Sunday, October 16, 2011

Poems for Teaching in the Content Areas

Lewis, J. Patrick, and Laura Robb. 2007. Poems for Teaching in the Content Areas: 75 Powerful Poems to Enhance Your History, Geography, Science, and Math Lessons.  New York: Scholastic.
ISBN 078-0-439-89603-0

Recommended Audience
This book is recommended for educators.  The poems are best-suited for teaching middle- and high-school students (suggested poems vary from Grades 5 and up).

Summary of Book
The 75 poems in this book are divided into four broad content-areas and designed to be used in the classroom to enhance student learning.  Each content-area—History, Geography, Science, and Math—is introduced by Robb, who offers 4 classroom-tested suggestions for projects (some incorporating technology) and 3 writing ideas, based on Lewis’ poetry.  The introduction offers a discussion of the benefits of teaching with poetry in the content areas and a method for doing so.  Topics covered are the Civil War, immigration, the Holocaust, explorers, landmarks, natural disasters, space, cells, fractions, and algebra.  A helpful list of themes and issues in the poems is also included.

Review Excerpts
“This book is great for introducing new topics, branching into KWL’s or other similar activities.”  (S. Heaney, Customer Review,

Awards for J. Patrick Lewis
·         NCTE Excellence in Children’s Poetry Award, 2011
·         Poetry Foundation, US Children’s Poet Laureate

Questions to Ask About Teaching Poetry in the Content Areas
How can teaching poetry in the content areas enhance student learning?
      According to the Introduction to the text by Robb (p. 6), using poetry in the content areas is powerful for three reasons:
·         First, poems bring a human element and a personal touch, helping students retain information and vocabulary.  They help students make connections by enabling them to create vivid mental images.
·         Secondly, poems are quick and to the point.  They can make connections for students in quick, powerful ways.
·         Finally, poetry can help examine important issues which extend outside of the classroom.

How does an understanding of metaphor as found in poetry help students increase their content-area understanding? 

How can we bridge the gap between reading poetry in the content-area classroom and enabling students to write poetry in the content-areas?

Suggestions for Reading Poetry Aloud
For the poem, “Universagrams” (p. 81), I would divide students into two groups and line them up on either side of the room, facing one another.  The first group would chorally say the first term (ex. “astronaut”) while the second group would respond with the anagram (ex. “NASA tutor”).  An extension would be to challenge students to use subject-area vocabulary banks to create more anagrams. 

The poem “Five Simple Things You Can Do With the Five Simple Machines” (p. 80) is perfect for five groups.  Each group would be assigned a stanza which is specifically about one of the five machines.  The group must memorize their stanza and also determine a way in which they can “act out” the machine being described (ex. Lever, Wheel & Axle, Ramp, Screw, Pulley).

Using the poem “Hurricane” (p. 75) as an example, students could focus on the sounds of nature in other science-related poems.  Working in small groups, students must create sounds to accompany the poem.  For example, when some of the students recite how the wind “may toss fishing boats about the bay,” other students would be responsible for making the sounds of boats being tossed about in the bay.  When “Wind decides to corrugate the blue/Agitating in white along the coast,” students in the group are responsible for making “corrugated” and “agitated” sound effects to accompany the words. 

Follow Up Activities
Quick and Easy Routine for Using Poems in Your Class
Robb (p. 8) outlines 5 steps for introducing poetry to your classes in four or five minutes, which could be used every day. 
  1. Make an overhead transparency of the poem and enough copies so pairs can share.
  2. Distribute the copies to partners and place the poem on an overhead projector.  Read it aloud twice.
  3. Invite students to jot down the immediate response by noting words and phrases that popped into their minds as you read aloud.
  4. Have students exchange their thoughts with their partners.  Then ask pairs to share their findings with the entire class.
  5. Ask students to write in their notebooks the connections they made to your subject, the issues the poem raised or any insights into a specific topic that the poem helped them understand.
History Connection
In teaching poems connected to history classes, such as Lewis’ “The Moth” (p. 12) or “If Women Get the Vote” (p. 18), Robb suggests “Step Into the Poem” (p. 11).  In this activity, students use the internet to research a time period reflected in a poem.  Students can search for primary sources related to the poems to gain insight into the event and make connections to problems faced today. 

Geography Connections
Some of Lewis’ poems related to geography are shape poems.  Using “In the South Pacific” (p. 45) or “Tsunami” (p. 40) as examples, students can research other geologic phenomenon and create their own shape poems based on their research. 

“HaikUSA” (p. 54-59) is easily adaptable to the study of countries and world cultures.  Using Lewis’ haiku as a starting point, students could learn the form and create haikus with clues to other countries, mapping them out as they go.

Science Connection
As a writing idea, try Robb’s “It Can’t Talk Back” (p. 61).  Write an apostrophe (a poem of direct address) to an object in science that can’t talk back.  Use “Said the Little Stone” (p. 72) or “The Loneliest Creature” (p. 70) as models.

Math Connection
For math, Robb suggests “Shape That Poem.”  This activity uses Lewis’ poem, “What’s My Angle” (p. 92) as a model for students to create their own poems in a geometric shape.  After brainstorming and sharing with partners, students create poems to describe the shape they have chosen.

Websites Related to Teaching Poetry in the Content Areas
Author Sites
In the internet age, most children’s poetry authors have websites which offer links to their books and any teaching resources based on their works.  Of particular note for those wishing to use poetry in the content areas are websites and teacher resources offered by Kristine O’Connel George at and Joyce Sidman

Lee B. Hopkins Poetry Award Teaching Toolbox
Created by Sylvia Vardell, this site promotes the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and includes helpful ideas for linking award-winning poetry to the content areas.  In addition, it should be noted that the poet Lee Bennett Hopkins ( himself has written and edited several collections of poetry which are content-area specific. 

Poetry at Play
One of the main goals of this blog by the Poetry Advocates for Children and Young Adults (PACYA) is to make it the global hub for poetry for young people, with daily news and weekly/monthly features.  

Poetry for Children
This site, also created by Sylvia Vardell, is an excellent resource for all things related to children’s poetry.  Blog posts are current, and a cloud tag for “poetry activities” links to 38 posts about using poetry in the classroom. 

Books and Articles Related to Teaching Poetry in the Content Areas
Abisdris, Gil, and Adele Casuga. "Atomic Poetry: Using Poetry to Teach Rutherford's Discovery of the Nucleus." The Science Teacher 68, no. 6 (2001): 58.

Chatton, Barbara. (2010). Using Poetry Across the Curriculum: Learning to Love Language, 2nd edition.  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Holbrook, Sarah. (2005). Practical Poetry: a Nonstandard Approach to Meeting Content-Area Standards.  Portsmith, NH:  Heineman.  (accessed October 13, 2011).

Kane, Sharon, and Audrey Rule. “Poetry Connections Can Enhance Content Area Learning.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 47, no. 8, (2004): 658-669.

Perry, Phyllis. 1997. Exploring the World of Animals: Linking Fiction to Nonfiction.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Teacher Ideas Press.

Rasinski, Tim, David Harrison, and Gay Fawcett. 2009. Partner Poems for Building Fluency: Grades 4-6New York: Scholastic.

Watts, M. “Science and Poetry: Passion v. Prescription in School Science?” International Journal of Science Education 23, (2001): 197–208.

Wysocki, Barbara. “What Rhymes with Math?”  School Library Journal 53, no. 4 (2007): 56-60.

Vardell, Sylvia M. 2006.  Poetry Aloud Here: Sharing Poetry with Children in the LibraryChicago: American Library Association.

Kathleen McKim. 2011.  This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit

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