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ON THE PODCAST: Engaging Students and Building Community with Poetry

On the Podcast: Engaging Students and Building Community with Poetry, with Georgia Heard and Megan Sloan

A few lines of poetry can reveal so much about a student's interests, experiences and inner world. Imagine a classroom where poetry isn't just a side activity, but a cornerstone of learning and a tool for building community.

Today, we hear from Georgia Heard, author of the brand new edition of Awakening the Heart, and classroom teacher Megan Sloan, about how they've used poetry to help them get to know their students and ignite a sense of belonging and community in the classroom. 

Download a sample chapter of Awakening the Heart 2e

Below is a full transcript of this episode.

Megan Sloan:

Poetry is very appealing to kids, and it's so sensitive. Poems, it gets at the heart of you. We write about what we love and poetry seems to hit us close to our heart. And so I think it's sensitive and it gets kids feeling a sense of community.


A few lines of poetry can reveal so much about a student's interests, experiences and inner world. Imagine a classroom where poetry isn't just a side activity, but a cornerstone of learning and a tool for building community. Today, we hear from Georgia, author of the brand new edition of Awakening the Heart and classroom teacher, Megan, about how they've used poetry to help them get to know their students and ignite a sense of belonging and community in the classroom. Our conversation begins with a story from Megan's classroom that happened that very day.


Well, my kids are always... they have reading menus, which they do during reader's workshop and they have lots of choice within it with reading work writing. And one little boy who loves to read, he was saying, "Well, can I write a poem? It's not on there." And I said, "Yeah, you can always write a poem." And he wrote this beautiful poem. We typed it up, he and I typed it up together, but it had to do with... he called it Thrill of the Hunt. And it just happened today right before I left. And it talked about a goblin shark stalks the black deep abyss. A hogfish. No, that's slimy. A dragon fish. No, it bit me last time. Perfecto, an oarfish. It's long enough and delicious enough. Yum, yum.

And what I was thinking so much about was that his poetry tells me so much about him and his knowledge and his interests. And I have two little boys who are just scientific factos in their brain and they're always writing poetry about things scientific. And poetry is so short, that it's not a long novel, so we can actually get to the meat of the matter of what they love.

Georgia Heard:

And do you find, Megan, that some of the kids who feel a little challenged in other writing areas, they kind of shine with poetry? Have you found that?


Absolutely. I mean, years ago you always thought, oh, I'll do poetry once April comes and it's National Poetry Month. And I threw that out the window a long time ago. And it wasn't just because I loved poetry, but I decided to start with poetry because I found kids that were striving writers or multi-language learners, they couldn't figure out how to write a page of writing. Even a first-grader, it was too much. But if you give them a poem, it can be short. We've talked about this before. It can be short. It doesn't have to be complete sentences. And they end up being fantastically successful and not just because it's shortened that they're doing okay, they actually really shine in poetry.

And I think of this one little boy years ago that wrote this poem about a tree in fall, and he said, almost, almost a winter tree. And I said, oh, my gosh, how did you know? I think he tripped upon it. But I said, how did you know to repeat that word? It made us linger there and everyone stopped and let's listen to this. His chest went out. He felt like such a writer. And from then, he actually wasn't so challenged to write other things because he felt like a writer now, whereas he didn't feel like a writer before that.


Absolutely. And can I just say also that I have known Megan for a long time and I can't remember exactly when we met, but I feel like we've been colleagues and friends forever. And I went to one of your workshops one time at a conference and there were round tables and you had all kinds of beautiful... There were safety pins there so we could write about safety pins, and there were charts for line breaks, and I think they were kind of poetry stations really for teachers. And I just thought, you are a bright light in the world of teaching, but in the world of teaching poetry. You have been such an inspiration for so many people, including me. And I love that your students' poems are now in Awakening the Heart because it kind of comes [inaudible 00:04:41].


Yes. And I've learned from you, your Awakening of the Heart and Ralph Fletcher's Poetry Matters and everyone that I've learned from over the years, that's how I learned to be a teacher, to be a teacher of reading and to be a teacher of writing and poetry. And you can then take something and I don't twist it, the kids twist it. They're the ones who come up with the idea, can we do this or are we going to do this? Or it's nice out, are we going to go on a nature walk? It's raining, should we go on a walk so we can be inspired by poetry? They hear that a couple of times and then they're the ones that come up with the ideas. But it certainly started with a lot of professional reading and going to see you and others teach how to teach poetry to kids.


I love how you said, I threw that out the window, just the one month a year thing and just decided to incorporate poetry. I'd love to hear a little bit about that journey.


I've always read poetry, so you take the whatever it is, even a Shel Silverstein book. The kids love those, and Jack Prelutsky, and then others like Joyce Sidman and Rebecca Kai Dotlich and Georgia and the others. So I would always read a poem. When we had a minute, we read a poem. The I say, you say. I'm a yellow duck. I'm a yellow duck with the black feather back, with the black feather back. And we would do those poems anytime we had a minute. And I would read new poems. And then we would also do them. We are an outside school, like a California hallway school outside. So we can do poems while we're walking to music or walking to PE. And we do that. We do echo poems and we do choral poems. So I've always done a lot of that. And it's not hard to fit that in if you just have a poetry book next to you.

Take one a day and then you can do it. And so then we started incorporating a poem to begin the day, and it's on our slide for the morning. So we always have a poem. And it started with me doing it. Now, the kids practice, then it's kids' job to practice a poem and read the poem for the day at the beginning. And then we read a poem at the end of the day as well. So it might be me or it might be another, but the kids, they have the marked to read to the rest of the class as well. So it started out with just reading and doing choral reading and always having poems out for them to search for language because I felt like that's where the language is so easily identified for kids, the words they like, the alliteration, the sounds they like to make when they speak.

And so we started that. And then like I said, I just found that kids starting with poetry, not only the striving kids, it was easier for, but the kids that were even, I would say, kids who did not find writing really, really hard or a risk, they would learn to write more fluent because they were using phrasing and language and word choices that made their narrative writing and their expository writing, even in first grade, second grade, third grade and up, it would make it so much better. So I just started incorporating poetry always. And I know a lot of people do like poetry Fridays, but then if someone wanted to do something on Wednesday, I'm kind of a big person for, yeah, I have a plan, but if something better comes along, I can rearrange my plan a little bit.


It's fabulous. Just instead of waiting until April when [inaudible 00:08:11] people National Poetry Month, you weave it in throughout the year. And that makes so much sense. And because poems are short, you can weave it in, you can weave it in the morning, afternoon, midday, and at the end of the school day. And I mean, it takes a minute to read most poems. So I love that you kind of know the importance of starting early.


Right. The birthday poems where you pick a poem for a child that seems to fit them, and then you just make a little collage and that's your birthday card to them, and they love that, so that's bringing poetry in. So instead of another birthday card, you bring that in. And I know Georgia, you've probably done that.


I love how I'm hearing you say, Megan, that poetry is this amazing entry point for kids with writing and that also it's you getting to know the kids through poetry, feels like this first step in building community. You have to know each other to build community, right?




And so I'd love to talk more, and hopefully you both can because I know you've both seen this so much about how poetry starts to build community and what that has looked like in the classroom for you.


Poetry is very appealing to kids, and it's so sensitive. Poems, it gets at the heart of you. We write about what we love and poetry seems to hit us close to our heart. And so I think it's sensitive and it gets kids feeling a sense of community. It's so funny that I was thinking, okay, how do I think it builds community? Well, we do a lot together. We do choral reading together. Kids take popcorn parts in poetry, so we're all part of a community. But I asked the kids how they thought poetry built a community today, and I just wrote down what they said today. So these are just cards with me, my messy writing on it. But one said, "Poetry can help us come together. If people are different, if someone's black and someone's white, it helps us get along and find out we're not so different."

Someone said, "Poetry is so beautiful, you want to share it with someone else. We come together to share poems. Poetry shows emotions and feelings." This is a boy who's kind of a rough it boy. "It shows emotions and feelings. You get levels of wins in your life, big wins and little wins, and poetry is all about that." That's what he said. I mean, these are things that... And then poetry can talk about feelings and what people are interested in, and you get to know them better. So I think it does build a community. Kids come up with their own kinds of little communities, like the poetry club that the kids came up with. I didn't do that. I had nothing to do with that other than we are doing poetry in the classroom.

But they put a sign out on the hallway. They just said, can I have a piece of tape? I need to tape something up. And they put it up and they had lines there. And all these kids signed up and they had poetry club during Friday fun time. They had poetry out at recess. They were writing poems. They were sharing poems. And it was so lovely to see them excited about that. And what was interesting is there was a little girl who wanted art. She said, "Well, like the poetry club, can I make an art club?" I said, "Sure." "Can I make a science club?" And so that kind of spawned a lot of... We had all these little club signs out, but the poetry was one that started it. And I have to tell you, a few years back, I had someone say, "Oh, boys don't really like poetry." And I said, "Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait a minute. They do."

And I said, "Because I had little boys, we were doing haiku." And I think that's just fun for kids. After we've done a lot of different free verse poetry and list poems, I decided to teach it. Well, a kid decided to do a haiku club. Join the club, join the fun. And it was so interesting, all boys signed up, and they would meet around a table and they would read haiku. They had all these books haiku that they would get out of the basket, and then they would write haiku and then they would help each other, clapping out the syllables. It was just lovely to see them working, but it was all boys in the club. So I said... I took a picture of it because I had to just show that, yes, boys liked poetry too.


I think that's fabulous. I just think the whole idea of a club around poetry that the kids started themselves. A club is where you feel community. We are gathered together under one theme, one topic, and we have a lot in common. As Rita Dove said, she said that poetry is the genre of the inner life. So when we read poetry, I think it touches us in ways that I think other forms can do, but poetry has a very almost immediate effect on us. Sometimes when we read a poem, we feel like it's like somebody holding our hand. It's keeping us company. And so I think that when we read poetry in the classroom, not everybody's going to love every single poem. And I think that's the point, is that we find poems that really we can connect to that relate to our lives and our inner lives and our outer lives.

And then from there, we can form kind of community around it. And one of the projects that I talk about in the original Awakening the Heart and also in the new edition is, and Megan, you know this very well and I'm sure you've done it so many times, is the self-portrait anthology project where kids read and find poems that are a reflection of who they are, their identities, how they feel, their experiences. A little bit different from finding a poem that you love, although it can be obviously a poem you love. I remember listening to these two boys in a classroom, and they were best friends and their desks were right near each other, and they had their elbows... I remember Craig had his elbows on Robert's desk, and they were trying to find a poem that was a self-portrait. And they had chosen the same poem.

And I walked over to them and I said, "So what's going on?" And they said, "Well, we found the same self-portrait poem." And it was called "His Girlfriend" by Myra Cohn Livingston. And I guess, both of their fathers had been divorced and they had new girlfriends, and they were discussing this, and they chose this poem as a self-portrait because I wonder about my dad's girlfriend. She's okay, but it's hard to like her. And Robert wrote that, and Craig wrote the same thing in his notebook. And the teacher said, these boys had been friends for a long time, but probably had never talked about their private lives, and that they found something else they had in common that they could talk about.

So I do believe that if you get kids together in small groups and partnerships, reading poetry, they will find communion with each other in ways that they maybe didn't see the other person like this ever before. So I call them poetry empathy machines because of that. They help us find empathy for ourselves, but also other people. I think that, to me, is the beginning of building community where you have that respect. And Megan, I'm sure in your classroom, there is so much deep listening going on among your students.


Well, thank you. You hope so. But I think made me think of poetry partners in my classroom too. Sometimes we just have poetry partners, and then we also try to find poems for others in the classroom that we think kind of speaks to them, what they would enjoy, even younger ages, more what would be interesting to them or what would they love because of what we know all about them already.


So one of the things that I write about in Awakening the Heart is this idea of kind of storytelling around a poem that came from my experience going to camp. One summer I went to camp and I remember sitting around the campfire and we sang together and we roasted marshmallows and we talked. And that was really a way to make community. So I think about that experience and I think about how we can give poems to students and they can then gather, choose a poem that they really think, yes, this is something that I can relate to. This is something that's happened to me. And then they get into groups around that one poem, and they talk about their stories and their experiences.

So if they have a poem about missing a dog or their grandmothers, those kids who feel like, yes, this is something that I've experienced, they get together and story tell. And I think that there are very different students that come together in these small groups, not just best friends. But if you have an experience where you want to tell stories about your grandmother because the poem is about your grandmother, then you're in that small group. And I've had kids just kind of sit there and really talk for half an hour, 45 minutes around a particular poem. So that's another way I think that we can create community in a classroom is the storytelling around poems.


I also think... That whole storytelling made me think of kids that have... they tell about their cat doing something, okay, and/or their dog doing something, and they write it. And I say to them, "You know, this really sounds like a poem when you read it. Would you like me to help you make it look like a poem?" And the first time you work with them about making, I always say, the poem go down for little kids, you only have to do that once and then they understand how to make a poem look like a poem.


Thank you for tuning in today. For more information and a full transcript, please visit blog.heinemann.com.


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Georgia Heard has taught writing and poetry for over 25 years in urban, rural, and international classrooms.  She was the 2023 recipient of NCTE’s prestigious Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.  Her numerous other books for teachers include Heart Maps, The Revision Toolbox, and Finding the Heart of Nonfiction.  The first edition of Awakening the Heart was heralded as one of “12 Books Every Teacher Should Read” by Instructor Magazine.  Georgia Heard received her M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University and was a founding member of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

Megan Sloan is a third-grade teacher at Cathcart Elementary School in the Snohomish School District in Snohomish, Washington. Megan has worked as a literacy support specialist, a reading TOSA, and has taught first, second, and third grades during her 40 years in education. Megan is the author of four professional educator books including Into Writing: The Primary Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop published by Heinemann. Megan has always loved poetry and tries to create that same passion for poetry in her students by having them read and write poetry all year long.

Topics: Podcast, Georgia Heard, Heinemann Podcast, Awakening the Heart, podcasts

Date Published: 03/19/24

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