As a visiting poet in Maryland's schools, I work with hundreds of students every year. I am often surprised by how powerfully poetry workshops affect emerging writers.
Once, I was "in residence" with a Baltimore County school's fourth grade. The students had already drafted several poems, each lesson building on their writing skills. Throughout the lessons, a student I'll call Andrew sat at the back table with his head down, not writing.
I'd saved the least structured poem for last. Our model text was W.S. Merwin's "The Unwritten," in which a pencil holds limitless words, and therefore limitless possibilities. It's not a simple poem, but elementary schoolers don't have to pin down every line. They love the voice of the poem and the concept Mr. Merwin presents, that the written word is powerful. There is an inherent invitation to write one's own story in his lines: "it could be that there's only one word/ and it's all we need/ it's here in this pencil."
After discussing the poem, I invited the students to imagine that they had a magic pencil. What could they think into being with it? Andrew wrote three sentences in response. "My pencil can bring my mom back to alive. And she can feel my hands hugging, like an angel. And she can smell my lotion and she writes a letter to me."
The classroom teacher took me aside and told me more about Andrew. Until that moment, I did not know that his mother had passed away recently, that he was going to live with relatives, that he was moving to a different school. I did not know that this was the first time Andrew had opened up about his grief.
Many educators are unclear about poetry's role in the Common Core classroom. By the time students are in high school, the recommended amount of time spent on "narrative writing" across disciplines is 20 percent. While the so-called anchor skills for literacy align with reading, analyzing and practicing poetic techniques, a blind-spot exists in the intersection where undefined areas of the Common Core ("Is poetry included in narrative writing?") meet those who interpret the standards literally. While some educators see gray areas in the standards as opportunities to explore literature and poetry, there are — understandably — those who view poetry's exclusion from the writing standards as just that, an exclusion.
Poetry is not like other texts. While analyzing information may be part of reading a poem, poetry has the ability to make intense connections with readers, as "The Unwritten" did with Andrew. This may happen because poetry is a multi-sensory experience. Its music and appearance on the page are capable of stimulating areas of the brain involved in analyzing visual images, language and auditory stimuli. When I read Andrew's poem today, I notice his sensory descriptions. Instead of saying that he misses his mother, he uses the tactile image of a hug, the desire to have her so "back to alive" that she might smell the lotion on his skin.
Making space for poetry in the school day or at home allows young people to open up. Some children who struggle to write in response to school assignments are enthusiastic poets. The task is different, of course, and guest poets often coach teachers not to grade writing produced in a poetry workshop. In this way, the poetry classroom can be a safe place for children and teens to record the things they see at home and in their neighborhoods, to explore imagination and emotion.
When we talk about poetry in the classroom, we are valuing students not only for their ability to meet curriculum benchmarks, but also for their ideas, beliefs, and for the connections they make to the poem. Poetry gives us an opportunity to reaffirm that children like Andrew are students much of the time, but they are human beings all of the time. Poems like "The Unwritten" have such a powerful impact on students because readers must draw on personal context as they reach toward understanding, not only of the text, but of themselves.
Today is National Poem in Your Pocket Day, when many schools culminate their National Poetry Month celebrations. It is an ideal time for educators and parents to reflect on the nuances of the Common Core curriculum. In doing so, we can balance the informational texts that prepare children for college and career with the poetry that helps them express what it means to be human.
Laura Shovan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Maryland State Arts Council artist-in-residence for poetry and author of the children's novel in verse, "The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary."