The FUNction of Poetry in the Classroom


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is FUNCTION.


What’s the function of poetry in the classroom? As National Poetry Month comes to an end, this is a good time to to ask this question. Poetry can play many roles and deserves a place in our classrooms every day.

Poetry has always been woven into my instruction, no matter what time of year. When I taught third grade, we began the year studying Mary O’Neill’s Hailstones and Halibut Bones (1961). O’Neill’s “Adventures in Poetry and Color” were perfect for helping my students become more observant and thoughtful about description. Close study of these poems also helped kids solidify their understanding of parts of speech.

Now I work with readers who are considered Tier 3 in the RTI model. They aren’t special ed students, but they also aren’t progressing at a rate that makes it likely they will reach end-of-year benchmarks. Whether we call them struggling readers or striving readers, the bottom line is the same: They need extra help. And I’m lucky to be the person to give them that assistance.

When I was working on my reading specialist certification, one professor urged us to start each lesson with a poem as a way to “warm up our ears.” I didn’t need convincing, but loved the rationale. So each day, my students and I read poems. Poetry is ideal for students who find reading challenging for many reasons. Poetry tends to come as a small packages, which is perfect for beginning readers who get overwhelmed by lots of print.

Another important reason to include poetry that rhymes in lessons with young readers is that these poems give kids a chance to practice phonics patterns in an authentic text. This repetition is key for all learning. Average young readers need “four to fourteen repetitions” in order to “reach a reliable level of word reading accuracy…[but] more than 40 repetitions [are needed] for those with reading difficulties” (Katherine Garnett, “Fluency in Learning to Read: Conceptions, Misconceptions, Learning Disabilities, and Instructional Moves” *) Using poetry ensures these repeated readings will be fun!

I carefully chose poems that are engaging and incorporate the phonics elements we are working on. This allows students experience success with reading right away. Early success not only keeps kids engaged, it increases the likelihood that they’ll want to keep reading. Certain poems quickly become favorites and are soon memorized. These are recited with confidence and pride.

“I See a Cat” by Cindy Chapman (found here) is perfect for beginning readers:

I see a cat.
I see a big cat.
I see a big, fat cat…

You can see the appeal. We also act out the poems, sometimes with props, adding an extra sensory dimension. This increases the likelihood that the students will retain what they’re learning. Copies of poems are always sent home so kids care show off their skills to their families and friends.

Making poetry part of every lesson also helps build vocabulary, science and social studies concepts, and more. The list is really endless, and I haven’t even mentioned comprehension or the emotional impact of poetry. Because we’ve read so much poetry, writing poetry becomes a natural extension (and provides additional authentic practice!).

What is the function of poetry in the classroom? Poetry brings laughter and joy, something we all need, every single day.

Not convinced? Here a few of the hundreds of resources available in print and online:

* Chapter from: Birsch, J. R. (2011). Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills, 3rd Edition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing.

“Our revels now are ended…”

“Our revels now are ended…”
William Shakespeare
From The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1

William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Mixing plays, I know, but I love the joy of these revelers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

And what revels there have been! Bravo to all of you who had daily poetry projects this month. I may not have visited or commented every day, but I truly admire your hard work and dedication. You are an inspiration!

Although National Poetry Month comes to an end today, true believers know no day is complete without poetry. We’ll always dream; we’ll always write…

Words click
into place like
tumblers inside a lock,
revealing truths hidden within
my heart.

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

Poetry Friday: Finding Beauty, Even in a Snake


When I was a kid, I loved hanging out on my swing set. One day when I went out to play, there was a huge snake, so black he was blue, sunning himself under the swings. I ran screaming back into the house, and have been terrified of snakes ever since.

Then one of my boys turned into a lover of all reptiles, especially snakes. On our first trip to the Bronx Zoo, he made a bee-line to the Reptile House. So I had to learn, if not to like snakes, at least not be petrified when I saw one.

So I wasn’t at all surprised to see this on Michael’s Instagram feed last week:

Photo by Michael Flynn
Photo by Michael Flynn

And even though I still really don’t like snakes, it was hard to ignore the beauty of this one.

His scales polished
to a glossy shine,
green glimmers,
blue-black shimmers
as rat snake slithers
over sun-warmed slate
like lightning flashing
across the sky.

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

Please be sure to visit Buffy Silverman at Buffy’s Blog for the Poetry Friday Roundup!

Poetry Friday: Desertbells


“The beauty of the natural world lies in the details.”
~ Natalie Angier ~

Today is Earth Day. I wanted to write a poem specifically to commemorate that, but trying to write a poem about the whole Earth overwhelmed me. Then I remembered this photo from an Arizona Highways desk calendar. The beauty is in the details.

Photo by Tim Fitzharris in 2016 Arizona Highways Calendar
Photo by Tim Fitzharris in 2016 Arizona Highways Calendar

Cradled like newly hatched
desertbell vines
run rampant
through the jaws of an agave,
weaving their blossoms
between its toothy thorns.

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

Please be sure to visit Jama at Jama’s Alphabet Soup for the Poetry Friday Roundup.


Two Poems for Your Pocket


It’s National Poem in Your Pocket Day! My school is closed for spring break this week, so we’ll celebrate next week. When we do, I’ll be carrying Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody, Who are you?” especially for a fifth grade student who asked almost the same question in a poem she wrote last week.

“I’m Nobody, Who are you?”
by Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

I was thinking of this poem while I walked this morning. When I heard an unfamiliar bird calling from the top of a tree, I automatically asked, “Who are you?”

Who are you,
flooding my dreams
with your rosy chee-chee-heeee?

Who are you,
bouncing through the apple tree’s
golden finery?

Who are you,
sipping the last beads of dew
from tender new leaves,
like it was nectar for the gods?

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

“Japanese Tree Frogs”

Large-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoAt the Highlights Foundation Spring Poetry Retreat last April, Rebecca Kai Dotlich recommended A Celebration of Bees: Helping Children to Write Poetry, by Barbara Juster Esbensen. Esbensen, who passed away in 1996, was an NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children winner. (You can learn more about Barbara here, part of Rene LaTullipe’s “Spotlight on NCTE Poets” series.)

“Words are the beginning,” Esbensen tells us, of “the writer’s never ending but highly interesting task of discovering exactly the right word for this feeling, that sound, a movement, a color.” She goes on to describe beginning her work with children by asking them to “find some words” to,  in the words of Sherwood Anderson, “throw into a box and shake.”

Having done this with students countless times, I couldn’t remember when I had last just played with words this way. So I got a marker and let loose. I had a photograph I’d found online in mind when I created my word splash, but when I went to find the photo, I found this instead:

Japanese tree frogs (© Shinji Kusano/Minden Pictures)(Bing Canada)
Japanese tree frogs (© Shinji Kusano/Minden Pictures)(Bing Canada)

I gasped when I saw it and knew this was the photo I had to write a poem about.

“Japanese Tree Frogs”

Under a bower
of glistening green lanterns,
tree frogs trill
their exuberant refrain,
welcoming the soaking spring.

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

Slice of Life: Alive Below Crystal


It is National Park Week, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. (Thank you to Tricia Stohr-Hunt, aka Miss Rumphius, for the heads up on this.)

My family and I are fortunate enough to have rafted down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon twice. This is an incredible experience, one that leaves you with a deep appreciation for the grandeur of the canyon and the power of nature.

The course of the river is punctuated by powerful rapids, but there are two that stick out in my mind. One is Lava Falls, which I’ve written about here. The other is Crystal, which was formed, literally, overnight.

“In December 1966 a storm unlike any witnessed before, dropped over 14 inches of rain in some places along the north rim. All this water sent debris flows crashing down side canyons [including Crystal Canyon]. When the storm had passed, the debris fan constricted the Colorado to less than a quarter of its original width, and a large boulder at the top created one of the largest holes on the river”

From “Nature, History, and Culture of the Grand Canyon: Crystal Rapid

Brian in Crystal Rapid, August, 2007
Brian in what I think is Crystal Rapid, August, 2007

Alive Below Crystal

Skirt the wave
at the edge of the hole,
kiss its lip with your paddle,
close enough to feel its power,
distant enough to avoid being sucked in,
overwhelmed by her might.

In the course of one life,
how often do these upheavals
The path is altered,
a chasm opens.
Never fully healed,
full of fissures that can crack
without warning,
bringing us to our knees.

Alive below Crystal,
our view forever transformed.
We’ve gazed into the face
of the cataclysm
and survived.

© Catherine Flynn, 2016


 Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.