Lori uses poetry notebooks in her first-grade classroom. I’ve been in her classroom many times when her students were using their poetry notebooks. The word notebook is probably a misnomer in this context because the poetry notebooks don’t contain any original student work. Physically, they are just those standard black-and-white composition books. A few days after each new poem is introduced to the class, Lori distributes a copy of the poem in a size that fits onto a single page of each student’s poetry notebook, and the students glue it onto the first empty page. The pages are numbered so a specific poem can be found with relative ease. Lori keeps a cheat sheet. Eventually, after enough poems are accumulated, the poetry notebook begins to resemble an anthology of fairly diverse poems. The title and author are prominently displayed at the top of each page, making it easy for the students to quickly find any particular poem that the teacher refers to in a subsequent lesson.
At first, Lori’s use of poetry notebooks didn’t seem particularly noteworthy to me. Poetry notebooks are popular instructional tools used in many classrooms. Gradually, however, I began to notice that Lori was saying, “Take out your poetry notebooks” more and more often. I started to wonder, What’s going on here? Why are they using those poetry notebooks so often? I made a point of keeping track and compiling a list. Here’s what they’re doing:
- Shared Reading
A new poem that is not yet in the students’ notebooks is introduced every Monday with a lot of fanfare and pageantry. It is usually displayed on a sheet of chart paper in the whole-group meeting area, but sometimes it is projected onto the screen instead. Lori leads the students in an often raucous reading of the poem each day. Toward the end of the week, a student is selected to lead the class in reading the poem. The students always enjoy reading the poems, which is a tribute to the great job Lori does with their selection. By Friday, almost all of the students are able to read the poem. That’s when each student receives a copy of the poem to glue into his or her poetry notebook.
Poems, especially poems for children, are the perfect vehicle for teaching phonics. The rhyming words in poems are fertile ground for practicing phonics elements and word families. In the week that a poem is first introduced, Lori gives her students the opportunity to read and enjoy it without trying to use it for any additional purposes. But in the following weeks, the poem is revisited for the students to find examples of a specific phonics element. Lori steers clear of those poems that were specifically written to teach a phonics element. She prefers “real poems” written by “real poets.”
Lori writes the rhyming words with the same spelling pattern from the poem at the top of a strip of chart paper. Then the students collect words that fit into that word family and record them on the chart. When the chart is full, they read the words together. Students use the charts for support in reading and writing words from that word family. The poems open the door to examine various spelling patterns for the same sound. Recently, Lori’s students revisited the poem “The Little Turtle” by Vachel Lindsay, to sort words with the -ox and -ocks spelling patterns and the -e, -ee, and -ea spelling patterns. Early in the school year when the class was reviewing consonant sounds, Lori’s students generated a list of “Peter Piper Words.”
When students get their own copy of the poem, Lori has them illustrate it. She believes that this is a good way for young students to demonstrate their comprehension of the poem.
One of the most effective ways to improve fluency is through repeated readings. But getting kids to read something that they’ve already read can be challenging. Such instructions are often met with whines of, “But I read that already!” Not so with poetry. Poems are meant to be reread. In fact, the poetry notebook is one of the texts that students often read during independent reading, making it a great source for accessible texts. Lori’s weekly poem has sometimes been taken from the book You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You (Hoberman 2006), a collection of poems in two voices. Her students have used these poems for paired reading. During the “share” section of reading workshop, Lori selects a student, sometimes a pair, to read aloud a favorite poem from his or her poetry notebook. She cautions the students to practice, so that they will be ready to share.
- Word Recognition
The repeated readings of the weekly poems help build the first graders’ sight-word vocabularies. The more exposure that children have to high-frequency words, the more quickly those words become a part of their store of known words. It is not unusual to hear a first grader blurt out, “That’s a word from our poem!” One of the tasks that Lori has her students do with the poem in follow-up weeks is to find the words that are on the word wall. Students also refer to their poetry notebooks to support them in spelling words that they need for their writing.
Lori has found that poems are often a wonderful source of rich vocabulary words. Using the protocol recommended in Bringing Words to Life (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan 2013), she selects one or two words to teach from most of the poems. When her students read the poem “I’ve Got an Itch” (Prelutsky), in addition to examining the -tch and -ch spelling patterns, she taught the word wretched. Lori makes a point of selecting words that students can use in spoken and written communication. She gives them a child-friendly definition, and she provides examples and nonexamples. On other occasions, she describes two scenarios, only one of which fits the word, and has the students point out which one it is. Then she posts the word on the vocabulary word wall. The students are encouraged to use the word, and Lori records tally marks when students use it correctly to demonstrate to the class how helpful the word is in their everyday communication.
- Close Reading
The Common Core State Standards encourage supporting students in close reading. Students read texts multiple times to understand the key ideas, examine the writer’s craft, and analyze the deeper meaning of the text. Teachers are encouraged to use short passages for close reading, making poetry a good choice. The poems provide another advantage. The students have read them multiple times before the close reading lesson and are ready for a deeper examination. When Lori’s class read “Who Has Seen the Wind?” (Rosetti), they returned to the poem to find evidence of how we know the wind is there if it can’t be seen.
One of the most enjoyable activities is to create a new poem from one of their favorites. Lori prepares a template by writing the poem with some of the key words replaced by blank spaces. It’s like Mad Libs. The students fill in each blank space with a word of their choice to create a new poem. The children enjoy reading the new poems to each other. Lori uses the activity as an opportunity to talk about some of the parts of speech. The more courageous writers take a pass on the template and write their own poems inspired by the weekly poem. Each year, Lori creates an anthology of poems written by the resident poets.
- Touchstone Texts
Touchstone texts are the resources that we return to again and again to support instruction. Lori has found that the poetry notebook is a treasure trove of touchstone texts. She uses it during her writing minilessons to provide examples of “show, don’t tell,” vivid verbs, and amazing adjectives. The poems have helped the students improve their writing by providing examples of alliteration, similes, metaphors, and onomatopoeia. Once, I saw Lori ask her students to take out their poetry notebooks during science. They revisited a Douglas Florian poem called “The Wood Frog.” She asked her students to find evidence of a characteristic of amphibians in the poem. (The answer is that frogs are cold-blooded, confirmed by the following two lines: “Inside this icy bogsicle, My temperature is ten degrees.”)
- Sponge Activity
It happens in every classroom. The guest speaker is late. The technology is not cooperating. The small-group lesson is running longer than the teacher expected. The children are sitting at their desks with nothing to do. This can be a recipe for disaster if it is not handled properly. When these events occur in Lori’s classroom, she simply says, “Take out your poetry notebooks.” They read their favorite poem, or read all the poems about animals. They might do word hunts looking for three-syllable words, for short-a words, for word-wall words, for pronouns, for whatever. They take it as a challenge and compete to see who can find the most. The possibilities are endless!