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Poetry Writing: A Comprehension Tool Across the Curriculum

Voice of ExperienceEducator Max Fischer's most recent Aha! moment came when he let students use poetry to demonstrate their comprehension of the history curriculum. Now Fischer has one more tool for engaging students, one more tool for his growing "bag of tricks." Included: Strategies for supporting students through the emotional ups and downs that threaten to short-circuit the learning process.

Max W. Fischer
The Magna Carta began
in the year of 1215
the noblemen in Runnymede
were not so pleased with the king.

Years ago, when I taught language arts at the elementary level, I could never muster much enthusiasm for poetry writing. More than 20 years removed from iambic pentameter and rhyming verse, one of the few things I remembered about it was that poetry was an expression of personal feelings where most of the rules of language mechanics weren't as strict. That's why it struck me as odd last year when, as my English colleague in the classroom next door was completing a poetry unit, I got the sudden urge to combine poetry writing in my history lessons on the Middle Ages. Just as a candy commercial decades back trumpeted "the accidentally unique combination of chocolate and peanut butter," I believed I had stumbled upon something worthwhile. Some seemingly odd combinations do work.

King John taxed his people
which made them very mad.
He excluded his nobles from government
and lost some of the power he had.
More Voices of Experience

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays by Max Fischer?
* Alleviating Appraisal Anxiety: Lessons Learned From 29 Years of Evaluations
* Of "No Child Left Behind" and Blueberries
* How to Keep the Fire Burning (Or Lessons Learned from Edith, the Kids, and "the Fear")
* Finding "New Cheese" Requires Adjustment To Change
* Handling Parent Complaints -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
* Written Communication: An Educator's Calling Card
* Middle Schools Are Getting a Bum Rap
* The Power of Written Praise
* In Search of National Board Certification: One Teacher's Perspective

Since that Aha! moment, I've found that poetry writing certainly does have a place in my social studies and history curricula. I've used poetry writing as an exercise for differentiating my curriculum. It is one more way in which my students can demonstrate their comprehension of the material at hand. I offer interested students a number of topics from which to choose. I leave the form of poetry they will use up to them too. Rhyming is not mandatory. The only requirement is that their poems be a minimum of seven lines long.

The Magna Carta was a law
that told King John the 1st
He couldn't take the nobles' privileges
for better or for worse.

Along the way, I've made a few discoveries about using poetry as a comprehension strategy.

  • Poetry writing is one more comprehension strategy for my "bag of tricks." In the past several years, I've also incorporated storyboards as a comprehension tool; more artistic students might draw a comic strip to demonstrate their understanding of the main ideas of a historical event/concept. Graphic organizers, including web maps, are another form of tool my students might use. All of these alternative comprehension strategies are tools I can use to differentiate my curriculum to meet my students' needs and learning strengths. These tools challenge students to reflect on their reading.

  • I've discovered students really appreciate having multiple options -- the more the better -- for demonstrating their comprehension of the content. Poetry affords them an additional opportunity to become engaged in the content and achieve success. Some students, who wouldn't be considered upper tier academically, have had success with this less restrictive form of written language. Not bound by the rules of grammar, this group of students has enjoyed greater freedom of expression.

  • I've learned more about some of my students through poetry than I would have otherwise learned. Some of my quietest students shine brightest when using this form. I gain a greater appreciation of them as they manipulate words in their own special ways -- while still presenting a strong case for their understanding the material they have studied.

King John could no longer tax
without the nobles' say.
He had to hear his people.
They also had a say.

I'm sure many others among you have used poetry as a comprehension tool. It has only been in the past year -- in my ongoing quest to make comprehension personally significant for students -- that I've become excited by the appeal poetry has for a significant number of students. I just had to share this excitement with you!

That's what the Magna Carta is about
and why it had to happen.
It was in the year 1215
that all these things began.

-- poem by student Sonia Masih
(reprinted with permission)

A teacher for three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max W. Fischer
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