The Power of Poetry: Three Examples of Using Poetry to Support Expository Writing
Example 1: Poetry and Essays
Recently I developed a unit based on the book Song of the Water
Boatman and Other Pond Poems, by Joyce Sidman. The book combines expository
text, poetry, and beautiful artwork to illustrate the research of pond organisms.
Modeling the format of the book, my students researched an animal of their choice
(integrating science standards) and then used their research to create free verse
poetry. Finally, students wrote expository essays. Throughout the process I began
to notice a strong connection between the creation of poetry and the development
of expository text in regard to how we think about text. When I first started this
unit, I assumed my students would be able to whip out a poem, being free verse and
all, with no problem. It would be a springboard into the "real" writing; you know
the kind, with topic sentences, proper grammar, clear topic and organization, and
precise word choice--the kind that is evaluated on the OAT. Well, my assumption
was wrong, and it took my students to open my eyes to the power of poetry.
"This is hard." "How do I start?" "I don't know how to write poetry!" Having my
students write poetry as a springboard into expository writing quickly became a
daunting task. As I started to answer their questions and guide them through the
exploration of poetry, I realized that I really hadn't thought much about poetry.
It somehow had found a spot on the back burner of curricular choices. After all,
it isn't a large part of my fifth grade standards, not even a formal form of writing
that I have to assess. Unsure of where to begin, I looked within my own writing.
I decided I would model a poem for them to help them get started and think about
the process metacognitively. It didn't take me long until I was thinking, "This
is hard. How do I start? I don't know how to write poetry!"
As a class, we reread each poem in the Song of the Water Boatman
and Other Pond Poems, closely analyzing aspects of the writing such as
point of view, topic, word choice, and organizational patterns. We talked about
why we thought the author wrote it a certain way and how it would change if it were
written from a different point of view. We looked at words the poet chose and how
they created mood or evoked certain emotion. We compared the organization of each
poem, and discovered strategic patterns that allowed the writing to flow smoothly
from beginning to end, such as the use of repetition, transitions, and stanzas.
As we had these conversations, a lightbulb in my head lit up. These conversations
were very similar to the conversations we had about other types of writing, especially
expository text. After rereading and discussing the poems, students created a prewriting
map, starting with point of view and purpose. Was their poem going to be using first-
or third-person point of view? Is the purpose to tell about habitat? Food? Defense
Next, we moved to word choice. We noted that poetry is different from prose in many
ways. One important way was the amount of words used to express ideas. Students
brainstormed a list of words to use with their animal based on the purpose of the
poem. These words, such as sand dunes, woodlands, blend, pitter-patter,
roaming, and shadowy, came from their research
and thinking about their animal.
Next, and the most challenging aspect of thinking, came organization. How would
you structure your poem? How would you introduce it? End it? How would you use poetic
devices as we saw in the book, such as repetition, rhyme, word play, figurative
language, and patterns? I chose four poems in the book to illustrate as examples
and kept a chart in the classroom as a reference for students. This chart included
our discussions of each organizational pattern. This allowed us to think within
a framework and brainstorm ways we could structure our poems. We recognized that
the poems in the book had introductions and conclusions, not in prose form, but
in some way that connected the beginning with the end. Repetition was used as emphasis
to an important idea or animal feature. Words were flexible and able to create literal
pictures on the page.
Students spent days sharing ideas and framing their poems, and I spent time conferencing
with each student about his or her writing and thinking about text. One student
commented on how hard he had to think. He told me that he hadn't realized how hard
it was to write good poetry. He had never really written it before, but just thought
it would be easy because poems were so short!
After our week of poetic immersion, we began writing expository essays based on
our animal research. I noticed a few changes in the students' writing.
- They were taking more time in the prewriting stage to think about
their text. They were using the poetic experience as a basis of thinking about their
text, especially with organization.
- I spent less time conferencing with students on the structure of their
essays and how to get started. They used the ideas from their poems to stimulate
their thinking about introductions, paragraphing, and conclusions. Because of this,
we were able to have more time sharing and discussing student work.
- My struggling writers and English language learners seemed to benefit
tremendously. By using poetry as a means to scaffold their essay, the process became
more concrete to them.
Whether it is poetry, fiction, or expository, writing is thinking! The writing may
look different, but the thinking is similar. The same analysis and synthesis used
in the creation of their poems transferred to help strengthen their informational
writing. Our students will think about text in the ways that we respond and discuss
it. I encourage you to use poetry more readily in your classrooms; it is "real"
writing. Although students aren't assessed on their poetic creations on the OAT,
and although there is only one small reference to writing poems as informal writings
in the fifth grade standards, it is a valuable tool in the thinking of writing and
deserves its place in our lessons.
Example 2: Two Voices: Poetry and Persuasion
I don't know about you, but teaching persuasive writing has always been a thorn
in my curriculum.
Constructing arguments, supporting details, and opposing views can be overwhelming
to a fifth grader. Throw in the creation of a presentation on top of that, and you
have the recipe for a middle school meltdown. I have found that poetry is one tool
that eases the process.
After the rewarding experience of using poetry with essay writing, I decided to
use it with persuasive writing as well. In essence, persuasion is the presentation
of opposing views, and so I decided to share the poem "Honeybees" from Paul Fleischman's
Newbery Award-winning book, Joyful Noise. The book is
a collection of two-voice poetry based on the lives of various insects. "Honeybees"
compares the lives of bees through two voices: the worker's and the queen bee's.
To start, students were paired and read the poem aloud together, one as the worker
and one as the queen. Students loved this and had fun creating voices for the bees.
Some even wanted to present it to the class as a reader's theater.
After students had time to relish in the experience of two-voice poetry, we had
a discussion among "bees." What two distinct views about being a bee are presented?
I had all the worker bees join forces and discuss their view about being a bee.
They searched through the text for details that supported this view, as the queens
did the same.
Then we came together for a class discussion and constructed a graphic organizer
of our findings. The graphic organizer illustrated the argument of each bee, several
supportive details, and an opposing view. I discussed how this could be used to
write a persuasive essay and showed them an example persuasive essay I wrote based
on the poem. Let the writing begin!
For this project, each student had a writing partner. Partners researched the same
topic and supported each other throughout the writing process.
The process started with the partners brainstorming topics that interested them
(this may need guidance), from school uniforms, to Turn-Off-TV Week, to even more
delicate topics such as oil drilling in Alaska. They set out to explore the topic
in the library or on the computer to help them gather views and supportive arguments.
They brought their initial findings back to class, and the partners sat down to
write―not a persuasive essay, but a two-voice poem (modeled after the "Honeybees"
poem―a copy change). I considered this still to be a prewriting activity because
it was another tool to assist the thinking of their essay.
To construct the poem, students began with two opposing views that are clearly stated,
followed by a series of supportive details. Each view is being supported, forcing
students to think about both sides of the topic. At the end, each view is again
Students presented their poems to the class as a reader's theater, and we discussed
the arguments made. Partners then narrowed down the viewpoint they supported and
wanted to use in their writing along with the strongest supportive details. Next,
armed with I charts, they began full-fledged research. When they were ready to begin
writing, I referred to the poems: Clearly state your view, support it with details,
discuss the opposing view, and summarize your view.
Using the two-voice poetry helped students build a framework for their persuasive
essays. It allowed them to explore the idea of persuasion and play with the elements
while thinking about both sides of the topic.
Example 3: Found Poetry: Supporting
Reading Comprehension and Summary Writing
No matter what subject area you teach, this poetry strategy can be a valuable tool
to support reading comprehension. I define found poetry
as a poem that is constructed using words "found" within a certain piece of text.
This simple but powerful strategy can be implemented in one class period or several,
depending on the depth of thinking and activities you want the students to do.
Students are given a piece of rich text (full of vocabulary, descriptions), teacher
created or from another source (textbooks, electronic, brochures,...) on a given
topic of study. I recommend a piece of literature up to 300 words; however, older
students should be able to handle much more. Each student then reads the piece once
as a preview. On the second reading, students circle words that they feel are powerful
or important to the topic. They can circle as many as they wish.
Once they have circled the words, I have students meet in small groups to share
and discuss the words they circled. As a group, students begin constructing a poem
using the words they found in the text (you can create your own guidelines, perhaps
allowing them to add up to five words of their own for the sake of flow).
This process, a modified think-pair-share, elicits rich discussion about the topic
as the students negotiate words to use in the poem. Discussion of the topic supports
higher levels of thinking, such as synthesis, analysis, and evaluation, as well
as comprehension. It also provides a scaffold for writing. As they discuss the creation
of the poem, they are summarizing the text; and for many students, enabling them
first to express their ideas orally allows for a better written expression.
Once students have created a found poem based on the text, I have them share with
other groups. We compare the words and ideas that the groups derived from the same
text. What I have found is that the words may differ, but the general summary of
events is similar. Next, students are ready to construct written summaries independently
using their poems as a guide.
Sample Found Poem
The following is a poem I created after reading a May 4th Site
and Memorial Brochure at Kent State University. All the words derived
from the literature.
This activity for found poetry could also be used as a jigsaw, a literature discussion
group, or an introduction to a topic, as well as a culmination. It could also be
presented as an anticipation guide for a prereading activity. If you create a found
poem based on a piece of text, students could read it and make anticipated predictions
about the larger text. As a stretch, this could be used with student writing! Students
could create found poetry from collections of their own writing.
Fleischman, P. (1989). Joyful noises. New York: HarperTrophy.
Sidman, J. (2005). Song of the water boatman and other pond poems.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Return to top
Editor's Note: We think these poems are wonderful,
and we would love to share others with our readers. Send us your students' content-area
and nonfiction-based poems, and we will publish them in a special place on our AdLIT blog.
(You will also need to send us written parental permission to publish them.)