“Wow! I didn’t know that I like poetry!”
Mission accomplished are the words that came to mind when I heard a 3rd grade student express this discovery about herself! Sadly, in some classrooms and schools, poetry has become a forgotten genre and therefore, students and teachers rarely experience its beauty and transformative power. Typically, poetry appears in the early grades and as a limerick for Saint Patrick’s Day or a haiku for poetry month but rarely is it given the space it deserves in our everyday lives. Its relative absence in the Common Core standards and our core curriculum is partially to blame. But I think the real reason is that so many of us teachers have had negative experiences with poetry in our own schooling. We were forced to analyze a poem to death or when writing, were confined by a strict format to follow. We struggled to make the darn thing rhyme resulting in a less than stellar result.
My lens of poetry shifted nearly 15 years ago when my 5th grade students and I participated in a district wide poetry slam. We immersed ourselves in free verse, wrote freely in our writers’ notebooks and then mined entries to uncover the poems hidden within the pages. With mentors such as Nikki Giovanni, Naomi Shihab Nye and Eloise Greenfield by our side, we wrote and performed poems from the heart. It is stunning to witness what students are capable of when they receive the time and space to explore.
This experience made me a poetry enthusiast and believer that poems deserve a steady place in our curriculum. This year I told Shelley, “I am on a mission to bring poetry back to our schools.” I used the experience of a poetry cafe to do just that!
The Poetry Cafe
Earlier this year, Lit Coach Connection partnered with teachers to create writing cafes. Click here for our post on Writing Cafes They were so successful in engaging student and teacher writers that our colleagues requested that we organize a similar experience focusing on poetry. I gathered table clothes, tea light candles and table settings and transformed classrooms; creating the relaxed ambiance of a cafe.
The Nuts and Bolts
Like the writing cafe, each table served as a station. Each station was set with poems that favored one of following elements of poetry:
- Poems with music.
- Poems that touch the heart or leave us with thoughtful questions.
- Poems that help us see ordinary objects in new ways.
- Poems that paint pictures with words.
We discussed how many poems include more than one of these elements but initially this organization facilitated reflection on what poetry is and can do.
Each student, and teacher, traveled from station to station with their writers’ notebooks in hand. They spent about 9-10 minutes per station in which they:
- Read the poems by poets such as Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Nikki Giovanni, Eloise Greenfield, Valerie Worth and Ralph Fletcher.
- Listened to poems that I recorded on Seesaw at the “poems with music” station. This invited students to experience the poems’ sound and rhythm .
- Selected one poem per station that resonated with them and pasted it onto the left hand side of their writer’s notebook. The right hand side was intentionally left blank to make space for writers to write a poem inspired by the poet.
- Wrote their reflections, thoughts, and reasons for selection in the margins around the poem.
After students visited each station, they reread their notebooks, selected their favorite poem from the day and shared it with their peers at the table.
Enthusiasm for poetry skyrocketed for both students and teachers. Reading poems about everyday topics that matter to them fostered appreciation and excitement for poetry. They connected with Eileen Spinelli’s “Poem for a Bully”, marveled at “Word Collector “ by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater and considered objects in a new light with Valerie Worth’s “Soap Bubble”.
After the cafe, students begged for time to write poetry! Having a mentor poem so readily available in their notebooks inspired them to try out ideas and formats from poets.
Because poems need to be shared, we created a bulletin board in the hallway by the cafeteria to showcase student poetry.
- In addition to gathering poems to share throughout the year, teachers have included a poetry unit in next year’s literacy scope and sequence.
- Teachers have asked for quick write ideas to generate poetry inspired by Paula Bourque’s book Spark: Quick Writes to Kindle Hearts and Minds in Elementary Classrooms.
- Students seek out poems and bring them into class to share with their teacher and peers.
- Students choose to write poetry during writing workshop time and open genre units.
In our experience, simply immersing students and teachers in poetry creates joyful and thoughtful poets and readers of poetry! Poems help us be mindful, live deeply and see the world in a new light. Imagine how we can shift school cultures by reading and celebrating poetry daily! I believe that poetry cafes can ignite a love of poetry, one classroom at a time, one school at a time.
Interested in hosting a poetry cafe in your class and school? Connect with us!