Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres
Written by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
Published October 6, 2017 by Heinemman
If you’d like this resource, you can support independent bookstores, and my classroom library, by purchasing this title through bookshop.org.
About the Book:
The book’s premise is summed up in its subtitle: the best way to learn how to write anything is to study poetry. As the book’s introduction states, with poetry, “readers can identify writing techniques after reading one page, not thirty” (XII). The book is organized in six sections: (1) finding ideas, (2) choosing point of view, (3) structure, (4) language, (5) leads/conclusions, and (6) titles. Each section is then broken down into many specific lessons related to that topic. For example, in the fifth section, the book explores four different types of leads and seven different types of conclusions. Each individual lesson starts with a poem that can be used to illustrate the technique. Then it includes words from the poet explaining the technique, a section from VanDerwater discussing the technique, suggestions from her to help students try out the technique, and finally a couple student poems that utilize the technique.
Why I Purchased This Resource:
When I first became a teacher, I waited until the end of the year to teach poetry while secretly hoping I’d get so far behind that I would get to skip it entirely. Then mostly through Nancie Atwell’s work, I learned that teaching poetry isn’t as difficult as it seemed, and I moved it to the start of the year. At first, I started with poetry mostly because she said to, but over time, I learned firsthand the benefits of using free-verse poetry to open our year of writing. Now, I start the year with poetry because of the foundation it creates for our year together as writers. I hoped this resource would enhance the work I was doing.
Anyone who teaches writing can gain some useful ideas from this book, although it is ideal for anyone who follows Atwell’s line of thinking and begins the year with free-verse poetry. While all writing teachers can gain something from the book, I would put grades 3-6 as its sweet spot. A lot of the example texts seem ideal for this age range, for instance. Still, though, there is plenty that I can use with my 7th graders too.
This book makes a good case for poetry being central to the study of writing, not a genre that teachers cover in April if they have time. As Jason Reynolds explained in an interview, “What I would say though to a prose writer is I look at [poetry] as this is the ballet. You learn ballet and you can do other dances because you learn the discipline…. And [poetry is] the greatest thing that I learned how to do because it helped me learn how to write prose.” This book helps us see how we can use poetry like this in our classrooms. For each specific lesson, we see how to help students recognize and then begin to use these techniques in their poetry, but then each chapter also provides numerous examples to show how this technique translates to other forms of writing too.
One downside to the book is that it isn’t always the most engaging. I think a lot of that is due to the format, though. Since each lesson is only a few pages long, there isn’t a connection from page-to-page and chapter-to-chapter to pull us along through the book. I’d compare it to reading a short story collection. These always take me longer to read than a novel does because there isn’t one continuous storyline pulling us along from beginning to end. Instead, we are continually starting over with a new story. As a result, this book did take me a lot longer to finish than a professional book would normally take.
If you’re a teacher looking to add to your poetry toolbox, if you can’t figure out how to teach poetry, or if you want to unlock the potential of poetry to help your students write better in all genres, this is a worthwhile book to pick up.