My announcing that we're going to study poetry to a class of fourth-grade students is usually met with groans and looks of fear. In the beginning of the year, I have the students write a poem on a green paper leaf for the “Poet-Tree” in our room. The poem is centered on their interests and hobbies. As soon as I start talking about their writing this poem, it is usually followed by the question “Can I just write an acrostic poem?” It takes time, energy, effort, strong mentor texts, and exposing students to great poetry to create a classroom of poetry writers who stretch themselves beyond the acrostic poem.
The following are a few of the mentor texts that I use in my classroom to teach poetry and encourage young writers to step out of their comfort zone of acrostic one-word poems.
Dirty Laundry Pile: Poems in Different Voices by Paul B. Janeczko
This is a collection of poems written in the voice of an object or an animal, as if it were speaking. The poets have used their imaginations to imagine what their object would think, feel, say, or do. This book is excellent for teaching voice to students. I encourage my students to choose an inanimate object or animal and brainstorm what it would say if it could talk about itself. You could choose a theme for your students to choose from: animals, classroom objects, books, or seasons. The poems are written in first person, so point of view can also be a teaching point.
Book Speak! Poems About Books by Laura Purdie Salas
This collection contains some beautiful poems all about my favorite topic: books! There are poems about readers, writing, characters, pages, pictures in books, voice, and many other poems that are connected to books and reading. I had students brainstorm ideas for their "book" poem. I leave it open to anything that connects to reading a book. You will end with a beautiful collection of poems about books, reading, and literacy. Minilessons on line breaks and playing with words were themes throughout this lesson.
Toasting Marshmallows: Camping Poems by Kristine O’Connell George
The poems in this book are all centered on camping. In Minnesota where I teach, cabins and camping are a big thing. This book lends itself to numerous connections for students. Whether my students connect to the poem about a campfire or using a sleeping bag or being attacked by a mosquito (a real thing here!) or roasting marshmallows or fishing in a lake or boating with your family, there is a connection for every student in my class. After sharing these connections and telling stories to their classmates, the students write poems about their “camping experiences.” If students struggle with camping, I suggest writing a poem about summer activities and memories with their family. I encourage the students to use onomatopoeia while describing their experience, and they enjoy finding the "sounds" to add to their poems.
Spring: A Haiku Story by George Shannon
I love introducing the students to haiku poetry with this book. I read this book at the start of spring, and we talk about how haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry that consists of three lines. The students work hard to find the perfect 5-7-5 rhythm. We write our own haikus about spring, and it’s always amazing to see what aspect of spring resonates with each student.
Doodle Dandies: Poems That Take Shape by J. Patrick Lewis
I bought this book years ago when J. Patrick Lewis visited a school where I taught. All of these poems are in the form of a shape that illustrates the topic. The students always love “First Burst of Spring” and “Giraffe” when reading these poems aloud. The students not only enjoy listening to these poems but also looking at the shape of the poems in the book. I then encourage the students to brainstorm simple objects or animals and then choose one to write a short poem about. After writing the poem, the students go about the task of constructing their poem into a shape of their object. The students love the creativity and critical-thinking skills that are involved with this poetry-writing activity.
The Best Part of Me by Wendy Ewald
This collection contains poems written by kids. The book contains photographs of each child’s favorite feature on their body. I ask the students to pick their favorite feature about themselves, and then I take a photograph of that feature. The student then writes a poem about why that is their favorite feature and what makes it so special. I encourage the use of figurative language in these poems. This book is a great way to celebrate the uniqueness of every child.
Almost Late for School by Carol Diggory Shields
These poems are funny and all contain rhyme and rhythm. After reading these poems and sharing a lot of laughs, many students already have ideas in their heads about a school poem that they wish to write. I let the students pick any topic that relates to school and construct a poem that rhymes. I also let them know that humor is welcome! The students use rhymezone.com to help find rhyming words, and we end up with a great collection of poems about school.
After exposure to great mentor texts like these and repeated practice with writing poetry, the students shift their thinking. They take risks when it comes to writing poetry and venture out beyond the acrostic poem. They have developed into narrative poetry writers, creative poetry writers, and free-verse poetry writers. The word acrostic rarely comes out of their mouths anymore, and I do not hear sighs and moans when I mention poetry. In fact, some students have found that they are strong poetry writers and have discovered a new passion.