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When Poetry Meets the Common Core

By Ben Curran — January 15, 2013 5 min read
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Poetry can be intimidating. As students, many of us were taught that the goal of reading a poem was to “understand” exactly what the poet was trying to say. No small charge.

The Common Core State Standards can be intimidating, too. Many educators are hearing that poetry and literature must give way to informational text under the new standards.

It would be easy to scratch poems from our syllabi these days.

But in our quest to meet the common core in English language arts, poetry can and should play an important role. All that is needed is a shift in the way we read and discuss poems with students.

What if we give up on trying to “get” a poem and explain its one true meaning? Instead, we can discover the richness of the text and learn from the questions and puzzles poems present to us. Once we make this shift, nearly any poem becomes “teachable” at nearly any grade, from Emily Dickinson to Walt Whitman to Maya Angelou and beyond.

Let’s examine some three questions that will hopefully inspire you to add poetry to your teaching repertoire.

1) What Standards Can You Meet With Poetry?

Poetry is part of the common core. A closer look at the grade-level standards reveals that poetry, poetic language, and poetry terminology (e.g., stanza, sonnet) are specifically mentioned in all grades.

But there’s more to it than that. The ELA anchor standards (anchor standard number in parentheses) call upon students to be able to:

• Make inferences (1).
• Cite specific textual evidence to support conclusions and answers (1).
• Determine and analyze the theme of a text (2).
• Analyze the way ideas develop over the course of a text (3).
• Interpret words and phrases (4).
• Analyze connotative and figurative meanings of words (4).
• Analyze how word choice shapes a text (4).
• Analyze the structure of a text (5).
• Assess how point of view shapes a text (6).
• Analyze how two texts address the same theme (9).

I look at this list and think, “poetry … poetry … poetry … .” And that’s just the reading standards! There are anchor standards in Language, Speaking and Listening, and even Writing (even though poetry isn’t mentioned once there) that also lend themselves to the use of poetry.

2) How Do You Select a Poem to Teach?

My advice here is simple—choose a poem you enjoy. And if you’re not familiar with many poems, check out this list of poems I like to teach and this list of some of my favorite poetry books. Spend time exploring the website of The Poetry Foundation, which has several teaching guides for various poems as well as a section on children’s poetry. Another favorite of mine is The Academy of American Poets (Both have apps for your smartphone, too!)

3) How Do You Teach a Poem?

Before I share a poem with a group of students, I prepare a list of questions. As poetry critic Helen Vendler writes, “A poem will tell you what questions to ask of it.” The poem you choose should guide your questions. But you can also prepare with the common-core skills in mind.

Here are some general questions, rooted in the ELA Reading anchor standards, that can apply to a variety of poems. (These are adapted from A Surge of Language by Baron Wormser and David Cappella.)

• What message does this poem convey to you?
• What comparisons does the author make? How are the things being compared alike?
• How are the sentences and stanzas connected?
• How are the images in the poem described?
• After you read the poem, how does it make you feel? What causes that feeling?
• Does the poem change at any point? If so, where and how? What effect does this change have?
• Why would the poet choose that title for the poem?
• What if the poem were told from a different point of view?

And here are some questions that are more specifically about words and language:

• What word surprises you? Confuses you? Interests you?
• Is there a word that seems like it isn’t needed or doesn’t fit?
• What word is most important in this poem?
• Which words may have multiple meanings?
• If the word ___ is removed, how does the poem change?

All of these questions won’t apply to every single poem you read. I choose questions—and come up with my own—based on the skills I’m helping students master and the poem we’re reading.

With your questions in mind, it’s time for the fun part—reading and discussing the poem. I read the poem aloud to students and give them each a copy so they can follow along. (They store these in a binder, creating an anthology of great poems as the year progresses.) If it’s a longer or more complex poem, I read it one stanza or section at a time, asking a question or two after each part.

Another option for shorter poems is dictation. As I slowly read the poem, one line at a time, students copy it into their poetry notebooks. This approach helps them listen actively and really gets them thinking about the words and structure of the poem.

Often, after reading a poem, I begin with a simple question: “What do you notice?” I asked this after reading “Dreams” by Langston Hughes. A student shared the observation that in the first stanza, it reads, “For if dreams die” and in the second it reads, “For when dreams die.” He went on to add that “since there are two kinds of dreams, goals and the ones you have at night, maybe (Hughes) was talking about one in the first stanza and the other in the second.” This astute answer gave me goosebumps.

As you move into your discussion, remember that questions about poetry rarely have one correct answer. In fact, some of the best questions to ask students about poems are questions that you don’t even know the answer to yourself. I recently read “Popcorn Can Cover” by Lorine Niedecker with my 5th grade students. I asked them afterward: “Why isn’t there a period at the end of this poem?” I hadn’t the faintest idea. But one student answered, “Maybe because the story isn’t over yet.”

Keep in mind the common standards focus on supporting answers by citing “specific textual evidence.” Follow up as many questions as you can with, “What in the poem makes you think that?” This will not only help students practice the important skill of grounding their conclusions in the text, but it will also lead to more dynamic classroom discussions.

As a recent Washington Post article explains, many fear that quality literature and poetry cannot be a part of common-core-aligned instruction. Yes, the standards do emphasize informational text in all subject areas (not just language arts). But poetry’s not out of the game: Indeed, it’s one of the best tools we have for teaching critical thinking, depth of understanding, and analysis.

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