The Power of Poetry: Using Verse to Give Kids a Voice
April is National Poetry Month, and if you haven’t noticed, poems are everywhere nowadays. The nonprofit Poetry Society of America places poems in subways, trains and buses through its Poetry in Motion program. Poetry slams fill libraries and coffee houses across the country. Def Poetry Jam on the New York stage plays to packed houses night after night. Poetry is part of our popular culture now in a way that it never used to be. And, as educators are quick to point out, this phenomenon is affecting our schools, too. More and more, teachers are spending time on poetry.

Find Time for Rhyme

- Tips for encouraging young poets 

- Kid-friendly poetry books and Web sites

“When I began teaching 20 years ago, poetry was something taught in June when all the ‘important’ things were over,” says Georgia Heard, who has worked as poet-in-residence for numerous schools and is the author of Awakening the Heart, a handbook for teaching poetry to children. In the last few years, Heard has seen a tremendous resurgence in the teaching of poetry. She recounts hearing from librarians over and over: “Ten years ago, nobody checked out poetry books, and now kids check them out all the time.”

The Motivating Power of Poetry

Perhaps one reason for this excitement is the discovery by many teachers that poetry can be the key to motivating reluctant writers. Unwilling to give themselves over to essays or stories, the possibility of writing a poem can unleash these youngsters’ enthusiasm and creativity.

“Poetry is the great equalizer: Every kid, whether gifted or struggling with words, can be successful,” says Regie Routman, author of the four-volume series Kids’ Poems: Teaching Children to Love Writing Poetry.

But while the poem is shorter than other forms and, therefore, more manageable, there are also other factors at play. Heard points out that sometimes the kids who are struggling in school have a lot going on in their lives; thirsty to express some of those complications, they take to poetry, the genre of the inner life.

Gloria Pipkin, a teacher who has taught writing in elementary and middle schools for more than 20 years, has seen how some students perceive that the rules can be suspended in poetry. If they want to try a new effect, write without punctuation or capitalization, they are free to do that. “That has a lot of appeal for younger students who still like to be playful,” she says.

For James Brewbaker, a former classroom teacher who now teaches teachers as a professor of English education, the reason is simple: “Kids are born poets. The younger the kid, the more poetry is a natural expression of who he is, and what he thinks.”

The growing appeal of rap and hip-hop music among young people today is another motivating factor, according to some educators. They point out that these forms make their students more aware of the interrelated elements of rhyme, rhythm and sound and, in turn, make them more receptive to the appeal of poetry.

Why Is Poetry Important?
Poetry appeals strongly to many children because it helps them explore their feelings and share their experiences with others.

“If they can find their lives, and their experiences inside of a poem, they feel that they have company,” Heard says. By reading a poem, children can learn about other times and lives, and because poetry is such a deeply personal form, they can really feel what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes.

While teachers agree that they have to immerse their students in good writing before they can expect them to become expert wordsmiths, they also believe that poetry can be an important foundation for other forms of writing. “Children can learn almost every aspect of writing through poetry,” Heard says.

Mary Kenner Glover, author of A Garden of Poets: Poetry Writing in the Elementary Classroom, also uses poetry to teach the essential tools of all writing. “Economy, the idea that every word should pack a powerful punch, is an important lesson,” she says, “and that you rely on vivid nouns and verbs to do the real work, and adjectives and adverbs are secondary; this is the basis of strong writing.”

Whether it’s a report on Eleanor Roosevelt or prehistoric life, students can transfer their lessons from poetry and make their writing much more compelling.

Glover describes how she has her students pick an everyday object, like a stapler, and examine it carefully, when starting out on a poetry unit. “I develop better observers like this, and I think poetry really lends itself to having them be better observers,” she says.

Not only do they develop powers of observation, she adds, but they also become more sophisticated thinkers. A simple verse can show a child how she might look at an everyday experience from a different perspective.

In the Classroom Today
What does all this excitement about poetry mean in the classroom? Glover believes strongly in writing across the curriculum. And, she has students begin reading and writing poetry in kindergarten.

“We read a ton of poems to our kids,” she says. “I collect a lot of poetry from year to year, and when I start out a poetry unit, I start out by showing them poetry that other kids have written.” She also gives her students a poem to read and take home to discuss with their family at least twice a month.

While many teachers still use form poetry, such as the haiku or the cinquain, as a model for their students, they tend to use them only as one possibility among many. Heard prefers free verse for teaching, although she works at including a variety of poems.