited version of our owned experiences as human beings.

Although some of my primary students stateside have initially hesitated (and even resented) my injection of poetry into the language arts curriculum, their opinions often change after a week or so of exposure to the genre. For whatever reason, poetry is one of those subjects that learners absolutely love, or that they absolutely detest. There is no middle ground. I wonder why this is the case? I can acknowledge my love for poetry has only grown since I began my studies in education and I have fond memories of working with poetry during my early educational upbringing. However, there were undoubtedly peers of mine in school and even some of my colleagues during my undergraduate studies harbored strong negative feelings towards poetry.

So why poetry in the language learning classroom? How will language learners, who are already unfamiliar with the English language, hesitant to engage in authentic casual conversation let alone academic discussion, and who may lack any confidence at all in their writing, feel about exposure to poetry? Is it even worth the language learning teacher’s time? Absolutely. Without question.

A recent article published in Edutopia outlined five reasons why poetry cannot be ignored in language learning environments:

  1. Poetry broadens reading choices, as there are numerous excellent poetic picture books and poetry collections.
  2. This distilled form of writing naturally focuses on sentence-level skills with its purposeful selection of adjectives, adverbs, powerful verbs, specific nouns, etc.
  3. This makes poetry a perfect writing form to study immediately after holiday breaks when students typically show regression in the quality of written and spoken communication.
  4. Being such a small amount of writing, poetry is less intimidating for writers new to English. Along with storytelling, it has given my English as an additional language (EAL) students their first opportunity to write English and orally share their writing.
  5. Poetry can be written about any subject, imaginary or factual; about personal experiences or concepts; about emotions or facts.

Needless to say, I believe all of these points are spot on. Beyond what I have to say, there are many educators in the TEFL field who agree with me and, ultimately, with what this article’s main points. Poetry is more accessible to language learners than some might think. Below you will find a small collection of some of my favorite poems to use in classroom settings. As you will see, they vary greatly in style and approach. However, every single one of them brings something uniquely beneficial to the classroom, specifically the language learning classroom.

Poem Number One: THE FOURTH (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein)

Oh
CRASH!
my
BASH!
it’s
BANG
the
ZANG!
Fourth
WHOOSH!
of
BAROOM!
July
WHEW!

Sometimes you do not need a lot of words to write a powerful poem. For English language learners, the fear of writing can be immense. Students who are learning a new language are often hesitant to write in that language because their mistakes are viewed as permanent. An English language learner may make many mistakes while speaking aloud to peers or an adult. However, these miscues are often lost in the larger conversation and the speaker’s underlying meaning can be uncovered. This is not the case with writing. Language learners who unknowingly make mistakes while writing cannot change them as easily as if they were speaking.

It is for all of these reasons that I enjoy utilizing this poem in my classroom. Simple yet powerful poems like The Fourth showcase that excellent poems can be short and sweet. Almost anybody can a fourteen-word sentence let alone a poem with fourteen one-word lines! Simple poetry can be powerful poetry.

This poem also highlights the importance of word selection. In other words, even though this poem does not have many words, each word was intentionally selected to pack as powerful of a punch as possible. This can be reassuring for language learners in that this exemplifies that poets spend a lot of time carefully perfecting on their work. As young poets themselves, they are inclined to this same privilege.

Poem Number Two: My Bed is Like a Sailing Ship (Bruce Lansky)

My bed is like a sailing ship
when I'm tucked in, I take a trip. 
I leave behind my busy day 
and sail to places far away. 

I sail past beaches, gleaming white, 
with palm trees swaying in the night. 
I watch the waves break on the shore, 
and then I see my bedroom floor! 

I blink my eyes, I scratch my head
my ship is home, I'm back in bed. 
My ships goes sailing every night 
and sails home in the morning light 

Ah, imagery. English language learners may struggle with reading expository pieces because they cannot imagine themselves in the author’s shoes. When asked to write an informative essay, students may struggle to comprehend the task at hand. Or lack the expansive vocabulary needed to complete their task. English language learners may find reading and writing poetry desirable for the exact opposite reason: they can place themselves in the author’s shoes. This is the beauty of poems that utilize imagery.

Whether you are a native English speaker or a first year English language learner, everybody has the same five senses: smell, sound, sight, touch, taste. One of the first activities I do with my students when I am teaching poetry is to have them simply focus their attention on their senses. I ask them to sit quietly and just observe their surroundings: “What do you see? Touch? Taste? Smell? Hear?

After a few minutes of silent observation, I ask them record their thoughts. They can write whole sentences, bullet points, or single words. I ask them to create a free verse sense poem describing what they just observed. I generally do not provide any further instructions. The goal is for students to create unique pieces of writing without a lot of teacher guidance. I do not want to spoil my students initial poetic experiences with rules or guidelines. This activity can be challenging, as students often look to me for guidance and further explanation.

Poem Number Three: Jabberwocky (Lewis Carroll)

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son 
   The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
   The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand; 
   Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree, 
   And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood, 
   The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, 
   And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through 
   The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head 
   He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? 
   Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” 
   He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.

Every now-and-again I like to kick it old school.

Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky qualifies as an old school kind of poem. But do not let the age fool you, this is a fun read aloud. While some English language learners may incorrectly assume that reading older texts means working with dry and or boring material, this poem shatters those assumptions.

When it comes down to it, all students want to have fun while they are learning. This is true of English language learners as well. Learning a second or additional language can be highly stressful. Students often focus so much of their time and energy on grammatical structures that they do not have a chance to experience a diversified collection of authentic materials. It is always fun to read this poem aloud to my classes. No matter how many times I try, I still stumble over and mispronounce at least three words per reading. But what is learning without making and responding to your mistakes?

Poem Number Four: Nonsense Alphabet (Edward Lear)

A

A was an ant
Who seldom stood still,
And who made a nice house
In the side of a hill.

a
Nice little ant!

B

B was a book
With a binding of blue,
And pictures and stories
For me and for you.

b
Nice little book!

C

C was a cat
Who ran after a rat;
But his courage did fail
When she seized on his tail.

c
Crafty old cat!

D

D was a duck
With spots on his back,
Who lived in the water,
And always said “Quack!”

d
Dear little duck!

E

E was an elephant,
Stately and wise:
He had tusks and a trunk,
And two queer little eyes.

e
Oh, what funny small eyes!

F

F was a fish
Who was caught in a net;
But he got out again,
And is quite alive yet.

f
Lively young fish!

G

G was a goat
Who was spotted with brown:
When he did not lie still
He walked up and down.

g
Good little goat!

H

H was a hat
Which was all on one side;
Its crown was too high,
And its brim was too wide.

h
Oh, what a hat!

I

I was some ice
So white and so nice,
But which nobody tasted;
And so it was wasted.

i
All that good ice!

J

J was a jackdaw
Who hopped up and down
In the principal street
Of a neighboring town.

j
All through the town!

K

K was a kite
Which flew out of sight,
Above houses so high,
Quite into the sky.

k
Fly away, kite!

L

L was a light
Which burned all the night,
And lighted the gloom
Of a very dark room.

l
Useful nice light!

M

M was a mill
Which stood on a hill,
And turned round and round
With a loud hummy sound.

m
Useful old mill!

N

N was a net
Which was thrown in the sea
To catch fish for dinner
For you and for me.

n
Nice little net!

O

O was an orange
So yellow and round:
When it fell off the tree,
It fell down to the ground.

o
Down to the ground!

P

P was a pig,
Who was not very big;
But his tail was too curly,
And that made him surly.

p
Cross little pig!

Q

Q was a quail
With a very short tail;
And he fed upon corn
In the evening and morn.

q
Quaint little quail!

R

R was a rabbit,
Who had a bad habit
Of eating the flowers
In gardens and bowers.

r
Naughty fat rabbit!

S

S was the sugar-tongs,
sippity-see,
To take up the sugar
To put in our tea.

s
sippity-see!

T

T was a tortoise,
All yellow and black:
He walked slowly away,
And he never came back.

t
Torty never came back!

U

U was an urn
All polished and bright,
And full of hot water
At noon and at night.

u
Useful old urn!

V

V was a villa
Which stood on a hill,
By the side of a river,
And close to a mill.

v
Nice little villa!

W

W was a whale
With a very long tail,
Whose movements were frantic
Across the Atlantic.

w
Monstrous old whale!

X

X was King Xerxes,
Who, more than all Turks, is
Renowned for his fashion
Of fury and passion.

x
Angry old Xerxes!

Y

Y was a yew,
Which flourished and grew
By a quiet abode
Near the side of a road.

y
Dark little yew!

*

Z

Z was some zinc,
So shiny and bright,
Which caused you to wink
In the sun’s merry light.

z
Beautiful zinc!

Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. Without a strong word base to build upon, a student’s chance to master a new language suffers mightily. It takes an English language learner approximately five to seven years to learn enough essential vocabulary to excel in academic settings. A student who possesses an academic vocabulary of less than five hundred words may remain silent in a classroom setting. In order to move from this silent and receptive stage of language acquisition, a student needs to progress through three more developmental stages before being considered an advanced language learner. As I mentioned before, this entire process can take years to occur. Therefore, the more authentic vocabulary development taught in school, the quicker a student can progress.

An excellent way to authentically work vocabulary development into a poetry lesson is to use alphabet poems similar to this one by Edward Lear. This poem reads like an interesting dictionary. A teacher could spend many classes breaking down each stanza for new or impactful vocabulary words.

Even though this poem is chock full of new and challenging vocabulary, the way in which it is presented is not overly intimidating. Students do not need to dig through long sentences to tease out new words. An English language learner may read a long sentence and become lost before they even reach the new vocabulary. By contrast, a language learning student will have a better chance of noticing a new or challenging vocabulary word when it is one of the three or four words on the line. In this alphabet poem, the new vocabulary word are presented in a very mater of fact and user-friendly way.

Poem Number Five: LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein)

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then lost close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

Regardless of what the naysayers may think, poetry is a genre worth reading. Even as an adult, I still enjoy reading new poems or revisiting old classics I enjoyed as a child. To add to the beauty of the genre, every once-in-a-while I stumble across a poem that absolutely floors me. As I read and reread these poems, I cannot help but make endless connections to my students’ daily lives as well as my own. Poetry has a way of tugging on our heartstrings and illustrate collective human experiences.

Shel Silverstein will always occupy a special corner of my heart. For so many students like myself, it was Shel Silverstein’s who exposed me to the genre. His work showcased how poetry can be fun, interesting, and silly (As the class clown, this was an essential criteria for me as a learner).

When it comes to my students at SMK Badak in Bachok, Kelantan, Listen to the Mustn’ts accurately and wholeheartedly summarizes my stance on their current and future lives. I tell them every chance I get: never mind what you have been told, you hold the keys to your future. While some of my students come from poor fishing villages and live in a state where English is not necessarily given any special attention, I want them to know that they still have a chance to be different. While I know that these are only words, I hope that they resonate with them. Even if I can inspire one student, that will be a tremendous accomplishment. “Anything can happen, child, ANYTHING can be.

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