Poetry for Social Studies: Poems, Standards, and Strategies

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Periodically, I work with classroom teachers to try out new books, techniques, and strategies. I discovered two important things while working with Kate Hunnicutt's class over a period of several weeks in Grand Prairie, Texas. We worked on several poems together, and the students asked to perform some of them again and again. I'm not sure whether it was the poems themselves or their unorthodox formats, or whether it was the way we performed them as a class. But it was a good example of two things: Number one, poetry has a place in social studies; number two, poetry reading should be active and involve students in the reading as much as possible.

The brevity, conceptual focus, and rich vocabulary of poetry make it a natural teaching tool for social studies. However, even the word poetry can put many people off. It reminds them of forced memorization, of searching for hidden symbolism, or of counting meter for iambic pentameter. Many teachers have had negative experiences that keep them from sharing poetry with their students. Students then develop a similar dislike or apathy for poetry. Yet every reader can find poems that speak to him or her, given the proper introduction. That is the key: providing open access to poetry without roadblocks of formal analysis. Opportunity for in-depth responding and understanding can follow when teachers create an environment for spontaneous pleasure in poetry. Poet and teacher Georgia Heard puts it this way: "Kids need to become friends with poetry as well. They need to know that poems can comfort them, make them laugh, help them remember, [and] nurture them to know and understand themselves more completely." (1)

Poetry offers several practical benefits. Brevity of form is one. Poetry has the advantage of coming "packaged" in very few words, relatively speaking. Poems can be read and reread in very little time. And each rereading can be approached in a slightly different way, through choral reading or poetry performance. The length is less intimidating to students who might be overwhelmed by longer prose and streams of new vocabulary. Although poetry may also present new words and concepts, this shorter appearance provides a motivating advantage. The short format of poetry also means it can be added to a pre-existing social studies lesson without drastic readjustment.

The strong oral quality of poetry is another pedagogical plus. Poetry is meant to be read aloud. A poem's meaning is more clearly communicated when both read and heard. As poet Brod Bagert has said, just as songs are not just sheet music, poetry is not just text. (2) This helps students acquire correct word pronunciations and aids with their overall listening comprehension. In addition, the rhythm and/or rhyme of poetry can help students begin to get a sense of the sound of words and phrases using artful, yet natural language, especially for English as a Second Language (ESL) students. (3) Learning the vocabulary of social studies is a constant challenge for students, but when students participate in choral reading, they have the opportunity to develop their own oral fluency, making the new words their own. Experimenting with various arrangements can also help with expression and builds student confidence.

Also, poems tend to be about one subject. This crystallized focus can aid students as they use their word knowledge to make sense of new content. A poem's context can help the reader or listener incorporate new vocabulary. When students read the poem, hear the poem read aloud, and participate in a choral reading of the poem, they have had multiple modes of reinforcement for meaningful language learning. As Sharon Gill found in her classroom use of poetry, "Poetry is written to be read again and again ... Repeated readings allow children to gain fluency and build sight vocabulary while having successful reading experiences. Poetry also contains elements of predictability such as rhyme, rhythm and repetition which make reading easier. …