Why Are We Learning This? Teaching Poetry Supports Cognitive Thinking and Empathy

This is part of our ongoing look at how subjects in school benefit students beyond the classroom. Our first post covered history; today we explore poetry.

Explaining the relevance of your lessons can be especially important when teaching creative subjects like poetry, because it can help students find value and appreciation in various art forms. To give your poetry lessons real-world context and show students why it matters, read on.

Healthy Language, Reading and Writing Development

Poetry is one of the most graceful and traditional art forms ever created. Aside from being beautiful, however, poetry can also teach students how to communicate.

According to You Are Mom, a parenting advice blog for mothers, poetry can improve cognitive development in speech, language and literature. The different patterns in poetry help students understand the meaning of words in context, and the use of rhyme and articulation supports a more sophisticated understanding of sound.

Primary teacher Elyse Rycroft agrees that poetry supports improved language comprehension. She says reading poems out loud reinforces their meaning. “The dots connect in a child’s brain when they see it, hear it, and say it aloud. Children begin to hear the rhythms and rhyme present in poems. Reading fluency develops as poems are practiced and read many times,” Rycroft writes.

Exposing young learners to poetry can boost creative development and foster a love of writing, a skill which supports students in all subjects. Educator and author Regie Routman explains how poetry helped her students write more expressively. “Free from restrictions in content, form, space, length, conventions, and rhyme, they could let their imaginations soar. Proficient writers also shone. For all children, their choice of words improved, and their joy in innovating surfaced.”

Teaching Poetry

Teaching Poetry for Creative and Higher Order Thinking Skills

Poetry encourages higher order thinking skills, which asks students to cultivate their own opinions and interpretations. Rather than simply memorizing and repeating information, higher order thinking (HOT) skills ask students to interpret facts through a new lens. Using facts to better understand, infer, connect, categorize and apply new concepts are all examples of HOT skills, explain Alice Thomas and Glenda Thorne at Reading Rockets.

Similarly, poetry encourages children to think outside the box. The imaginative nature of poetry shows students that there can be different interpretations of a single work, adds education consultant Rachel Clarke. “There are often no ‘right answers’ when discussing poetry. Poetry is therefore supportive of encouraging children to think beyond the literal and into the abstract,” she explains.

The abstract thinking and communication skills developed with poetry can make students more suited for both creative and analytical careers.

Northwestern professors Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy and Uri Wilensky make a case for the role of poetry in STEM careers specifically. Precision and clarity in writing is essential when crafting scientific grants and reports. The imaginative nature of poetry helps people in science-based careers shift their perspectives to become more open when unexpected ideas or situations arise.

“Clearly written papers and research grants are more likely to pass through peer review than ill-phrased offerings. A well-crafted research paper wastes no words — like a poem,” they explain.

In addition to enhancing other interests and career paths, poetry can be combined with other lesson units to foster higher order thinking skills. Interdisciplinary units that involve poetry are particularly helpful for fostering analysis, evaluation and synthesis — all key aspects of higher order thinking.

“Students also learn best how to write by studying the styles of accomplished contemporary poets and by examining the thematic concerns that captivate them,” says Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Ph.D., who served as Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2006 to 2008. The themes can then be connected to other subjects and artistic works for deeper contemplation.

Communicating Emotion and Cultivating Empathy

Poetry often articulates difficult subject matter in a compelling way. For this reason, exposure to poetry can help students better interpret and understand their own personal challenges in life.

“Poems introduce topics which range from the beauty of nature to the grief which follows a death – and by doing so they create a space for these things to be discussed more naturally,” retired teacher Helen Bell writes. Moreover, poetry can be a therapeutic tool because it can help students relate to subject matter they may feel uncomfortable discussing. It introduces a new channel for expression, allowing students to express their feelings using metaphors and imagery.

High school English teacher Angelina Murphy is a strong proponent of using poetry as a means to provide emotional support to students. She is especially passionate about exposing students to current poets that are still living and writing today. This gives more context to the work, because students can connect it to current issues in the world and relate it to their everyday life. It also shows students that poetry isn’t just an art of the past.

Poetry demonstrates that words are both meaningful and powerful, and that they can be used in everyday life to express feelings and connect to other people. As veteran poetry teacher Marty Skoble says, poetry helps students understand life itself. The cycles and rhythms of life are seen every single day, through birth, growth and death. Poetry mimics these repetitions, giving meaning to life and connecting people.

“Poetry sustains the soul in times of spiritual scarcity; it provides the words with which to celebrate our presence. Sometimes it’s just fun, connecting us with each other and with the world in the guise of play.”

Teaching Poetry

Resources and Ideas for Teaching Poetry

One website that can build students’ confidence in reading poems is Poetry Out Loud. Rather than being recited by the author, these poems are read by kids. Hearing poems read with enthusiasm by students like themselves empowers listeners to find their own voice, says teacher Jessica Rogers.

Students may also enjoy The Favorite Poem Project. Founded by Robert Pinsky, the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States, this archive includes a collection of short video documentaries in which people read and talk about the poems they love. These videos are available for use in the classroom and belong to the Library of Congress archive of recorded poetry and literature.

The New York Times is another helpful resource for teachers that want to share poetry in a meaningful way. Former high school English teacher Katherine Schulten points to the newspaper’s poetry contests, which encourage students to create poetry from real-world news stories.

One challenge asks students to use a blackout tool to create poem through existing words. Another contest involves rearranging words from any article to create a verse. Teachers can recreate these contests as lessons to help students see the relationship between real-world subjects and creative writing.

Middle school English teacher Ariel Sacks shares an idea for helping expose students to poetry for the first time. She suggests creating an anthology of poems to hand out to the class. This collection should include a variety of poems in different styles, from both classical and modern authors. Give students time to choose one poem that stands out to them and read it to the class. This facilitates discussion around what students did or didn’t like about a poem, and why. The process gets them more comfortable with reading and talking about poetry.

Images by: archnoi1/©123RF.com, Thought Catalog, Freestocks

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