Curriculum Tie-in

Teaching Poetry to Middle Graders

This past summer, I took a poetry class for children’s writers. I was never a big reader of poetry or someone who wrote poems to express myself. However, I was quite inspired to both read and write poetry afterward. Attempting to write my own poetry helped me understand how to read and analyze its structure.

Photo by Steve Johnson

As a former teacher, I was curious what I should have done to teach poetry to my middle graders. I thought I’d ask an expert.

Heidi Roemer is the author of many poetry picture books and over 400 poems published in various children’s magazines. (See the end of the interview for titles of her books.) She was also the instructor for the poetry class I took. I wanted to get her opinion on teaching poetry to middle graders.

Why is teaching poetry to children important?

It’s important to share poetry with children because it lays the foundation for language and literacy skills. Poetry introduces readers to rich vocabulary and figurative language, creates phonological awareness, and advances the ability to read. Author Mem Fox said it best: “Rhymers will be readers. Experts have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.”

What do students get out of poetry vs. prose?

Prose is like viewing a movie on an Omni-Max screen. Fictional prose, or “story”, has its basic foundation in setting, character, plot, rising tension, climax and resolution. Poetry is like looking through a magnifying glass. Most poems offer a close-up look at a single subject and note its nuances through a variety of ways: similes, metaphors, irony, imagery, alliteration, assonance, and sometimes rhythm and rhyme.

Reluctant readers may prefer poetry over prose because of the brevity of the text. There’s usually a lot of white space on the page! This quote says it best: “Poetry is a can of frozen orange juice. Add three cans water and you get prose.” (Anon.)  Perhaps more so than prose, poetry is meant to be read out loud. Not only does this provide an opportunity to improve listening skills, it also can create a life-long love for language and reading. A good poem is a delight to read because it sparks the imagination and elicits a response from the reader–a chuckle, a groan, a sigh, an epiphany. The conciseness of poetry, especially when combined with an engaging rhyme and meter, can make just about any topic memorable.

How should teachers teach poetry?

Teach poetry, first, by providing a poetry-friendly environment. Have poetry books and audio poetry accessible to students during their free time. Post poems that reflect a variety of poetry forms and topics on the walls. Begin each morning with a poem. Read a science, math or geography poem that coincides with the subject you will be teaching on that day.  Choose poems that are active and engaging. Be familiar with the poem yourself before sharing. When reading to students, remember the “Three E’s”: energy, expression and enthusiasm. Keep it brief; don’t over-explain. To encourage participation, have students read in unison, or read a line and have them repeat it back to you. Divide the class into two groups and have them take turns reading alternating lines or stanzas. Incorporate movement. Let students perform the poem. A turkey baster makes a great pretend microphone for those who really enjoy hamming it up! Use appropriate props for visual stimulation and variety. Make poetry a fun experience and they will beg for more!

At what age should students write their own poems?

Children can be encouraged to write poetry, even at a very young age. Small children can dictate their poem to an adult. It isn’t necessary to know all the rules and terminology to write a poem. Encourage students to let words and feelings flow. Allow them to draw a picture to go with their poems and then display them in a prominent place. Coax and encourage students to read poetry and to write more poems!

What is the focus for middle graders when WRITING poetry?

Writing poetry begins with the selection of a topic. Have students think of a topic they find interesting. Let’s say the topic is coconuts. To gain sensory details, let students hold a coconut. Have them rub, shake, and even roll the coconut on the ground. Let them tap its hard shell and feel its tough fiber. Crack open the coconut and let students taste the watery “milk.” Next, ask students to gather more information. Ask then to research. What does a coconut tree look like? Where does it grow? How is it harvested? You might ask them to google “Ten Fascinating Facts about Coconuts”. Once the data is collected, students can decide what “one thing” they found most fascinating about their subject and write about it. Encourage them to use their poetry tools (alliteration, assonance, figurative language, etc.) to create their poems. Remind them to use concrete nouns and action verbs as best they can. Encourage each student to write a closing line that contains a little “zing!” or is meaningful or insightful in a special way.

Share five wonderful mentor texts for teachers to use with middle schoolers.

A New School Yearby Sally Derby
Six children share their worries, hopes, and successes on the first day of school.

Friends and Foes: Poems About Us All by Douglas Florian
A touching, often humorous, collection of twenty-three poems about relationships—both good and bad!

GuyKu by  Bob Raczka
This playful haiku collection will resonate with children. “Non-rhyming poetry can be a tough sell for kids. For some, though, haiku is less intimidating, thanks to its brevity…” —Publishers Weekly

Read! Read! Read! by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater.
Twenty-three poems about the joy of reading everything from maps to sports news.

Imperfect: Poems About Mistakes: An Anthology for Middle Schoolers by Tabatha Yeatts
This anthology contains a variety of poems that focus on mistakes. Some poems are funny, some are serious, and others show how mistakes can sometimes lead to amazing discoveries.

Author’s Note: I want to add one of my personal favorites:
Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out by Ralph Fletcher.
Although intended for children, it’s a great read for adults, with the focus on writing poetry (which I encourage teachers to do. I learned so much about reading poetry from attempting to write it!). This book is a quick read offering all the basics of writing poetry as well as ways to be inspired.

And, of course, Heidi Roemer’s poetry books need to be included in this list.

The ABC’s of Kindness (Highlights Press, 2020)
Peekity Boo! What  YOU Can Do! (Henry Holt, 2019)
Who Says Peek-a-Boo? (Highlights Press, 2019)
Who Says Uh-Oh? (Highlights Press, 2019)
Hide-and-Seek at the Construction Site (Highlights Press, 2019)
Hide-and-Seek on the Farm (Highlights Press, 2018)
And the Crowd Goes Wild!: A Global Gathering of Sports Poems, co-editor (FriesenPress, 2012)
Whose Nest is This? (NorthWord, 2009)
What Kinds of Seeds are These? (NorthWord, 2006)
Come to My Party and Other Shape Poems, (Henry Holt, 2004)
All Aboard for Zippity Zoo! (ZooLoose, 2003)

Any resources for teachers that you would recommend?

Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard
This poetry handbook explores how to cultivate the poet in every elementary and middle school student through examples, exercises, creative projects and classroom teachings.

Maybe You!by Brod Bagert
Young minds will shift into overdrive as they encounter the history, philosophy, and principles of scientific inquiry packed in this collection of dramatic poems, monologues, and short plays.

Poems Are Teachers by Amy Ludwig VanDerwate
Classroom teachers, grades 2 – 8, will love this book! Lessons help students learn how to replicate the craft techniques found in poetry samples.

The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (a series) edited by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong
Each lively and accessible science poem is paired with a “Take 5” list of teaching tips. Teacher Edition is available in paperback and ebook versions. Student version is available in paperback. For more information about The Poetry Friday Anthology series, see www.PomeloBooks.com.

The Poetry of Us: More Than 200 Poems about the People, Places and Passions of the United States by L Patrick Lewis
An anthology of delightful poems and stunning photos that focus on a broad spectrum of subjects– people, places, landmarks, monuments, nature, and celebrations–that are all part of the  U.S.

Wow! Anyone else want to teach poetry right now after reading that? There are so many benefits to teaching poetry to middle graders. I must recommend attempting your own poetry as well. It really is eye-opening as to what writing poetry entails.

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

Well done, Mr. Tingle.

Imagine a class full of anxious 5th graders sitting on the rug at your feet begging for the next chapter in our read aloud, How I Became a Ghost by Choctaw native and story teller Tim Tingle.

As a teacher, I incorporate every moment into a teaching moment, and storytelling is no different. This is my third year reading this book aloud and a common comment after each session is how much my students love this story.

A couple of years ago, I sent two students on an errand, and they later burst through the classroom doors out of breath. They said they had run as fast as they could across the campus to get back before I started reading. I realized then, that I shouldn’t send kids on errands or make kids do catch-up work when we were visiting the land of the Choctaw on the Trail of Tears.

How I Became a Ghost is not only entertaining, it is also brutally honest. It is a tale of the Trail of Tears, when  Native Americans were forced to leave their homes in Mississippi and relocate to land now called Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The story is told through the eyes of Issac, a ten-year old Choctaw. In the very beginning, Isaac announces to his readers (or listeners in this case) that he is going to be a ghost soon. And because of his condition, premonitions of grisly events begin to plague him.

This is where the brutally honest part comes in. There are many disturbing scenes that are so well-told, that the kids shriek in shock. But they get it. And they are anxious for you to keep reading. For example, during one of Isaac’s premonitions, he sees an old Choctaw couple burning in flames. Soon after, the same couple die when soldiers sneak into the neighborhood at night to set everyone’s homes on fire. And then there is the premonition of pus-filled sores covering some of the tribe’s bodies. You guessed it. Soldiers ride into camp and offer the shivering population blankets exposed to Smallpox.

Choctaws were removed west of the Mississippi started in 1831. Louisiana Indians Walking Along a Bayou by Alfred Boisseau was painted in 1846.

Smallpox became a huge topic in the classroom and I had to teach a mini-lesson on communicable diseases (which ties into our Health curriculum) and the use of diseased blankets.  The bigger story, which we discussed several times, was the relationship between native tribes, societal beliefs, and the government in the 1830s.

Because Tim Tingle is a master storyteller, tie-ins to Native American culture are seamlessly woven into the story. We learn how the spiritual world is part of the family unit and how those who have passed on look after and protect those still walking the earth.  When Isaac becomes a ghost, his story does not stop there. As a ghost he is able to assist the living as they continue their fight to stay alive while walking the trail.

As with most great books, and one that has won many awards, the literary elements are rich. Besides profound sayings worthy of insightful discussion, we examined how imagery comes from the imagination. The scene goes from text on paper to an image inside our heads. In the following scene, Isaac’s feet are frozen in a puddle, and when he pulls his feet up the skin tears off. The kids cringe when this happens, but they understand how bitter cold can affect the body and the desperate conditions of the Choctaw. It is interesting to see imagery taking shape through the imagination of a fifth grader.

Some conversations: What is the author saying? Why does the author make a point of one hundred footprints turning into a thousand? Why were the footprints bloody and not regular footprints?

Isaac looking back and seeing a bloody trail of footprints.

Isaac covered with a blue blanket leaning against a tree with his feet frozen in ice.

One of the reasons I originally chose to read a book on Native American history is because it helps students to build a broader concept of how the U.S. was formed. Books can be powerful tools and it is a tool that sits at the top of my teacher toolbox.

 

 

STEM Tuesday — Pair Up! Comparing Nonfiction Titles — Writing Craft and Resources

Going Deep

Today we are diving deep into two books that intrigue me. Books about a horrific medical epidemic. Books that both use narrative and expository plus characters to carry readers through the story. Books that plunge into history and science plus ethical and moral questions.

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary, by Gail Jarrow

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

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Here’s a quick recap. In the early 1900s Mary Mallon carried typhoid but didn’t display any of the symptoms. She worked as a cook, was definitively linked to the infections of 49 people plus three deaths, was quarantined for decades, and became the brunt of a tabloid scandal. Both books look at the entangled story of her life, medical professionals who tracked her down, legal charges against her, and implications for constitutional rights.

 

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In two books on the same topic, published in the same year, written with similar audiences in mind, there is much to compare and contrast. What I find most intriguing is that both bring the science and history to light while posing enduring questions.

Dive In

Let’s look at how these books each handle one of those enduring questions. Get ready for some close reading!

After years of quarantine, Mary was finally released on parole. The terms of her release specified that she take precautions to not infect others, not work as a cook, and report regularly to the health department. But Mary broke those terms, resulting in another major outbreak and her own exile until death. The question these authors chase: Why did she risk it?

Turn to pages 133-135 of Terrible Typhoid Mary and Page 118-120 of Fatal Fever to read the texts. Here are some things to look for. I’ve included a few things I noticed and am eager to hear what you discover.

Whose story is told first?

  • Fatal Fever:
    • “Mary had no lawyer to help her.”
  • Terrible Typhoid Mary
    • “Mary never said why she broke the conditions . . .”

What words are chosen to set the tone?

  • Fatal Fever:
    • “A Witch!”
  • Terrible Typhoid Mary
    • “. . . she struggled . . .”

In what way are other characters’ reactions used? Do those reactions support or denigrate Mary’s choice?

  • Fatal Fever:
    • “The sympathy that people once felt toward Mallon evaporated.”
  • Terrible Typhoid Mary
    • “Her temerity galled Soper.”

What words or phrases convey doubt or leave interpretation open?

  • Fatal Fever:
    • “Maybe she didn’t see the harm in it, . . .”
  • Terrible Typhoid Mary
    • “Is it possible that Mary simply didn’t understand . . .”

Are you caught up in this conundrum? Of how Mary, who had been presented as a person who stepped in to care for children when needed, could do such a thing? I am.

Where do these passages leave you emotionally? Did the balance between narrative and expository impact your reaction? Does either passage affect you more? Why?

On Your Own

Now, pursue a similar close reading on your own. There are plenty of other parallel topics in these books. Try the discussion of gall bladder removal: Fatal Fever (page 93) and Terrible Typhoid Mary (pages 136-137).

How do these authors use sequencing, language, and other characters? How do their skillful use of nonfiction devices impact you as a reader?

—-

By Heather L. Montgomery

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. Her latest book, Bugs Don’t Hug: Six-Legged Parents and Their Kids, is a perfect picturebook for a close read.

www.HeatherLMontgomery.com


The O.O.L.F. Files

Resources for Writers

https://www.rhymezone.com/

This site might have been designed with rhyming in mind but it has many other uses. Need a thesaurus? Angling for alliterative words? Looking for lyrics? Rhymezone’s got you covered.

https://www.google.com/alerts

Needing to go deep on a topic? Set up a Google alert on your topic. Day after day it will deliver the freshest posts straight to your inbox.

http://www.bluebulbprojects.com/MeasureOfThings/default.php

When you need a measurement comparison, The Measure of Things is your best friend! How large is 110 cubic inches?

  • 9/10th the size of a human stomach
  • 1/3rd the size of a bowling ball
  • 1 1/10th the size of an ostrich egg!