Poetry 101: Why Teaching Poetry Matters

///This is the first post in a series about teaching poetry.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing reasons why we need to teach poetry to our kids, offering lesson ideas to help you accomplish that, explaining how to discuss a poem, as well as giving you plenty of resources that will help in your journey of making poetry a part of your everyday learning.  I look forward to your comments and questions, and I hope very much these articles will be useful to you.
Now let’s get started!///

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Why Teaching Poetry Matters

Poetry is the best words in the best order.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
Rita Dove
The crown of literature is poetry.”
W. Somerset Maugham
A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.”
W. H. Auden
“A thousand thoughts that burn, come to us on the wings of verse.”
Charlotte Mason

I have always had an affection for poetry.
I had favorite poetry books that I loved reading when I was a little girl.
I have them still, and they are treasures to me.
The poems I read were of the simple sort, never very long or complex.
But as I grew older, I wanted to read more challenging poems, like Anne Shirley and her friends, reciting “The Lady of Shalott.”
I tried to read those poems, but it was always a struggle since I lacked the tools for reading them with any kind of pleasure or understanding.

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You see, my early years of school were seriously lacking in poetry.
I don’t recall reading or learning about poetry in my earliest elementary days.
And when I began being home schooled, my mom hadn’t read, or even been exposed to much poetry herself, and therefore felt the difficulty in teaching it to me.
Beyond those simple poems I read as a little girl, I really didn’t read poetry again until college, when I began to study literature and writing.
That was when I truly fell head over heals in love with it.
Thanks to a few professors who shared their passion for poetry with me, my understanding grew, and therefore so did my love.

My experience is a pretty common one for most people.
Except for the part about falling in love with poetry.
For most people, that doesn’t happen.
After all, how many of us have said or heard it said, “I just don’t understand poetry,”
Or, “I stopped liking poetry in high school.”
There seems to be a great gap between the innate love of poetry that every small child has, and the aversion many adults feel towards it.
Why does this happen?
And how can we prevent it from happening to our kids?

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To begin with, we must start reading poetry to our kids when they are young, and we can’t ever stop.
Poetry exposure can’t just be some Mother Goose and Shel Silverstein when they are young, and then a long dry spell until high school or college.
At which point, we hand them a book full of poems by TS Elliot, Keats, and Emily Dickinson and expect them to dive right in.
That’s like teaching a kindergartener to do simple addition, doing no math for 10 years, and then handing them an algebra book and telling them to get busy.
Not only will they be lost, but they won’t find any enjoyment in the work either.
We can’t expect our kids to love something when we aren’t giving them anything to fall in love with.
Loving poetry requires constant exposure.
“The only way to grow poetry is to make it a habit.” (J. Patrick Lewis)

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One of the best ways to make poetry more accessible is to start reading it to your children when they are young.
Little children are naturally drawn to poetry.
They like the rhythmic, musical quality of poetry.
They like the way rhymes make things easy to memorize.
Above all, they will develop warm associations with poetry while it is read to them from your lap.
That is a sweet, sweet gift to give them.

At the beginning, it is so important to help your children simply enjoy poetry.
“Unless a poem says something to a child, tells him a story, titillates his ego, strikes up a happy recollection, bumps his funny bone—in other words, delights him—he will not be attracted to poetry regardless of the language it uses.” (Patrick Groff)
Read them fun poetry, silly poetry, even nonsense poetry.
Poetry doesn’t have to be serious to be “real”.
Laughing together over a silly poem is a surefire way to get your kids to enjoy reading poetry.
Read them poetry that tells a story.
You’d be surprised at the way your children can follow along with a long ballad.
After all, a ballad is simply a story told in verse form, and they know how to follow a story.
Read your children poetry about things they know.
Read about the seasons, and birds, and the sky.
Poetry helps our children notice and love the natural world around them because it is so often celebrated in poetry.
Read them poems about love and friendship, and families and pets.
Poetry helps children access their emotions in a positive way, when they read poems that praise and honor these relationships.
Read them poems that are illustrated.
The pictures add greatly to the understanding of a poem, but even more to the enjoyment of it.
Memorize poems with your children.
One of the very best ways to enjoy poetry is to read it again and again until it is committed to memory.
Then that poem becomes a friend.
One we call upon in times of happiness or sorrow, or simply because the way the words sound together gives us pleasure.
By making poetry reading a joy rather than a chore, we are laying in our children the foundation for a life long affection for poetry.

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As they grow older, continue reading poetry as often as possible.
Poetry shouldn’t be a unit study or even a once a week thing “when we have time”.
Poems should be read and enjoyed together every day!
“If we wish children to believe poetry is important, the worst way to teach it is to develop a two-week poetry block, teach it, and then forget it—because that’s what children will do with it. The best way is to incorporate meaningful poetry throughout the day.” (Jim Trelease)
This doesn’t mean you have to create incredible poetry lessons for your children every day.
Its as simple as having a few good poetry anthologies on hand and reading one poem a day from them over breakfast, at dinner, or before bedtime.
Or it can be part of the school day, maybe first thing in the morning, after devotions, when your kids are in a thoughtful mood.
We read a poem or two at the start of most school days.
After our prayer, hymn, and devotional time, I read a poem aloud to all the kids.
We generally talk about it for a few minutes, because discussing a poem is part of what we enjoy about poetry.
That is all there is to it.
It is very simple, yet I often feel at the close of our poetry time that we have had one of the best lessons I could have given them.
Poetry makes us think.
And we should spend time thinking every day, shouldn’t we?

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Once they reach school age, don’t drop poetry for other, “more important” subjects.
I think most of us recognize the artistic merit of poetry.
But beyond that, poetry is often viewed as an extra, or even as fluff.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth!
And for every parent or teacher that wonders what the practical advantages of learning poetry are, I can assure you they are many.
To begin with, reading poetry is one of the best ways to help your children become better readers of all kinds of literature, and also to become better writers.
Here’s why:
Poetry requires a different kind of reading than simple prose.
Poetry demands more of the reader because everything isn’t explained for him.
Poetry often expresses big ideas in a condensed space.
Therefore, poetry asks the reader to think, and often, to think hard.
If you want to help your children develop reading skills, read them poetry.

Poetry also is extraordinarily visual.
Its like a painting made of words.
Therefore, as your children listen to and read poetry, they are being fed beautiful, visual, language.
This encourages them to see those images in their mind, and to use their imagination to do it.
That is a critical reading skill.
It is also a skill that is increasingly lost in a digital age where everything is about the image being put in front of you, no imagination required.
This exposure to descriptive, visual language will also help your children with their writing.
By hearing lines like this: “For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim”  to describe a fish swimming through water, your kids can’t help but to incorporate this elevated, beautifully descriptive language into their own writing.
It won’t happen immediately, but that constant exposure to rich language will come out in their writing over time.

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Also, more and more exposure to great poetry will aid your children in understanding other pieces of literature.
This won’t really happen until your child is older and reading more advanced poems, short stories, and novels, but it will be of great help to him then.
Writers like to make these things called literary allusions.
That is when they refer to another, well known piece of literature in the middle of their own piece of writing.
A working knowledge of famous poetry is helpful in understanding these literary allusions and therefore better understanding the piece of literature itself.

So, you see, there are practical reasons why we should teach poetry to our kids.
But I beg you not to allow yourself to become too distracted by these things.
Because interacting with poetry only for the purpose of taking tests, writing papers, answering comprehension questions, and having some kind of measurable data to prove learning has taken place misses the very heartbeat of poetry.
Remember, we want to help our children build a relationship with poetry.
We want them to learn from it because they love it, not just because they’ve been told to read it or write about it.
There are so many things wonderful things reading poetry gives our children and many of them can’t be assessed.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
“Teaching poetry is one important way to help children become human beings who are fully awake to the world.”
Megan McNamer

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RESOURCES:
This resource list includes some of my favorite poetry books to add to your collection, a few poetry videos and cds, links to articles about teaching poetry, and helpful websites for teaching poetry.
There will be resources included with each article.

Books for the littlest ones:
First Poems of Childhood Illustrated by Tasha Tudor
A Merry-Mouse Book of Favorite Poems illustrated by Priscilla Hillman
The Big Golden Book of Poetry Illustrated by Gertrude Elliot
Scranimals by Jack Prelutsky

Books for those a little older:
Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children’s Poems (this is a fabulous anthology)
The Tyger Illustrated by Neil Waldman (Makes reading William Blake’s famous poem even more interesting)
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard (great to read with The Tyger)
Now We are Six by AA Milne (the author of Winnie the Pooh!)
A Flower Fairy Treasury by Cicely Mary Barker (beautiful poems and illustrations)
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (if you can track down a copy illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, (its the one pictured) then snatch it up instantly!  They are two of my most favorite children’s illustrators of all time.)
A Family of Poems by Caroline Kennedy (a great collection of poems organized by theme)
Childcraft Sorytelling and Other Poems (if you find any Chiildcraft books from the 40s, 50s or 60’s, snatch them up! They are just wonderful treasures)
Carver A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson (a beautiful biography of George Washington Carver told entirely in verse)
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (a beautiful story of a young girl surviving the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. Its also written entirely in verse.)

Funny and nonsense poetry
Poems by Lewis Carrol
Poems by Edward Lear
Poetry books by Shel Silverstein
Feg by Robin Hirsch (great book for an older kid who likes to read, and likes words and word games)

Books about poets:
The Poetry For Young People Series  (There are many different poets in the series and the books include the most loved poems by the poet as well)

Poems set to music:
Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant
A Child’s Garden of Songs by Ted Jacobs

Poetry videos:
Child;s Garden of Poetry produced by HBO and the Poetry Foundation

Helpful poetry websites:
The Poetry Foundation (check out “Children’s Poetry” in the Resources section. There is so much good stuff there!
Poetry Out Loud 
(An organization dedicated to bringing back the art of poetry recitation. There are some fabulous poetry recitations for you and your children to listen to, as well as quick descriptions as to what kind of poem it is, or sometimes brief words about the poet. I spent a whole afternoon listening to these!
Go to “Poems and Performance” and then “Listen to Poetry”
Some of the best pieces were: The Power of Poetry, The Lake Isle of Innisfree,We Wear the Mask, Pied Beauty, Conveying emotion, with excerpts from Hamlet, David Mason on knowing poems by heart,Hope is the thing with feathers, To My Dear and Loving Husband,

Articles about teaching poetry:

Again! Again! by Sonia Levitin (This one is fabulous! All abot poetry brining us joy)
Home Appreciation by Susan Thomsen (Poetry and home schoolers! This is a great article.)
Nurseries of Verse by Patrick Lewis
Open the Door –How to excite young people about poetry (This is a free, downlaodable book from the Poetry Foundation, full of essays about poetry. I highly recommend reading the first essay by Jim Trelease.)

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6 thoughts on “Poetry 101: Why Teaching Poetry Matters

  1. Sarah W.

    Heard your chat with Sarah MacKenzie and decided to check out your blog. So glad I did. Wonderful post! I am quite partial to poetry myself. I love to write it, and hope to be able to teach my kids how to write meaningful words in poem form. So happy you are doing a series on this!

    Reply
  2. Christina G

    Thanks so much for this! Added alot of these books to my wishlist. Working on getting books together for my little guy (2 years old) so I can start him out early with poetry!

    Reply
  3. Marchelle

    Read Old Mother Hubbard to my 5 yr old yesterday. Loved seeing his anticipation as he waited to hear what the dog would do next! And then he would giggle in delight! Thank you for encouraging poetry!! I needed the reminder!

    Reply
  4. Alina

    Greta, this is so helpful – thank you for posting it. There is another earthy reason for reading poetry I think: English is not my first language and I have learned no end of words and phrases that simply do not appear anywhere else. I think poetry takes a child (or anyone else) to another level of language. I am looking forward to your future postings on poetry!

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Poetry 101: Poetry Study on e e cummings | Ma and Pa Modern

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