Beyond Poetry Month: Leveraging Poetry’s Possibilities All Year Long

Beyond Poetry Month: Leveraging Poetry’s Possibilities All Year Long
Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande on Unsplash

By The Educator Collaborative Book Ambassador JoEllen McCarthy

As the month of April comes to an end, we wanted to reflect on the importance of leveraging the power and possibility of poetry all year long.

Poetry is a canvas for invitation, inspiration, and imitation. Whether we’re mining mentor texts for craft lessons, reading strategies, or life lessons, these texts can offer endless invitations for inspiration and imitation. Poetry and picture books are a constant source of this possibility.

Poetry is a powerful tool, providing opportunities to shape our thinking around words, ideas, styles, and structures. Through poetry we can see ourselves, learn about others, and expand our concepts of identity. It enhances our personal and connected experiences and is an important part of self-expression. This is why we believe, like identity work, poetry should be celebrated and leveraged across the school year, not just during one fixed time of year or unit of study.

Poetry gives us permission to feel and to steal…yes, steal. Yup, we said it. Give kids permission to steal (with a nod to Austin Kleon). However, you might prefer explaining to your students that we “borrow” that which we love–through lifting lines, or rewriting with a new lens to demonstrate our appreciation and interpretation of someone else’s words.

If you agree the best ideas are stolen, then, like us, you would be standing on the shoulders of writers like Nikki Grimes, Renée Watson, and Kwame Alexander, just to name a few. In A Pocketful of Poems (illustrated by Javaka Steptoe), Nikki Grimes writes directly to the reader about the words she carries and invites the reader “to borrow most of her words” in order to try to write their own poems. Heck, Renée Watson is just one of the many fabulous poets who have adapted George Ella Lyon’s work in “Where I’m From.” (If you haven’t seen her brilliant adaptation yet, please share “Where You From?” with your students.)

Consider introducing students to this concept using Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets (art by Ekua Holmes) where Kwame says, “inspiration can come from reading the works of other poets.” The format of this collection of poetry positions original poems next to a new poem inspired by that mentor text, which is a great way to show how studying the work of others can inspire our own. Even Kwame does it!

Kwame offers more tips in his latest book, co-written by Deanna Nikaido and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, How to Write a Poem, where he encourages learners to “listen, feel, and discover the words that dance all around them, poems just waiting to be written down.” Once again, Kwame reminds us of the power of poetry to use our words, lift our voices, and change the world… one stanza at a time.

Consider sharing powerful picture books and poetic texts to explore various aspects of our identities: family, culture, language, experience, and traditions. Along with our students we lean on and learn from books like I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes (illustrated by Gordon C. James), The Me I Choose to Be by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley (art by Regis and Kahran Bethencourt), and I Am Enough by Grace Byers (illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo). For our youngest writers you might share books with less text and powerful messages like I Am America or I Am the World by Charles R. Smith Jr., or the new I Am! series by Juana Medina. There are tons you could use; these are just a few of my favorite heartprintbooks that do this work.

After first reading the texts aloud then providing opportunities for scholars to lift the lines they love, go back to examine the writing and illustrations of each text for further inspiration. I find it is easiest to start poetic texts in picture books to explore concepts of free verse poems. Using texts with repetitive phrases can easily serve as inspiration for students to do the same. Then through ongoing discussions, invite your students to consider the ways they may adopt or
adapt a word or phrase, the structure, or the playful use of white space. The list is endless.

When we study what is beautiful in other works it illuminates and extends craft possibilities. In the examples below students discussed the author’s use of repetition, (words, phrases), rich, descriptive language; precise words; sensory details; and circular structure found in all three of our chosen texts.

As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop has said, “Poetry helps us to see ordinary things in new ways so that they become extraordinary to us.”  In this post we wanted to show the way that we use poetry to help our students read, write, and celebrate the extraordinary they already see in themselves.

Here a student illustrated a self-portrait in response to Who Am I poems from Freedom School Poetry.
Rosheeka lifted the last line from the Me I Want to Be
Sanayah lifted the last line I am Every Good Thing

Here these 6th grade students lifted lines and inspirations from all three resources as we
layered the texts:

Erik tried to borrow two lines and the intentional decision to emphasize the word cool
Michael tried to play with white space and repeated the last line to emphasize his
Caedon was greatly influenced by Renée Watson’s Where You From? Poem.

We hope you continue to leverage the power and possibility of using poetry and poets that reflect the heart of our students’ learning and lived experiences. Invite children to grow their ideas across texts. Let kids read, feel, and steal like the artists and poets they are all year long.