April is National Poetry Month! It's time to put the poetry books front and center in the class library. I think that National Poetry Month is a bit of a double-edged sword. While it ensures that poetry will get some attention at least once a year, it also implicitly gives teachers permission to ignore it for the rest of the year. Poetry may be the most neglected genre in literacy instruction. While Duke (2003) lamented that students spend only 3.6 minutes a day reading informational text, it is not unusual for students to spend up to 3.6 weeks in school without hearing or reading a poem (Apol & Harris, 1999). Here are some ideas for using poetry in all areas of literacy instruction — not only in April, but all year long.
A major advantage of using poetry as a read aloud is economy of time. There is always time for a poetry read aloud, even in the most crowded curriculum and the shortest literacy block. In the small amount of time that it takes to read a poem, students get exposure to rich, exquisite language. Laminack & Wadsworth (2006) say that a daily poetry break will fill the classroom with a "resonating hum that will linger in the ears of students." Take a poetry break during transitions, at the beginning of the literacy block, at the end of the literacy block, before lunch, after lunch. Tack it on to your novel or picture book read aloud. There is no bad time for a poem.
A poetry read aloud can take the form of a poem in picture book format, or a teacher can work his or her way through a book of poems written by a single poet, a themed poetry book, or a general anthology. Keep your poetry book nearby, so you can grab it and give your students a little treat anytime they — or you — need one. Get a second copy of the book that you are currently using for your read aloud and make it available to your students. It will be the most popular book in your classroom. The following are a couple of good general anthology poetry books to get you started on your poetry read alouds.
Prelutsky, J., editor (1983). The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. Random House.
This is the quintessential poetry anthology for elementary classrooms. After more than 25 years, it can legitimately be called a classic. I have given it to every one of my student teachers as a parting gift. It contains 573 poems. There are poems for every occasion, every season, and every stage in a child's life. If you keep only one poetry book handy, this should be it.
Martin, Jr., B., editor (2008). The Bill Martin Jr Big Book of Poetry. Simon and Schuster.
There are almost 200 poems in this anthology, specially selected by Bill Martin. The poems are all rhythmic, rhyming, and with the singing beat that Bill Martin is famous for. (Remember Brown Bear, Brown Bear and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom?) This anthology features classic and contemporary poets like Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Langston Hughes, Mary Ann Hoberman, Nikki Grimes, and Judith Viorst. It also features artwork by award-winning illustrators such as Ashley Bryan, Lois Elhert, Chris Raschka, and Steven Kellogg. This is a must have for K-2 classrooms. You will need two copies. Kids love it.
Shared reading engages children in reading a common enlarged text — in a big book, on chart paper, or projected on a screen. Take one of your students' favorite poems from an anthology and let the good times roll. The classic shared reading lesson frame lasts for five days — from day one, with the teacher reading aloud the poem to the class (modeling), to day five, with a student leading the other children in a choral reading. The days in between can include lessons on vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and phonics. Limit yourself to one lesson a day. Shared reading using poems is a great alternative for schools which have not yet built up a collection of big books. It is also a good way to extend shared reading beyond the primary grades. A wonderful big book resource for poetry shared reading is Reading and Writing Poetry Across the Year: Grades K-2 by Georgia Heard and Lester Laminack.
Small Group Reading/Literature Circles
A single poetry anthology such as Surprises (Hopkins, 1986) from the "I Can Read" collection can be used for small group reading lessons for students in grades K-2, depending on their reading level. Each time the group meets, its members can read a different poem. When all the poems have been read, the book can go into the library or individual children's independent reading book bins.
Students who are beyond the beginning book stage can read poetic narratives in literature circles during National Poetry Month. The following are some of my favorites:
Creech, S. (2001). Love That Dog. Harper Trophy.
Creech, S. (2009). Hate That Cat. Harper Trophy. (This is a sequel to Love That Dog.)
Havill, J. (2008). Grow. Peachtree.
Hesse, K. (1999). Out Of The Dust. Scholastic.
Williams, V.B. (2001). Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart. Greenwillow.
An advantage to using poetry for independent reading is that poetry is user-friendly and not at all intimidating. When a struggling reader approaches a poem, she sees a page with plenty of white space and is immediately put at ease. Poetry has scaffolds built in. For example, the rhyme and rhythm support a reader's expectations of upcoming words. Additionally, poems often have repeated words; thus, when a reader has decoded a word, she often has multiple opportunities to read the word again. In these ways poetry helps to build a reader's confidence.
Poetry also offers a challenge for proficient readers. The brevity of texts presents opportunities for inference and exploring vocabulary. In the video Bringing Reading to Life (Stenhouse, 2003), Franki Sibberson's students talk about identifying symbols in their reading. Poetry is fertile ground for symbols in text.
An independent reading program begins with a well-stocked classroom library. Make it a goal to have poetry books comprise about 20% of a your classroom library. Include humorous poetry books, themed poetry collections on topics that appeal to your students, some illustrated poetry books, and some poems in picture book format.
Assemble several book tubs or baskets of poetry books. You can categorize books by the poet's name or by theme (animal poems, funny poems, school poems, etc.). Until you build your poetry collection, you can put all of the poetry books in one tub. While building your collection, supplement it with books borrowed from the public library. This will give you an opportunity to "test drive" the books before you commit to a purchase. Display your poetry tubs in a prominent place.
Of course, you'll want to give your students an opportunity to share their poems. My friend Ann Bates invited her second graders to practice reading a favorite poem during the week for fluency building. Students who were ready to perform got to read their poems aloud to the whole class on Fridays.
Content Area Instruction
Yes, you can use poetry in content area instruction. My favorite poet for content area themes is Douglas Florian. Florian has written theme poetry books on numerous content topics, including insects, amphibians, mammals, weather, seasons, fish, space, and birds. Students can unearth facts on these topics while enjoying a poem.
April will be over before you know it. This year, you might keep the baskets of poetry books in the library even after the end of National Poetry Month, so that the students can continue to enjoy them for the rest of the school year.
Certo, J.L., Apol, L., Wibbens, E., & Yoon, S. (2010). Poetry writing PK-12: Current research and implications for practice and future research. In G. Troia, R. Shankland & A. Heintz (Eds.), Putting Writing Research into Practice: Applications for Teacher Professional Development. New York: Guilford Press.
Duke, N. K. (2003). Reading to learn from the very beginning: Information books in early childhood. Reading Research Quarterly, 58(2), 14-20.
Laminack, L. & Wadsworth, R. (2006). Learning Under the Influence of Language and Literature: Making the Most of Read-Alouds Across the Day. Heinemann.