Painlessly Bringing Poetry into Your Classroom

by K. J. Wagner

“Teach poetry? But I don’t know anything about poetry. Besides, I have to prepare my students for high-stakes testing. I don’t have time for additional material.”

Sound familiar? The irony in the statement above—which was issued by me to a colleague—is that introducing students to poetry can actually enhance their performance on those very same high-stakes tests. How? According to Nile Stanley, a reading specialist, researcher, and professor of education, “Poetry helps students do well on high stakes tests because it gives their minds an exhilarating workout. Poetry inspires students to read more, imagine more, think more, discuss more and write more.”

Perhaps more importantly Dr. Stanley notes that poetry also “massages the heart, cares for the soul, and preps students on life’s tougher questions that are seldom asked on high stakes tests. What are the costs of not including poetry in every child’s education? What damage is done to children’s well being who are denied poetry? Can one be a full human being without poetry?”

Of course, in and of itself, poetry is not a cure-all notes Dr. Stanley. “It must be embedded within a systematic, well-organized, total-literacy program that’s informed by broadly researched principles and best practices.”
If you are intrigued with the idea of incorporating poetry into your classroom but are not sure how to go about it, Dr. Stanley’s book Creating Readers with Poetry is an ideal starting point. I found it one of the most accessible and teacher-friendly books available concerning the theory and practice of teaching poetry.

The book begins by offering a convincing argument that poetry helps children become better readers. Research and experience have proven this to be true. “Poetry isn’t fluff,” explains Dr. Stanley. “It’s the real stuff of reading that makes literacy come alive, especially with struggling readers.” The book then goes on to provide mini-lessons that focus on the “’fab five’ of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.” From experience I can tell you that the lessons are highly adaptable and easy to implement. Liberally sprinkled throughout the book you will also find full-length poems and songs.

Recently I used a Guided Reading Mini-Lesson from the book in my sixth-grade social studies classroom to introduce my students to the concept of “social justice” through the folksongs of Woody Guthrie. (Click here to see a copy of the lesson.) Although I was concerned as to whether or not the lesson would “go over” in my room of at-risk students (who are more interested in rap than reading), it turned out to be a huge success. The students made connections, offered thoughtful remarks during class discussion, created a collage representing social justice, and ended the lesson by writing their own folksongs.

One of the most useful aspects of Creating Readers is the audio CD included with book which contains many of the poems and songs excerpted therein. Some of the poems are performed by their authors, others by children. You can hear, for example, “My Teacher Thinks He’s Elvis” performed by author Gary Dulabaum. (A poem that my students consider wildly amusing.)

In addition to Creating Readers, you will also want to investigate the plethora of tips and techniques available on the Internet. A sampling available:

If you want to start small—literally—try haiku. David McMurray has created an effective lesson plan for introducing haiku at:

You will definitely want to surf by There you will find activities, tips, even “poetry plays” in the Poetry Theater section.

Infusing poetry into your curriculum does not necessarily require long, detailed lesson plans. Below you will find easily implemented ideas that I and the teachers here at the Oasis have used in our own classrooms.

Seven Quick Starts
  • Take a two minute “poetry pause” during each period (if you teach middle or high) or during transitions (if you teach elementary). I keep a “Pot o’ Poetry”—an empty plant pot painted blue—in my room that contains short “giggle” poems. Include poems which will appeal to your students. Sometimes I read the poem, sometimes a student will volunteer.
  • Post some poems you particularly like around the room. Allow the students notice them on their own.
  • Have magnetic poetry kits available for students who finish their assigned work early.
  • Have students create “bio-poems” as a way to introduce themselves at the beginning of the year. Click here for a lesson plan. Keep these poems in a safe place. At the end of the year, have them create another “bio-poem” then compare the two. You may be surprised at how some of your students have changed.
  • Gather some poems for “two voices.” Periodically allow two volunteers to perform a poem of their choosing. You may be surprised at who likes to get up and perform.
  • Project an interesting (or mysterious) picture onto a screen with the overhead. As a class, create a short poem to accompany it.
  • Together as a class, create acrostic poems using content vocabulary.
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About Dr. Nile Stanley: Affectionately known as "Nile Crocodile, the Reading Reptile," Dr. Stanley is a reading specialist, researcher, and professor of education at the University of North Florida. He is a performance poet and is the author-in-residence for Sallye B. Mathis Elementary in Jacksonville, Florida. You may visit Dr. Stanley's Web site here:

You may purchase Dr Stanley's book Creating Readers with Poetry from your local bookstore or online from the publisher Maupin House.

©2005 by K. J. Wagner

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