With wordplay, humour and fresh insights into the ordinary and extraordinary, children’s poetry captures emotions and confronts serious issues. Its license introduces children to language, entertains and offers subversive delights.
"Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful." Rita Dove
Poetry is a broad genre without boundaries. If rhyme, rhythm, shape, form and imagery are combined with a desire to communicate, a poem is born.
Poems have the ability to communicate with immediacy and deceptive simplicity. Ralph Fletcher compares a poem to an x-ray allowing you to see to the bare bones of something you might have taken for granted. Ross Clark writing about haiku for Literature Base (subscription required) calls it an abbreviation of essentials…‘a pebble thrown into a pond’.
Poems are to be read aloud, shared and savoured. Poets and their audiences derive enormous pleasure from words. New Zealand's own ‘word witch’ Margaret Mahy said poems are for the ear, the simplest introduction to the physical quality of words. Explore her amazing poetry and teaching suggestions at The Word Witch (PDF)
Poets are sensitive to their world and feel compelled to share experiences, ideas and ways of seeing. Through poetic devices such as imagery and metaphor feelings and emotions are revealed. The rich legacy of New Zealand poetry from A.R.D. Fairburn, James Baxter, Alan Curnow to Cilla McQueen and Michele Leggott reflect our cultural identity, the landscape, family, historical events and topical concerns.
Poetry is about making words valuable, part of an oral tradition of chants, prayers and refrains. For centuries nursery rhymes have been the foundations of patterns of language and young children’s love and understanding of how words work. They are the stepping-stones that children skip across to learn to talk and read and love the magic of words.
Humorous poetry for children
Laughter and humour are core elements of a large number of children’s poems. Many poets write purposely to entertain but hope children will see parallels in their own lives. There are many popular performance poets who transform daily life into hilarious chaos, including: Jack Prelutsky, Paul Cookson, Roger McGough and Colin McNaughton.
Poetry that explores issues
A more serious sub genre of thematic poems deals with topical, contentious issues such as the damage that bullying causes. John Foster, Gareth Owen, John Agard and Andrew Fusek Peters explore issues and produce poetry that is emotive, unsettling and thought provoking for all ages.
Hip hop is a celebration of beat; one part story one part rhythm. Hip hop speaks to children: a celebration of poetry with a beat. Nikki Giovanni, c2008.
Just as hip hop and rap have moved into the music mainstream as a voice for the disenfranchised, poetry that celebrates rhythm, beat and story carries strong messages. Rastafarian rap poet, Benjamin Zephaniah says quite succinctly that he wants to change the world with his poetry.
Historically poetry has done this. The war poetry of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen was instrumental in presenting the unpalatable truth while contemporary poets such as Maya Angelou, John Agard and Glyne Walrond offer insight and hope rather than bitterness about racism.
Michael Rosen has pleaded for more diversity, originality and new material from all cultures.
Selina Tusitala Marsh, Robert Sullivan and Yang Lian are among the new poetic voices for Pasifika and Asian New Zealand communities.
Verse novels are an increasing popular sub genre of poetry. Offering thought provoking stories they are often autobiographical and flexible in format and an attractive introduction for reluctant readers.
Straightforward, shorter and faster to read than a novel, most have a single narrator and an intimacy of detail in short sound bytes. Steven Herrick, Sharon Creech and Karen Hesse have captured the deceptive simplicity of this genre.
On writer Helen Frost's website a 10-year-old boy has said, 'If I had known there were books like this I would have started reading a long time ago'.
Many verse novels have provocative themes: war, prejudice, coming of age, abandonment and death. Recent novels reflect these cutting edge topics and provide insight into other cultures.
Poems are for sharing. They demand an audience and a reaction. Start by making your classroom a place where poems are welcome. A poetry friendly place where children discover the pleasure, stimulation, feeling, curiosity, wonder and fun of poetry and find their own voice. The Book Trust site for poetry he helped create, teacher resources and a new Perform a Poem option for students.
More good advice on making poetry part of students’ everyday experience comes from poet Marilyn Singer (2010)
Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States is an advocate for making poetry part of secondary students’ daily lives. His website, Poetry 180 offers a poem for every day of the year motivated by his belief that ‘Poems can inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race’.
How can a positive interaction with poetry fulfil curriculum expectations that students should not only enjoy and engage with this genre but think critically and write poems themselves? Rachel McAlpine, a New Zealand poet says ‘a teacher’s role is pivotal.’
Ideas for using poetry with students
- Read poetry aloud to students every day
- Request a poetry selection from National Library Lending Services on a theme or centre of interest
- Display poetry around the classroom, along corridors, on doors and windows
- Create an A - Z poetry anthology for your class with a poem for every letter of the alphabet
- Display poems on large sheets of paper and illustrate them
- Pavement artists – write poems on the playground with large pieces of chalk, create poem trails all over the pathways
- Print short poems on a blown-up balloon and hang in the classroom
- Poetry in motion – place copies of poems on school buses
In the house of history, you would shiver
and shake at such a sight.
Cold hard steel poles surround you as you try to flee
Thoughtless faces starring blank. David Deng - Takapuna Grammar
Consider your school library poetry collection - the range, appeal and condition of the titles it contains, its location and signage, promotion, and use.
Read Sylvia Vardell's (2006) case for vibrant, well-stocked poetry collections: Don't Stop with Mother Goose.
This article includes 15 questions to assess your library collection:
Making your poetry section come alive (PDF) by Karen Lindsay (2004) is about the importance of weeding, acquisitions, cataloguing, in the poetry collection.
Poetry Class: “taking the fear out of teaching poetry.” Have a go at Knit Yourself a Poem!
Poetry Foundation For teachers and students of all ages to immerse themselves in poetry
Laura Candler Her poetry page has useful resources and lesson plan for using Photostory with poetry
For book reviews and other blog posts relating to poetry, select the Poetry category in our Create Readers Blog.
The Poetry Archive - UK-based site providing an online collection of English-language poets, including some from New Zealand, reading their own work. Includes educational resources for teachers such as background material on poets, filmed interviews and links for students.
The Children's Poetry Archive - is a lively site for younger children with links to thematic poems and poets and their work.
Young Poets' Network provides workshop challenges, competitions and support for poets in the 11-17 age range, and educational resources for teachers.
The Poetry Society - founded in the UK in 1909 enjoys a worldwide membership of over 4,000, and champions poetry for all ages.
Poetry, in English Online provides access to a range of teaching resources.
Pasifika Poetry: Accessed through the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, Pasifika Poetry presents profiles and the work of a range of Pasifika poets - some of whom live in New Zealand, and others resident in various Pacific Islands. Here you will find examples of each poet's work as text, and in many cases also as audio files, video clips and radio interviews.
The Poetry Society New Zealand has an extensive range of links to poetry sites, journals, courses and resources.
NZ Electronic Poetry Centre - hosted by the University of Auckland. A rich source of literary and biographical material from New Zealand and Pasifika poets with photos of each poet and access to their body of work.
New Zealand Book Council - lists newly published books, including poetry. In addition, you can access details on a wide range of New Zealand writers, including poets, on their website.
National Library of New Zealand catalogue - poetry and poetry teaching resources in the Schools Collection.
Try the web and databases such as those from EPIC to search for poetry ideas.
Alexander, Joy. (2005). Children's Literature in Education.
Burg, Ann. (2009). All the Broken Pieces Scholastic.
Fletcher, Ralph. (2002). Poetry Matters: Writing a poem from the Inside Out. HarperCollins
Lindsay, Karen. (2004). Making your poetry come alive. School Libraries in Canada.
Rochman, Hazel. (2003). Booklist.
Singer, Marilyn (2010). Knock poetry off the pedestal: it’s time to make poems a part of children’s everyday lives. School Library Journal.
Sullivan, Ed. (2003). It’s Fiction or Poetry.
Vardell, Sylvia M. (2006) . Don't stop with Mother Goose. School Library Journal.
Image: In My Craft or Sullen Art (Dylan Thomas) - Knit a Poem (The Poetry Society), at the British Library, by chriss Beckett on Flickr