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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Teaching Poetry as a Means to Inclusion

By Bertha Rogers — June 29, 2017 7 min read

Editor’s intro: Today, Bertha Rogers, teaching artist with Teachers & Writers Collaborative, shares how poetry can teach the world and make students feel at home in it. She also shares tips and resources for teaching different forms of poetry from across the globe.

Our world, once thought to be enormous beyond comprehension, is growing smaller by the day. Our communities, once mostly tribal in nature, have broadened to include all races, cultures, and traditions. The ways we learn must widen so that inclusion becomes second nature to our children and youth, so that they may become global citizens, capable and competent enough to interact and work with diverse people.

The United States is a country of inclusion, but inclusion has its own complexities. One way to explore those complexities is through poetry. Poetry gives us a new world view, a way to understand life events, no matter where in the world we come from or live in. Perhaps most important, poetry is the language of seeing beneath the surface.

Those whose primary language is not English live their daily lives in vastly different ways from those whose first language is English, but who may live just down the street. Often, the children in first- and second-generation families are, thanks to the clothes they wear, their hair styles, video games, and the sports they play, rapidly assimilating, yet at home they celebrate Eid or Lunar New Year or Yom Kippur. This is one of the reasons that America’s big cities are such inviting places and, at the same time, so confusing to newcomers. Likewise, the children in those families who immigrate to this country are often isolated by their race and culture, even in school.

How does a teacher address this problem of inclusion? For me, it means expanding poetry’s thesis by adding some of the myriad, world poetry forms to lessons, even if they have never been part of students’ traditions. My premise is that if you read a Japanese poem you will understand a small part of Japanese culture, and if you write in that style you will grasp more of what it’s like to live and work in that country.

Here are some ways to get started.

Read Poems and Legends from World Cultures

After greeting my students, no matter which school I’m visiting, I regularly read them poems and legends from world cultures. When I read “Clouds and Waves” by Rabindranath Tagore, several of my Queens 6th graders delightedly informed me that Tagore was the author of the Bengali national anthem, “Amar Shonar Bangla.” They were “there” with Tagore and me and the poem.

When we were studying Greek culture, students wrote blank verse riddle sonnets about Greek mythology as well as Anacreontic poems about the holidays they were celebrating in the fall and winter inspired by the storied Greek poet Anacreon; they particularly enjoyed working with the rhyme scheme. After we read and discussed Egyptian creation tales, we wrote poems and legends in the voices of various gods or goddesses and incorporated hieroglyphs into the poems. I asked the students to research hieroglyphs so that they would better understand how the ancient Egyptians thought and communicated.

I’ve seen the same phenomenon when we read and discuss poetry from India, Syria, Czech Republic, and Kenya. My selection process for introducing poems from around the world is the same one that I use when introducing poems written in the English language: I choose poems I love by the poets whose culture and heritage reflects that of my students and whose work I admire and respect. I also take into consideration current events and topics being studied in the class. Any writing teacher working today has a world at her fingertips; there are so many collections being published that the choice is vast. This approach is invaluable for both US-born and first- and second-generation students.

Write and Workshop Student Poems in Class

After they’ve heard the day’s poem, students use class time to begin writing. If I have read a poem in a form new to them, I distribute a template that I’ve developed as a format for the style of writing, including number of lines, syllable count, stanza length, etc. For example, if they’re writing Italian sestinas, I use Scholastic’s user-friendly Sestina template.

There are many guidelines to the different poetry forms. One of my favorite books is The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, but there are more, including The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms.

Sometimes I encourage students to riff on the theme of the poem they’ve heard; sometimes I tell them to write whatever they’re thinking, even if it seems to have no relation to what they’ve just heard.

Then, for about ten minutes at the end of the period, a few students read out loud from their own writing. The homework assignment is to finish that first draft and bring it to class. I often ask the students to research and learn up to five new things about the form or the topic they’ve chosen and incorporate them into the poem. The reason the students use the template to write in form before we discuss the mechanics is so that they can approach it without too much caution, that they treat it as a fun exercise.

During the next class session, students volunteer to read out loud from their poems (projected on the SMART Board), and the whole class joins the conversation about the writing, usually beginning with comments about what contributes to the success of the poem, then suggesting what could improve the poem and how that’s done (by paying close attention to such poetic devices as similes and metaphors, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole). The students ask questions, and all, including the poet, contribute to a lively dialogue that enhances their understanding of how the projected poem works or doesn’t work and how it can be improved.

Sometimes I tell them about John Burroughs, the New York nature writer who combined scientific observation with poetic spirit in his writing, and I tie in his “sharp eyes” philosophy; or I explain how Basho and Rumi and other great international writers used “looking” as an impetus to writing. In this way, they learn that poetry is essential to every culture; that great poems are word-pictures, that every poem should be “seen” in the mind’s eye. We discuss the sound of a poem and how the words we use contribute to the reader’s “hearing” of the poem, what impact word-sounds make, both on paper and orally.

My homework assignment for them is to edit and revise their poems, then bring in a completed poem.

Connect to Other Forms of Poetry

Some of the forms I teach on a regular basis include traditional European forms, among them the Italian sestina, the sevenling, the English sonnet, the Greek anacreontic rhyme, but we don’t stop there. We move on to the Malaysian pantoum, Afghanistan landay, Korean sijo, Japanese haibun, haiku, and renga, Chinese lüshi, Vietnamese lục bát, and more. We connect these forms to the content being taught in class.

For example, when studying Egyptian creation tales, we added hieroglyphs around god personification poems. Alexander Cunningham, 6th grader, wrote this poem with hieroglyphs:

As part of the social studies curriculum about ancient Greece and Egypt, we traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and students took notes, drew what they saw, and when back in the classroom, wrote ekphrastic poems in the Japanese haibun style. The following is 6th grader Felix Odenthal’s poem:

Crouching Lion, Marble Statue

Striding down the museum halls, head turning side to side, breath trapped inside

my bones, happiness swelling beyond measure, I come to the masterpiece itself.

It growls at me

It measures me

It POUNCES!

Slowly dusting myself off, rising from the pearly marble ground, I come face to

face with the beast itself, its red eyes glowing, teeth sharp as knives. It jumps.

“Perfect.” I remark

A smile carves its way onto my face

I pick my pen off my paper

Felix’s poem, and those written by other sixth graders, tell me that students are seeing and understanding new worlds that they weren’t aware of or knew only as political, TV news stories. It is poetry that I put my trust in as a teaching artist; it is poetry that transcends the ordinary, that takes our students, wherever they live, to other universes.

Additional Resources

Follow Bertha, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the author.

Poems by Felix Odenthal and Alexander Cunningham used with permission. They were both 6th graders at PS 122 Q, The Mamie Fay School in New York City when they wrote the poems.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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