In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to take a look at teaching poetry to kids. Now, I’ve read the horror stories of poetry-as-torture that some people recall from their elementary and junior high days. Most high school and college memories seem to be more focused on figuring out the bawdy meanings in all Shakespeare’s rhymes and rhythms. Whatever the recollection, it seems the sad majority are not positive. This past week I spent a little time reading about how to teach poetry, and I found a great insight that I wanted to share with you along with some details of how I’ve taught poetry to my own children. [In case you’re new here and haven’t gotten to know all about me yet—which you can do here!—I homeschool my two children.]
What’s the “typical” way of teaching poetry to kids?
One of the books I scanned through this week was Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays in the Reading, Writing, and Teaching of Poetry. John Ciardi knew poetry. He was a poet, a teacher, poetry editor for the Saturday Review and translator of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. He made some great points about the way teaching poetry is handled in many schools. It tends to be a bit of an afterthought, tacked on to the end of all the requirements or squished into one special week a year. Often the teaching centers around reading a poem and discussing its meaning or how it makes us feel. Those aren’t necessarily bad things, but we’re missing a bit of the point—I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
So, as I’m reading John Ciardi’s words, I’m chastising myself for trying to pack poetry into a single week. How dare I?!?! But then, I got to reviewing our engagement with poetry throughout my kids’ learning.
Did I set out to intentionally teach poetry?
Our homeschooling journey began when my oldest was three. I began doing some structured learning time with her then. We started with units that followed the alphabet—A: apples, alligators, books that start with the letter “A.” Even in those early days, I chose poems for us to read together each week. Now, before I give you a false impression, I had no clue what I was doing back then! I wasn’t consciously setting the foundation for weaving poetry into our curriculum. [Total honesty: I didn’t even know leading preschoolers in learning through units was a real thing that many people do. That’s just how I decided to order things.]
We checked countless books out of our library throughout the year. That habit began when my kiddos were itty-bitties before we used the word school. We read book after book together, many of which were written with rhyme or some sort of cadence at least. Rhyming games were part of our routine early on as well. Soon we started learning songs, Bible verses or Bible verses made to rhyme and set to music. This was all fun for them then, but it allowed for an easy segue to the fact that they memorize much larger poems, Bible verses and important documents today.
How does poetry memorization help in other areas of learning?
Right now, we’re closing in on the end of our regular school year, so both of my kiddos have had their cumulative poem reviews within the past week. As part of their outstanding grammar curriculum—which I highly recommend—they each memorized six poems this year from poets such as Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, William Makepeace Thackeray, Percy Bysse Shelley and William Butler Yeats. You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Crazy lady! Why on earth are you making those children memorize so many poems?” I’m glad you asked!
Aside from the fact that their curriculum includes it, I quickly saw the benefits of memorization. Once I did, I began adding pieces for them to memorize from history, science and church history.
Memorizing poetry is simple. I don’t care if it’s a single stanza of Dr. Seuss or a much longer lyrical tale from Tennyson. The rhyme and rhythm dances its way into our minds, waltzes around a bit or does a jig before it shimmies its way into that section of the brain that hangs on to stuff for more than a moment.
Just like working out strengthens our physical muscles, these “memory work outs” strengthen our mental muscles. So, when I bump my kids up to memorizing more challenging details—the periodic table of the elements, U.S. Presidents, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Nicene Creed—those muscles are flexed and ready.
What’s so great about poetry inclusion throughout the school years?
As I continued to reflect on all the poetry we’ve incorporated every year, I have to admit, I got pretty excited. [I’ll explain that a bit more in a moment.] We’re in our seventh year now of homeschooling. That’s seven years that my kids have intentionally heard, read, copied, memorized and recited poetry. Now, we have talked about the techniques of poetry and defined some aspects of it at various times through each year. But I haven’t necessarily set aside a semester or even a quarter to dive deeply into poetry.
So, here’s where the excitement comes back in—I sat down on Monday and chatted with the kids for a bit about poetry, its various forms and some of the types of poetry. I spent a good deal of time going through the chapter on poetry in Riley Hughes’ book How to Write Creatively—a book my son stole as soon as I told him how I thought it was the best book I’ve ever read on writing and how I wished I’d had it when I was his age. Seriously, it’s hidden away somewhere in his bed where he’s plotting his author takeover of the world. But I digress …
Tuesday we watched some super helpful and fun videos called “Literature Kids: Basic Literary Terms” that took us a little deeper into things like iambic pentameter, meter, etc. [I would love to give you a link for those, but they’re unavailable through Amazon, and the company website is less than helpful. Check your library, though. That’s where I found them!]
I’ll be honest, I expected glazed expressions and chants of “Mom, do we have to?”
Want to know what I got instead? “Hey! We’ve memorized that poem!” “Like this?” [Cue: my child spitting out his own made-up poetry on the spot.]
I set out some library books about various types of poetry and told them to have at ’em. They didn’t want to finish their other schoolwork before they dove into the pile! They soaked up all the details about rhyme scheme and are having fun picking those out in the poetry they’re reading.
Helping children understand the mechanics of poetry while simply enjoying poetry is key to a well-rounded introduction to this art form.
Yesterday, I set out a giant stack of poetry books for kids. They were fighting each other to get to all the books first! Now, as you read this, my kids are still reading some of those books but I’ve also brought out all my poetry books—Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare and others. In addition, today’s our library day, so they’ll be picking out more poetry books that catch their eyes.
What’s at the heart of teaching poetry to kids anyway?
Back to how talking about meaning and feelings with poetry aren’t a bad thing but aren’t the main thing either … most poetry hides its meaning from us. It is an often dusty window into the soul of another human being. Did you sit down next to William Shakespeare as he wrote his sonnets and question him about each meaning? Have you found some meaning book left behind by the great poets? If so, we need to talk. I’ve got questions. If not, you don’t know the poet’s exact meaning. Yes, it’s fun to speculate. No, it’s not necessarily bad. But, we’re missing the point!
So, what about talking about how the poetry makes us feel? Also, not bad in itself. However, do you know of any kid—third grade, seventh grade or tenth grade—who likes to talk about their feelings? Yea, me neither. I wouldn’t block off twenty minutes on the schedule for that … unless you like to talk about your feelings. [Hey! Free therapy!] For the sake of argument, let’s say you do have a bunch of kids who’re all about their feelings. Fine, but still this isn’t the point of teaching poetry to kids. They can discuss feelings and place an overlay of their own meanings and emotions on top of a poem all they want, but that’s not the heart of poetry.
The heart of poetry is language.
True poets painstakingly choose the exact word to convey a precise meaning, emotion or message in that moment in time. Whether we can correctly interpret the meaning, emotion or message is not guaranteed. What is concrete and tangible are the words he or she used. So, whip out those dictionaries. Discuss words’ multiple meanings. Have a word origin study. What are some other words they could have chosen instead? That should spark a lively discussion right there!
But, at the end of the day, do you know the most important part of teaching poetry to kids? Letting them enjoy it. Let’s not let our kids grow up to groan every time they hear the word poem. Set out a stack of poetry books and invite them to enjoy. Hop over to the Poetry Foundation and find a bunch of poems for children at your fingertips. Ask them which ones were their favorite. Ask them what made them want to read those again. Was it a word, a line, the rhythm, the beat? Let them read their favorites to you. Dare I say it? I dare! Let them lead their own learning of poetry.
If you’ve marked and cleared the path and led by example, the children in your life will take the road less traveled by and embrace poetry.
[Ahem! You can listen to the poem you’re probably reciting in your head now!]
What’s next for these poets-in-the-making?
So, I gave my children two options for the rest of the month.
I explained to them about Poem in Your Pocket Day. I told them that as they read through these poetry books they should be on the lookout for some of their favorites, so they can pick one to copy and carry in their pockets next week.
As they begin to share some of their favorites with me—especially with some of the classics—we will go on a history hunt to learn more about the poets and the stories behind their poems, if they exist! A great thing about homeschooling is, I get to learn alongside my children.
The second option I told them wasn’t mandatory. They can try their hand at writing some poetry. This is a process I won’t push but will encourage if they want. I plan to encourage them to choose some favorite poems to mimic first and then go from there. Now, one of my kids isn’t big on writing and may not want to participate. The other one, though, was making up poetry on the spot today and saying it out loud as we went through all the various styles, trying each one out in turn. So, the poetry writing process for my students may look different than what I’m envisioning, so I’ll get back to you on what actually happens!
What can you do?
Now, you may be reading this and thinking, “Hmph! All fine and dandy for her, but I don’t have kids.” or “That’s great, but I’m not insane enough to homeschool my kids.” First, you’re bound to have some children in your life somewhere—nephews, nieces, neighbors or parents that you can forward this post along to? Second, you don’t have to homeschool to share in the learning process with your kids! Find out if they’ve read any poetry. Check out some poetry books for yourself, and then share with them what you’re enjoying. Let it build from there! Our adventures in poetry began with trips to the library before school entered our vocabulary.
What’s next for National Poetry Month posts?
Now that I’ve shared with you what we’ve been learning together and what we have yet to learn this month, let me fill you in on what I’ve got planned for you guys next week! Next Thursday happens to be Poem in Your Pocket Day! Perfect timing, huh? For that post I am hoping to share some poetry reactions for you from my kids! If they’re willing to, I’d love for them to take the reins and share with you some of their favorite poems or poetry books so you can share with your children or your friend’s kids or the neighbor kids!
But that’s not all!
I love hanging out on Facebook. More than other social media channels, Facebook really allows opportunities to chat and interact with followers. For that reason, I’d love to grow my followers there so I can do even more chatting! To do this, I extended a challenge and a promise.
Help me get my page to 300 “Likes” by April 26—Poem in Your Pocket Day—and I will do a Facebook LIVE reading of a poem.
Or, knock my socks off and help me get my page to 500 “Likes” by then, and I’ll do a Facebook LIVE reading of a poem AND one of MY poems!
So, hop on over to my Facebook page to start sharing with all your friends and follow along with the fun. Then, head back here and let me know in the comments below what poem you’d like to hear me read!
I’d love to hear your experiences with kids and poetry! Do you have memories of poetry when you were a kid? Have you had the opportunity to teach poetry to kids or to read it to kids? Tell us all about it—good and bad!