Making Time for Poetry and Connecting with Common Core Standards

Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong

Pausing for poetry every Friday is becoming a tradition in the children's literature world, and many educators are incorporating this exercise in their teaching activities. In addition, the new national Common Core standards include an explicit poetry component, creating a need for meaningful skills instruction.

Previous research suggests poetry offers a variety of cognitive and linguistic benefits. Wilfong (2008) indicated that repeated reading of poetry improves fluency and attitudes toward reading. She found that through repeated immersion in poems, students increased sight word vocabulary and strengthened their ability to decode words quickly and accurately. In addition, exposure to poetry enabled students to use appropriate sentence phrasing, interpret punctuation markers, and read with greater ease (Wilfong, 2008). This fluent reading enables students to spend less time on decoding and increase comprehension of the text (Pikulsi & Chard, 2005). So where do we begin to incorporate poetry in our instructional practice? How can we share poetry with young people while incorporating required skills and still maintain the joy and pleasure of poetry?

When it comes to sharing poems with students, there is no magic formula for success, but over the years we have found that a few key steps make it easy to engage students and integrate some basic language skill reinforcement. In our recent books The Poetry Friday Anthology for K-5 (2012) and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School (2013), we borrowed the phrase "Take 5" from the great jazz musician Dave Brubeck to propose that teachers and librarians take five minutes every Friday to introduce and share a poem. These anthologiesinclude a poem for each week for the whole school year for every grade level -- one book for K-5 and another for middle school grades 6-8, including the work of 76 different poets. Each book also offers "Take 5" activities for each poem at every grade level, tied to the new Common Core standards. 

 

Not Your Grandmother's Poetry:
Choosing 21st Century Poetry for Poetry Fridays

Few other genres have changed as much as poetry. As the world changes, poetry has become the perfect genre for the 21st century.

A 21st century fact: The average educator has very little time for "extras."

Poetry is short.

Fact: Classrooms are more diverse than ever with students from a variety of backgrounds and with a range of abilities.

Poetry reflects many cultures and voices.

Fact: It is a constant challenge to help students comprehend and retain new material.

Poetry is memorable.

Fact: We have to teach everything from commas to character education.

Poetry is relevant.

When selecting poems for The Poetry Friday Anthology, we favored poems that were short and focused, represented diverse voices and experiences, were memorable in content and form, and were relevant to the lives of young readers and listeners. For example, Charles Waters' poem "Sack Lunch" invites kindergartners to think about favorite foods in just eight lines. "Bilingual" by Margarita Engle explores identity through the lens of language. Eileen Spinelli's "The Bully" makes powerful points about "the good I see in you," even in a bully. Nothing could be more relevant than Janet Wong's poem "Skype" about a child communicating with a distant dad in the army via Skype.

A quick examination of current poetry books for children reveals that much of the poetry published for young readers today exemplifies these same elements. Susan Blackaby's Nest, Nook, and Cranny (Charlesbridge, 2010), for example, describes animal habitats concisely and lyrically. Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park highlights a Korean form of poetry, the sijo poem, in her work Tap Dancing on the Roof (Clarion, 2007), and who can forget the powerful biography in poetry Carver (Front Street, 2001) by Marilyn Nelson. Finally, the "relevance" quotient is so evident in works like Lesléa Newman's heartbreaking October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012).

Why Fridays? In 2006 blogger Kelly Herold brought the concept of Poetry Friday to the "kidlitosphere" on the Internet. Much like "casual Friday" in the corporate world, literacy teachers seem to anticipate that on Fridays we can relax a bit and take a moment for something special. We can adopt the Poetry Friday concept in the library or classroom and take five minutes every Friday to share a poem and explore it a bit, connecting it with students' lives and capitalizing on an engaged teaching moment to reinforce literacy learning.

Yes, of course we can share poetry on other days of the week too.  But for those who are not already teaching poetry regularly, planning for Poetry Friday makes poetry sharing intentional and not incidental. The Poetry Friday Anthology makes it easy to find and share a poem at each grade level, but certainly any book of poetry can jumpstart Poetry Friday sharing. Five components are involved in the "Take 5" approach:

Take 5: Steps for Poetry Sharing

  1. Read the poem aloud (vary the approach in multiple readings).
  2. Read the poem aloud again with student participation and involvement.
  3. Take a moment to invite students to discuss the poem; have an open-ended question ready as a prompt.
  4. Make a subtle skill connection with the poem -- just one.
  5. Connect with other poems and poetry books that are similar in some way.

These quick, simple steps begin with the adult leading the poem sharing, then involve students in active poem re-reading, followed by brief discussion and skill connections, and if time allows, another related poem -- all in approximately five minutes. Let's consider each step in greater detail.

Step #1: Oral Reading

The first step in sharing a poem is to read it aloud to the students. Poems, like songs, are meant to be heard. The rhythm or rhyme of poetry can help students begin to get a sense of the sound of artful yet natural language. If possible, practice reading the poem aloud a few times to get comfortable with the words, lines, pauses, and rhythm.

Poet and anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins (2006) suggested the following: "Mark words and phrases you want to emphasize. Read to the group in a natural style. Follow the rhythm of the poem. Note how the physical appearance of the poem on the page dictates the rhythm and mood." If possible, display the words of the poem on a poster or chalkboard or with an overhead or digital projector. Seeing the words while hearing them provides additional reinforcement for students learning to read or learning English.

As you get more comfortable and experienced in reading poems aloud, experiment with different ways of making the poem come alive as you read it: for example, pairing the poem with a prop, adding gestures or movement, trying out specific dramatic reading techniques, or singing the poem to a certain tune. If the poem has active verbs in it, add motions or pantomime to the reading. If a physical object is referenced, plan ahead to have that object ready as a "poem prop."

We can vary our voices with whispers, growls, or shouts, depending on the words, or we may create vocal characters for different points of view in the poem. Some poems can be read aloud to a soundtrack of relevant music or sound effects evoked by the poem or with projected images (like nature photos). Finger snapping, clapping, singing, or sign language may be added depending on the poem's meaning.

Some poems incorporate a few challenging vocabulary words that may need a bit of brief explanation before reading. Or invite students to close their eyes and visualize the scene or place depicted in the poem before reading it aloud, thus enhancing the listening experience and building comprehension.

For variety, consider inviting guest readers to read the poem aloud, particularly if relevant to the poem's content. Maybe a distant parent or relative can share the poem aloud via Skype or FaceTime. Finally, consider slowing down or pausing for the last line (or stanza) for greater emphasis.

Step #2: Student Participation

The second step is to engage students in reading the poem aloud together. When students participate in reading aloud, they have the opportunity to develop their own oral fluency. Poet Sara Holbrook (2002) reminds us to "show the world that poetry was never meant to simply lie quietly on the page, any more than kids were meant to sit quietly in their seats to read it" (p. 54).

There are many ways to involve students in large groups, small groups, and partner pairs as well as single volunteers. Experimenting with various approaches to reading and reciting poetry aloud can help students express themselves and build confidence and fluency. One example is echo reading: asking them to repeat certain words or lines after the teacher reads the lines. When leading an echo reading, keep the pace moving so the echoing won't interrupt a poem to the point of distraction.

Another favorite strategy is to write out, highlight, or otherwise display any repeatedwords, phrases, lines or stanzas in the poem and invite students to chime in on those words as the rest of the poem is read aloud. The same technique can be used for key words like number words, days of the week, months of the year, etc. and for the very last line of the poem -- often enhanced by being read in unison.

Students can also provide sound effects for sound words (onomatopoeia), and they may speak question lines (ending in a question mark) individually or in groups. Use words or lines in bold or italics as cues for student participation. Multiple stanzas can naturally suggest groupings for the read aloud (one group per stanza). Rhyming poems can lend themselves to a "guess the end" activity, with a pause before the rhyming word at the end of the couplet or stanza and students chiming in with that final word.

Poems written for two voices or with designated character parts particularly lend themselves to student participation. Students who hear poems read aloud every day and jump in and participate in reading and reciting poetry orally will quite naturally engage in a great deal of verbal interaction, higher-level thinking, and critical analysis. Look for Poetry Aloud Here: Sharing Poetry with Children (Vardell, 2014) for more ideas for how to present poems and involve students creatively.

Step #3: Discussion

The third step in sharing a poem is to provide a moment for students to respond to the poem. Initially it can be helpful to have a engaging discussion prompt ready, tailored to fit the poem. Try an open-ended question with no single correct answer, and encourage diversity in responses. Ask a question suggested BY the poem, rather than a question ABOUT the poem. This helps "break the ice" and connect the poem with students' own experiences, leading back to looking at specific words, lines, and stanzas in the poem.

Some poems are immediately accessible, but others need more time to grow on us. Don't be surprised if students refer to a poem days or weeks after they've heard it. And not every child will respond verbally; some of the quietest students may experience the poem deeply but not ask or respond to questions in a group setting, and that is OK. Discussion prompts should never overwhelm the poem itself. We should be sure that as teachers, we are not doing most of the talking.

This brief moment for discussion usually accomplishes two important things: It provides a window into students' understanding of the poem and paves the way for a gentle inductive skill-focused mini-lesson. Kids often notice things about the poem in this discussion time (like repetition, rhyme, or onomatopoeia, for example), particularly as this practice becomes familiar.

We can piggyback on students' comments by explaining some poetry fundamentals AFTER students have already observed them (e.g., "click clack" is called onomatopoeia, and poets use this device to suggest sounds, even coining new words in the process). When this discussion dynamic is in place time after time, students will often volunteer their own responses before we ask our questions because they know we are already open to their opinions.

Step #4: Skill

The next natural step is to focus on a specific language arts or poetry skill or concept that may be present in the poem -- just one. This includes basics such as rhyme, repetition, rhythm, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, as well as poetry forms and types (cinquain, haiku, tanka, acrostic, diamante), and techniques such as personification and simile. Any given poem may demonstrate many of these poetic elements and devices but focus on one key element that is particularly significant for one mini-lesson. Remember that we are building poetry understanding one poem at a time -- while striving to maintain the joy of poetry as well.

Here we can incorporate the Common Core standards (or whatever curricular standards are relevant) in a natural incremental way. What are the expectations regarding poetry outlined in the Common Core?

Kindergarten. In sharing poetry with kindergartners (RL.K.5), we capitalize on their developing knowledge of language, their joy in learning and playing with words, and their emerging understanding of how words should be spoken, spelled, read, and written. First we focus on enjoyment and understanding; then we guide students in recognizing and responding to poems. We can explore the rhythm of poetry as well as the power of rhyme and the sounds of words. 

Grade 1. With first graders (RL.1.4), we shift slightly to guide students in understanding how poets express feelings in poetry and appeal to the senses through language. We can also help them understand and identify the words and phrases poets use to communicate emotions and convey sensory experiences through poetry.

Grade 2. In second grade (RL.2.4), we guide students in responding to the rhythm of poetry and recognizing how rhyme is used in poems. We can also explore how repetition and alliteration can help shape a poem and how meaning emerges.

Grade 3. By third grade (RL.3.5), we support students in responding to poetry in various forms, exploring narrative poems that tell stories, lyrical poems that explore questions and emotions, and humorous poems that make us groan or laugh. We help students understand how poets use lines and stanzas to build poems in distinctive ways.

Grade 4. We continue guiding students in responding to various forms of poetry as they move to fourth grade (RL.4.2; 4.5), and we help them articulate various  themes from key ideas and details in the poems. In sharing poetry aloud and in print, we can assist students in understanding how structural elements such as verse, rhythm, and meter help shape a poem.

Grade 5. Building on our efforts to help students respond to poetry in various forms and articulate themes from key ideas and details, in fifth grade (RL.5.2, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6, 5.7) we explain how the poem's speaker reflects on a topic and shapes it with a particular point of view. We can guide students in understanding word meanings and interpreting ways figurative language such as metaphors and similes function in poetry. We can also discuss how structural elements such as stanzas and line breaks help shape a poem and how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a poem.

Grade 6. By sixth grade (RL.6.4, 6.5, 6.7, 6.9, 6.10), we focus on helping students understand the craft and structure of poetry, with a specific focus on words and phrases as they are used in a poem, including figurative and connotative meanings. We guide students in analyzing the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone and in understanding how the poem's lines or stanzas fit into the overall structure and contribute to the development of the poem's theme.

We also challenge students to compare poems in different forms and poems with texts in other genres in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics. Finally, we open discussion about the experience of reading or listening to a poem in contrast with viewing an audio, video, or live version of the poem, including contrasting what they "see" and "hear" when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

Grade 7. We continue our focus on helping students understand the craft and structure of poetry during seventh grade (RL.7.4; RL.7.5; RL.7.7; RL.7.10), and we continue specifically focusing on words and phrases as they are used in a poem -- noting figurative and connotative meanings. In addition, we guide students in analyzing the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on specific verses or stanzas of a poem.

We also challenge students to consider how a poem's form or structure (e.g., sonnet) contributes to its meaning. Finally, we make connections with multi-media adaptations of poetry, encouraging students to compare and contrast the written poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).

Grade 8. Our ongoing focus on helping students understand the craft and structure of poetry continues to focus in eighth grade(RL.8.4; RL.8.5; RL.8.6; RL.8.10) on the use of particular words and phrases in a poem, examining both figurative and connotative meanings. We further guide students in analyzing the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts. We lead students in considering how differences in points of view (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) create such effects as suspense or humor. Finally, we provide opportunities for students to compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structures contribute to the texts' particular meaning and style.

All this may seem somewhat overwhelming at first glance, but the idea is to develop this poetry appreciation incrementally, one poem at a time. With both K-5 and 6-8 versions of The Poetry Friday Anthology (2012, 1213), students engage in reading, sharing, and discussing 36 poems across the school year, one poem per Poetry Friday. But teachers can share poems from a variety of wonderful poetry books, such as Marilyn Singer's newest work, Follow, Follow (2013), the sequel to her popular fairy tale-themed reverso poem collection, Mirror, Mirror (2010); or Jack Prelutsky's new Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems (2013), a blending of the animate and inanimate; or Caroline Kennedy's comprehensive anthology, Poems to Learn by Heart (2013). Using this five-step approach, we can take any poem we enjoy and share it with students in ways that are varied, engaging, participatory, and skill-rich.

Step #5: More Poetry

In this last step we share other poem titles and poetry books that connect well with the featured poem. Keep the poetry momentum going! Look for another poem by the same poet, another poem about the same subject, another poem in the same style, or a poem that contrasts with the focus poem in some distinctive way. One helpful bibliographic resource is The Poetry Teacher's Book of Lists (Vardell, 2012), which provides over 150 bibliographies of poetry books along a variety of themes and topics. Our forthcoming book, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, K-5 (Vardell & Wong, 2014), will offer more than 200 poems on various science themes. 

"Take 5:" Two Examples

We can apply the "Take 5" approach to nearly any poem in any popular poetry book on the shelves. Here are just two examples of how one might choose a poem and create quick and meaningful "Take 5" activities for each.

"Band-Aids" by Shel Silverstein

Look for the poem "Band-Aids" by Shel Silverstein, found in Where the Sidewalk Ends (HarperCollins, 1974), the best-selling children's poetry book of all time. (The poem can also be found in a variety of places online.) Use these tips for engaging students in reading and understanding this humorous poem. 

  1. Read aloud: Point to each body part mentioned in the poem as you read it aloud and have a box of Band-Aids handy to show as a poetry prop.
  2. Children participate: Share the poem again and invite children to point to each body part mentioned in the poem as you read it aloud.
  3. Discussion: Invite students to share stories of times they have needed Band-Aids.
  4. Skill: Depending on the grade level with which you share this poem, the skill emphasized will vary. But Silverstein's poem definitely lends itself to a discussion of end rhymes, the use of repetition of number words, the list form of poetry writing, or the power of the surprise ending. Just choose ONE of these skills to focus on and save the others for another poem or another day.
  5. More poetry: Connect this poem with other poems by Silverstein that reference body parts, such as "Boa Constrictor," or with selections from Allan Wolf 's The Blood-­Hungry Spleen and Other Poems about Our Parts (Candlewick, 2003).

"The Mosquitoes" by Douglas Florian

Douglas Florian's poem "The Mosquitoes" can be found in Insectlopedia (Harcourt, 1998) and is also widely available online. Here are possible "Take 5" steps for sharing his engaging poem. 

  1. Read aloud: As you read this poem aloud, slap your arm to pretend you've just been bitten by a mosquito.
  2. Children participate: Share this poem again and invite children to join you in chanting this poem in two groups in a back-and-forth way.
  3. Discussion: Nearly everyone has had a mosquito bite at one time or another. Invite students to share their experiences with mosquito bites.
  4. Skill: Once again, the skill one selects for emphasis depends on the grade level of the audience, but Florian's poem is strong in end rhymes, uses repetition for emphasis, personifies mosquitoes as having human qualities, and employs a pun comparing human skin to "take-out food" for mosquitoes. Again, choose one of these to focus on depending on the needs of the students and the curriculum.
  5. More poetry: Extend the poetry experience by sharing other poems by Florian from Insectlopedia or with selections from Bugs: Poems About Creeping Things by David L. Harrison (Boyds Mills, 2007), Hey There, Stink Bug! by Leslie Bulion (Charlesbridge, 2006), or Joyce Sidman's Song of the Water Boatmen and Other Pond Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Once the students have been immersed in a dozen poems or more, they will be making those connections themselves, noting how the focus poem reminds them of another. Follow their lead and encourage them to find and share those connected poems. Keep poetry books handy for easy reference, and revisit favorite poems as often as possible.

A quick oral sharing of a popular poem can be a great way to start or end the day, a lesson, or a library program. A poem can be used to line students up, transition to the next activity, or keep students engaged while waiting for a few moments. Students who spend five minutes every Friday with a good poem will surely find at least one poem that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

 

Sylvia Vardell is a Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University. She has published extensively, including five books on literature for children and over one hundred journal articles.

Janet Wong is a graduate of Yale Law School and former lawyer who switched careers and became a children's poet who has written 30 books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects, including writing and revision, dumpster diving, diversity, and chess.

References

Holbrook, S. (2002). Wham! It’s a poetry jam: Discovering performance poetry. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong/Boyds Mills.

Hopkins, L. B. (2006). Reading is fundamental poetry month tips. http://www.rif.org/educators/rifexchange/programdescriptions/QA_show205.mspx Accessed February, 2006.

Pikulsi J.J., & Chard, D.J. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 58, 510-519.

Sidman, J. (2005). Song of the Water Boatmen and Other Poems. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Silverstein, S. (1974). Where the sidewalk ends. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Singer, M. (2010). Mirror mirror: A book of reversible verse. New York, NY: Dutton.

Singer, M. (2013). Follow follow: A book of reverso poems. New York, NY: Dial.

Vardell, S. (2014). Poetry aloud here: Sharing poetry with children (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Vardell, S. (2012). The poetry teacher’s book of lists. Princeton, NJ: Pomelo Books.

Vardell, S., & Wong, J. (2012). The poetry Friday anthology for K-5. Princeton, NJ: Pomelo Books.

Vardell, S., & Wong, J. (2013). The poetry Friday anthology for middle school, grades 6-8. Princeton, NJ: Pomelo Books.

Vardell, S., & Wong, J. (in press, 2014). The poetry Friday anthology for science. Princeton, NJ: Pomelo Books.

Wilfong, L. G. (2008). Building fluency, word-recognition ability, and confidence in struggling readers: The poetry academy. The Reading Teacher, 62, 4-12.

Related resources on the web

pomelobooks.com

PoetryFridayAnthology.Blogspot.com

PFAMS.Blogspot.com

PoetryforChildren.Blogspot.com

JanetWong.com