For centuries, poets have turned to the written word to express emotions and symbolize important events. And likewise, for a very long time, the study of poetry was considered an important part of school curriculum. The challenging texts allowed students to access unknown parts of history, and empathize with tragic expressions of love, betrayal, and death.
Image via flickr by Denise Krebs
In today’s classrooms it seems like poetry has been pushed to the side. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have increased the recommended amounts of expository and information texts read in English classes. In some grades, literary texts, including poetry, are to make up only 30% of the material. A quick survey of the CCSS will show that some grades do not even have specific poetry standards; or if poetry is mentioned it is in conjunction with drama and fiction, and not studied on its own. The Pioneer Institute released a full research paper on the lack of poetry instruction in the CCSS. You can find the PDF of that paper linked in this shorter article on the same topic from that site. The study nicely sums up poetry’s treatment by the CCSS:
“Given the paucity of standards mentioning poetry at all, never mind the elements of poetry, it is not clear that poetry as a genre can be well addressed by English teachers in a Common Core-oriented classroom. Nor can they easily choose to do so in the reduced amount of time that English teachers are to spend on literary texts during an academic year.”
Here’s why we think that’s, well, not a good thing…
7 Reasons to Keep Poetry in the Curriculum
Young children love rhymes and songs. The act of putting words to rhythms helps even the youngest learners retain information—consider the alphabet song. Songs and rhymes are often suggested as mnemonic devices, even for adult learners. In fact Udemy includes rhyming words in this list of memorization techniques. As students grow they are more readily able to connect with the emotional and historical topics addressed in poetry. We’ve put together this list of the qualities of poetry that make it an important component that deserves in-depth study in the classroom.
- Length: Poetry’s shorter length makes it seem more accessible to some struggling readers. It can be a daunting task to read a 350-page novel with page after page of dense text. Short, simplistic poetry can invite readers to the page because of its less intimidating structure and length. We’d recommending starting reluctant readers with Whitman before moving to, say, Prufrock. This great post at the Reading Corner blog lists even more ways poetry is good reading material for hesitant readers.
- Inference: Poetry requires readers to read beyond the words in front of them. This is a skill important in the reading of both fiction and nonfiction texts. Student’s who learn to analyze poetry will quickly transfer the skill to other types of reading.
- Emotions: All students are bundles of emotional energy. Writing poetry is an outlet to express thoughts and feelings. Reading poetry allows students to experience how other writers have reacted to situations of struggle, like lost love, bigotry, oppression, and death. Without the rigid rules of prose holding them back, students can feel comfortable expressing the messy world of emotions in any poetic structure.
- Figures of Speech: Poetry is ripe with similes, metaphors, imagery, personifications, and all the other types of figures of speech that allow writers to create art within their words. Studying the language used in poetry provides students with a context for these new skills. Writing poetry gives students an authentic reason to use figures of speech, a skill that requires empathy and seeing connections between often unlike objects. The website Frost Friends has created this helpful chart that organizes some of Robert Frost’s poems by which types of figurative language are used within each.
- Historical: Modern poetry can be a wonderful introduction to the genre, because the language and themes may be immediately recognizable to students. However, teaching poetry from various historical periods can be important in helping students discover how art reflects the time in which it was created. The emotional aspect of poetry will give students a look into what it was like to leave during a specific event or time period. This article by webexhibits.org explains some of the major poetic movements and prominent poets during each time period.
- Performance: Poetry is meant to be read aloud. Whether students recite poems from memory or read the words from a page, the speaking skills required to perform poetry go beyond normal conversation. Students who read and perform poetry need to consider pacing, rhythm, and enunciation. They must express emotion through tone. The Poetry Out Loud site offers some great tips for reciting poetry.
- Critical Thinking: Poetry says a lot in few words. It is full of emotion, archaic expression, and personal perspectives. Poetry says things without actually saying them. To read and understand poetry requires the ability to think critically about word choice, structure, point of view, historical context, and authors’ experiences. Analyzing poetry requires active engagement with the text, because very little of what students can infer is information that is “right there” in the poem.
How to Add More Poetry to Your Classroom
Hopefully now you’re completely convinced that poetry is amazing and worth the time investment in class. Here are some places to start looking for great poetry resources:
The Academy of American Poets offers lesson plans, teacher’s resources, and essays on teaching poetry in the classroom. Lessons can be filtered by grade level and the lessons section actually includes activities, lessons, and full unit plans.
Readwritethink.org offers a page devoted to National Poetry Month in April. The page has links to lessons and units for grades K-12.
In 1999, Bill Moyers presented “Fooling with Words,” a PBS series about contemporary poetry and poets. There are fantastic lessons that accompany the video series.
Poetry is a powerful literary genre, yet the instruction of this art form has been waning in recent years due to the greater demands Common Core places on nonfiction text use in the classroom. However, despite the genres lack of emphasis in current learning standards, the rich and varied experiences students have with poetry will prepare them to think critically about all texts. Let’s bring more poetry into the classroom—for creativity, for art, for fun.