Why We Need More Poetry in Schools

Below is an excerpt from an article I co-wrote with Chris Colderley, "Making Words Dance," in this month's Language Magazine, August 2015.

Northrop Frye (2002) claimed, “Poetry is the most direct and simple means of expressing oneself in words” (p. 58). Yet poetry is not given as much attention as it deserves. It is a genre that is neglected throughout elementary and high school, as well as in teacher-education courses (Certo, Apol, Wibbens, & Yoon, 2010). There are many reasons (and excuses) why more poetry is not in classrooms. Many teachers lack the confidence to teach poetry, because they lack the experience in and knowledge of the field. Reid (2006) says teachers “believe they have not been prepared to teach poetry. Lack of experience, lack of preparation, and lack of confidence quickly add up to lack of interest if not complete apathy” (p. 9). The disappearance of poetry from classrooms has generated a cycle of indifference among students (Parr & Campbell, 2006). Morag Styles, professor of children’s poetry at the University of Cambridge, suggests “the lack of confidence of generations of teachers in tackling poetry has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as pupils are not inspired to read it for pleasure” (2011).

During one of my very first author visits, I remember a high school English teacher warning me that her students may not be engaged in, or responsive to, my presentation, as many of them abhorred poetry. I asked her if she taught poetry, and she shared that she had taught it begrudgingly, as it was not her favorite either. I could relate.

When I was in high school, I was disinterested in the poetry we learned in AP English. It was inaccessible, unrelatable, and, quite frankly, boring. That is not to say that it was not valuable, because it was; these were the literary stalwarts of the canon, after all. True, we were learning, but our human souls weren’t being moved in some significant way. And if you want a student to be moved by poetry, if you want to be moved by poetry, then you must share poetry with which you connect on an emotional level.

So many of us have been immersed, since grade school, in so much staid and incomprehensible poetry that we feel disconnected from it, often scared by it. We’ve been taught that in order to understand a poem, we must first dissect it (we dissect frogs, not poetry), and so we’ve never felt what poetry feels like. We’ve never developed a sense of joy from reading between the lines. We’ve never smiled like the sun. We’ve never cried a river. I say poetry is a ladder, and we should carefully and intentionally take each step, and work our way up. This way, we are more apt to find our way to a higher appreciation of language and literature.

There are a plethora of good reasons for teaching poetry in schools. Faced with the demands of data-driven decision making and a cacophony of instructional practices, teachers have to discern the approaches that will have the greatest impact on student engagement and learning, as well as on growth (Holbrook, 2005). Poetry instruction offers a range of possibilities for improving reading and writing and increasing student motivation (Cecil, 1994; Routman, 2001). For the purposes of this article, we will focus on improved writing.

You can read the full Language Magazine article here.