Before We Begin
Poetry is tricky to define. We want to give our students enough of a definition to orient themselves, but often, the one we choose is so restrictive that the next poem we encounter will contradict that definition. Poems are typically short compared with novels and essays, but there are also epic poems. Some poems rhyme, some don’t. Poems have line breaks, but then there are prose poems. Sometimes poems tell stories, sometimes they don’t. Any elementary school teacher can likely anticipate the contradictions piling up while planning to introduce poetry to a classroom of young students.
As educators, how do we approach poetry concretely and clearly without being inaccurate or rigid? Can we define poetry in ways that are open and also clear? How do we shift gears mid-day and signal to our students that we’re heading into the mysteries of creativity? And how do we navigate the challenges of using language—our most ubiquitous tool—as an art medium for just one hour of the day or week?
Online poetry resources are becoming more plentiful all the time. We can find many creative lessons, but to get the most use out of them, let’s back up. Before we head into the classroom, there are four frameworks we can use to wrap our minds around this complex medium and to facilitate a clear, open, and exciting introduction to poetry for our students.
These four frameworks include ways to orient our own thinking before we begin to teach and practical ways to begin a poetry curriculum with our students that will be fun and engaging, encourage self-expression, and build myriad reading and writing skills along the way.
First Framework: Art Class with Words
Our first and most pressing question is, of course, what is poetry? Let’s devise a definition that resembles a map more than a fact.
Conveniently, even the youngest students are usually familiar with art or art class. They understand art to mean many things already: paper, paint, papier-mâché, sculpture, chalk. Visual art is just as multifaceted and complex as poetry, yet both adults and young people seem to be comfortable with its many types.
On my first day teaching poetry with an elementary class, I first ask, “Has anyone ever heard of poetry?” A few students will tilt their heads sideways and reach for a memory or definition, but most have not heard of it. Next, I ask, “Who has been to art class?” Every hand shoots up, and this is where my definition begins. “Excellent,” I say, “because our poetry time is going to be like art class, with words.”
Intrigued by this odd proposal—using words like art supplies?—the students want to know more. This analogy accomplishes an amazing amount of tasks in one short sentence. The students now have a better feel for poetry’s possibilities. That is to say, they understand that just as in art class, they may mix mediums, there may be elements of experimentation and play, and they may layer their words side by side to see how each brings out the particular hues of the other. Their final product could end up looking any number of ways.
My students now understand that poetry will be many things, and they may learn different forms and styles as they go. To begin, let’s introduce poetry by saying that we will play with words, move them around the page, and experiment with how they sound.
Second Framework: Recess for Rules on Language
Let’s acknowledge that almost all learning throughout a school day is filtered through language: reading and writing, of course, but much of math, science, and other disciplines too. Language is used to test, rank, and place students throughout their education.
Though a paintbrush or a soccer ball may symbolize free or fun time to some students already, words are used all day long to test and measure their skills and aptitudes. The challenge, therefore, is to clarify for students that language is treated differently during poetry time, that their creative work will not be tested, marked, or graded.
It can certainly confuse young students if most of the day, their teachers insist on grammatically correct sentence structures only to abandon such rules during poetry time. If we acknowledge this fact openly, it allows us to chart a clearer course into poetry as a fun and engaging space of self-expression and creativity.
Equipped with our starter definition—that poetry time is like art class with words—we can next address the matter of language as an artistic medium. I let my students know that although all the things they’ve learned about using words to create sentences and paragraphs are extremely useful the rest of the day, we don’t have those rules in art class with words. We’ll see poems with no sentences, some sentences, and loads of sentences. We’ll see poems with different shapes and of different lengths. We’ll read poems that are serious, funny, and serious and funny. I let students know we’ll make stories together and create pictures out of words. I remind them that just as in art class, we’ll be using our imaginations and trying new experiments.
At this point, most students are pretty excited about poetry time—sounds fun, sounds free. I’ve presented a wild and crazy idea—forego sentence rules, play with words, put them into different shapes—within a frame that is familiar. It is as if I just said to you, “Would you like to go to the beaches of Pluto with me? They’re just like Hawaii.” Poetry can stay as complicated and hard-to-define as it truly is because it’s now filtered through a complexity my students are already comfortable with: art class. And they’ve just learned that during poetry time, the linguistic ground rules are special to that time and different from the rest of the day. This is not only made clear but also has a wonderful added effect: what a relief! Who wouldn’t want a recess from how language is used the rest of the day?
Third Framework: Join in and Make a Mess
If language is used all day to grade and test students, then we, the educators are the graders and testers. Now that we’ve shown our students that language will be used differently during poetry time, how do we show that we will be different during creative lessons? The key is for teachers to become active participants in the enjoyment of poetry and to let students see this change through modeling exploration and a bit of untidy creative energy.
We’ve already introduced new ground rules for language use. What are the new ground rules for us? My rules for myself as a creative educator are, in brief: No one has all the answers. You can model the emotions of confusion and wonder for your students during poetry time because early learning goals with poetry can be about comfort with the medium over technical comprehension. It’s an opportunity to join in and make a mess with your students.
No one has all the answers when it comes to art. The elements of mystery and individual taste with creative works are a large part of why we wish to teach creativity in our classrooms. A piece of writing that you fall in love with will make your hair stand on end, your gut drop, and your heart thump. The connections you experience in that moment, or in a moment of personal self-expression, have myriad benefits in addition to simply being a wonderful experience. Poetry can be a great way to share these reactions to language.
It’s important to allow your students to see you experience and react to poetry. When a poem or a just a single line or an image delights you, show it. When a poem or an element of a poem confuses you, express that confusion and share your questions with the class. Allow some questions to remain unanswered and be okay with that. If you’d like your students to avoid responding to a piece of art they don’t subjectively love by saying, “I don’t get it,” then model for them the experiences of questioning, being confused, and searching related to experiencing art.
It’s important to show students that poems don’t have to be ranked as good or bad. We can show that we may adore different poems, and we can share the reasons we feel this way. Our different experiences of a poem can offer a window into how we think and feel differently. Further, our immediate love (or lack thereof) for a poem is only one element it has to offer us—we can find loads of interesting questions and ideas to contemplate inside of poems that each of us may take or leave, as far as our personal taste goes.
Then let’s consider our learning goals carefully. By the end of our first lesson, my students will have lightly touched on the concept of line breaks, and in a few more exposures to poetry, they’ll be a bit more comfortable with the poetic line. Next, we’ll move on to stanzas, then metaphor, imagery, personification, and so on. Young students can become tiny pros with shocking speed. But none of this is presented as the point of the lesson in our early days. Instead, I focus my lessons on fun writing topics with poetic structures that lend themselves to practicing the skills above.
For my first lesson, we work on writing wish poems: specifically, litanies of wishes. Each line contains exactly one wish—this is an easy way to practice line breaks without practicing line breaks. I have yet to meet a student who doesn’t enjoy taking an hour of the day to write out and share wishes, big and small.
Early lessons should use skills and traits your students already have. The first goal should be to create a space of fun and play where students feel comfortable exploring new forms of creativity with language. Early lessons should not be bogged down with unfamiliar vocabulary or poetic structures that are overly complicated for students’ present understanding. The first stretch for a student should be translating their imaginations and creativity into this new form—and if the goal is to create a foundation for complex creative engagement, this activity should be fun, interesting, and playful.
Remember that creativity is messy and embrace it. My advice to all teachers is to jump right into the poetry mud puddle with your students and let them see you explore and question. This leap shows students that in the world of creativity (not classroom management, mind you—you’re still in charge in that world!), we’re all in the same pool, and to express ourselves—to open ourselves to wonder—is to welcome a bit of complexity and mess into our space.
Creativity is very nearly magic: it’s a means to unlocking other parts of our brains and expanding our capabilities of thought and expression. There are few right and wrong answers in the fields of magic, so let’s be generous in admitting our own wonder and our own multiplicity of paradoxical ideas. Let’s be generous and honest by communicating first: we already have the tools, and now we are ready to build with them.
Fourth Framework: Language Through a Conscientious Lens
As we look at new approaches to teaching poetry, it’s important to consider how language is used in US society at large—in and out of the classroom. Language is a powerful tool for upholding oppression or dismantling it within a culture. We use language to showcase the breadth of human experience, and we also use it to hurt, exclude, and silence members of our communities. The English language includes the prejudices of our culture and history, so this is a great opportunity to check our assumptions about language and which types of expression we promote or devalue in our classrooms.
We’ve discussed the ways in which language is used to test and stratify in school—and we know our students feel this too. Ample research shows that by age eight, most young people have seen people be treated, or personally have been treated, differently because of race or gender, and they begin to model what they see in the adult world. Young students have likely witnessed and/or experienced language intended to label and oppress.
Consider our students who speak more than one language at home. Too often, when they come to school, English is treated as the only language of scholarship or creative thought. We should also consider our students who have been raised in multiple vernaculars and styles of English. When our students look through the canon, or a hall of US presidents, and nearly every voice, every image, is male and white. Consider that a recent study of K–12 academic standards across all 50 states showed that 87 percent of references to indigenous people of the Americas were in a pre-1900 context—meaning that some American schoolchildren don’t hear about contemporary native people. Consider that experience for a child of native heritage. Omissions of a group’s experiences, language, contributions to our shared culture, or very existence, are erasures of American/Indigenous cultures alive in our communities and our schools. When we do not see our own voices represented, it can suggest to us that we were never good enough, that we should avoid taking up space, that there is no lineage of us—all of which is quite untrue, and surely not a message we wish to pass on to our students.
What can teachers do? First, we can be open to this messy truth of our world and interrogate our lessons and curricula for pitfalls. The more open we are to these challenges, the more likely we are to find fixes and to foster spaces of creative self-expression. Let poetry be a place where one culture or linguistic heritage is not prized over another—we can make space for multiple voices, languages, and vernaculars. Question your reading list, and if it looks like only one part of the population, seek new voices and perspectives to share.
As an example, though the English language and its rules are constantly evolving, the education system often treats African American Vernacular English as improper. This practice implicitly prizes white cultural linguistic history over Black cultural linguistic history. We can all welcome multiple voices and vernaculars, including African American Vernacular English, into the poems we present in our classrooms. Similarly, we can refrain from shunning the work of students who use different vernaculars, slang, or code-switching. On the contrary, a student utilizing multiple forms or styles of language is engaging in linguistic complexity and sharing cultural linguistic heritage—this is not to be denied but to be celebrated.
Keeping this conscientiousness at the forefront of our minds, even if not overtly in a lesson, allows us to check ourselves as we create our curricula and creates a sense of honesty in our classrooms. Choosing our approaches to language thoughtfully is vital for creativity to flourish.
Such acknowledgements—brought conscientiously into the crafting of our lessons and our hearts as we enter a classroom—allow us to showcase why teaching art is important in the first place: it offers students ways to experience mind-expanding thoughts, playful discovery, and pleasure with language. Further, through encouraging a space in our classrooms where we are more conscientious of the pitfalls of language, we may begin to eliminate them, rather than passing them on once again.
Time to Begin
Galoshes on—we’re ready to join students in the poetry mud puddle. The frameworks discussed are a mix of reflective considerations (how to think about poetry and language) and practical considerations (how to talk to students about poetry and poetic language). Let’s begin with a clear and open definition of poetry. Be ready to experience wonder and allow the world to be less tidy in creativity. Not having every answer is okay. We can be aware of the challenges of language—how it is used the rest of the day and in our culture at large. We can set clear ground rules for language in poetry time and plan to engage language with rigor, to ensure that what we share with our students is not our culture’s limitations but a space of love and kindness. In doing so, we create classrooms ripe for creative expression.
Beginning with these frameworks and playful lessons allows us, after our first few poetry sessions, to head anywhere with our students. We can meditate on beautiful natural spaces with Pablo Neruda, write city portraits with Gwendolyn Brooks, imagine the most fabulous libraries with Albert Goldbarth, declare our power and connection with N. Scott Momaday, and tell our personal stories with Jamila Woods. With some sturdy yet flexible frameworks and foundational lessons of play and exploration, we can head anywhere together.
Elizabeth Metzger Sampson is a poet, essayist, and frequent collaborator with visual artists. She is the executive director of the Chicago Poetry Center, which organizes local roving readings and hires poets as teaching artists for poetry residencies in Chicago Public Schools. She was named one of Newcity’s “Lit 50 2017:...