April 25, 2016
As a college English major, I took plenty of literature courses. Short stories were read. Novels were pored over. Poetry was analyzed. In one class we dissected a poem, learning “exactly” what the writer from hundreds of years ago was saying. In a later course, I was delighted to revisit the same poem with a different instructor. Perfect, I thought, I already know just what the poem means. I quickly volunteered my vast knowledge and was told that I was absolutely wrong. “It means no such thing,” the instructor adamantly declared. I remember being embarrassed and devastated. Years later, as a classroom teacher, I tapped into that memory as I worked with my own students. How could we possibly know what someone thought while they were writing such a long time ago? Does poetry really have only one meaning? Doesn’t background knowledge change the reading experience? Isn’t the point of literature to reach out to the heart of an individual reader?
Contrary to what some people may think, poetry is not only all about love and romance. Check your 811s—your most worn-out copies are probably compilation of hilarious poems by Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky. Perhaps they are early Lee Bennett Hopkins anthologies that have weary, loved-to-death spines. (Be sure you look at his new books, too.) Today’s poetry comes in many forms with new styles continually emerging. Twenty-five years ago novels-in-verse began to take hold; the Newbery-winning Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse has since become a classic, and in 2015 novel-in-verse The Crossover by Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Medal. Alexander, with his ear for kids’ language and reader-friendly storyline made reading poetry cool.
Throughout the years, books of poetry have filled our shelves and enriched the curriculum and pleasure reading of young readers everywhere.
The power of language is rarely stronger than in poetry. With an endless variety in form, and often using fewer words than other genres, poetry gives children of all ages and reading abilities access to the power of words. You probably have plenty of classics in your collection. If the classics aren’t circulating, it may be time to buy an updated version of the same book. According to weeding guidelines, copyright date isn’t an issue for this type of literature, use your critical eye and make sure the books you have are still relevant, and free from mold and worn out pages. As poetic forms continue to change, make a deliberate effort to infuse new life into your poetry collection by adding new titles. While the poems you read as a child will still resonate with young readers, new poets offer wonderful original works, thematic anthologies, and memoirs in verse. The National Council of Teachers of English sponsors an Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children to honor a living American poet for his or her aggregate work for children ages 3–13. The winner in 2015 was Marilyn Singer. NCTE also sponsors a list of notable poetry books for children. Recognizing the best poetry book of the year, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award is given annually. The Poetry Foundation annually selects a Children’s Poet Laureate who advises them on children’s literature matters. The 2015 winner was Jacqueline Woodson.
Does your poetry collection include diverse poets and anthologies? Include books by Marilyn Nelson, by Pat Mora, Janet Wong, and Nikki Grimes. Look for poetry books illustrated by LeUyen Pham, Enrique O. Sanchez, and Julia Cairns. Kids need to see themselves in what they read. They also need to learn about many different cultures, so investigate publishers such as Lee & Low who are committed to publishing contemporary diverse stories that all children can enjoy.
Poetry continues to be a favorite for children. They often make up rhymes that speak to their interests and from their hearts. Let them read poems for the fun of it. Not every read-aloud must be dissected. In the words of Lee Bennett Hopkins:
“Do children really have to be asked how they know Miss Muffett wasn’t married? That a lovely verse about a city has to be followed up doing research on population? That a poem about math has to be followed by a discussion on the law of relativity? NO! Read the poem – and quite simply, shut up!”
Though we celebrate poetry in April, why not use it all year? With so many great books to choose from, they can easily be part of a teacher’s repertoire. As a librarian, be sure that you include books of poetry and novels-in-verse on all your booklists. As a teacher, think of ways to incorporate poetry in your lesson plans and daily schedule. Use some of the following ideas to imbed the power of poetry in the lives of your readers.
Read a poem aloud every day. Try Poetry 180 for ideas.
Include poetry in your displays. Remember to add these books to your makerspaces.
Celebrate student poets by having poetry slams or cafes. Get ideas at Poetry Slam Inc.
Post copies of poems in your library or classroom.
Create a poetry wall with magnetic words.
Keep your poetry booklists visible all year long.
Celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day often.
Listen to poems and novels-in-verse on audio.
Promote the ancient books of poetry with tired covers by reading aloud from them. Use them in your Blind Date with Books program.
Use to teach poetry writing.
Create podcasts of kids reading poems. Find out how here.
Sell poetry to content area teachers.
Teach vocabulary. Subscribe to Daily Buzz Word sponsored by Merriam-Webster.
Hold poetry workshops where unpublished poets can share their work with like-spirited writers.