Did you know it’s National Poetry Month? I feel fortunate that I was among the attendees at one of the last sessions of the TESOL 2019 convention because the topic was…yes, poetry! Quite a number of us decided to attend The Uses of Poetry in the ESL Classroom at 5:00 p.m. on the final day. Our presenter, Janusz Solarz of Indiana University, rose to the challenge of engaging us at this late hour and sending us off with both smiles and teaching ideas.
Perhaps the secret appeal of poems is tied to a fact that Janusz pointed out: poems are often the first type of reading we experience in our childhood. Isn’t that true? As kids, we enjoyed hearing them, learning them by heart, and reciting them. I remember the nursery rhymes that hung on my bedroom walls. I loved the colorful drawings, but they became even more special when I could start reading them.
Janusz encourages teachers to tap into poetry as a collection of authentic and creative texts. Why not work a poem into a lesson? Janusz suggested a few different ways to do this. Avoiding complexities that would only work against our objectives as ELTs, we can focus on practical or “utilitarian” purposes of poetry, as Janusz calls them. For instance, a short poem can serve as a warm-up or a means to lead into a lesson topic. The examples Janusz shared were all poems that followed a clear rhyme scheme. When the teacher reads with the appropriate rhythm, the pattern of rhyming is easier to follow. So when the final line is omitted, students have a decent shot at predicting the ending. This activity works particularly well with limericks. Participants enjoyed collaborating to suggest possible endings for a number of humorous limericks. Janusz rightfully stated that such activities appeal to students’ creativity.
Even so, supplying a whole line can be a challenge. A simpler one task would be to omit the final word in an ABAB or AABBA scheme. Either way, filling in a missing word or line tests comprehension and develops pronunciation skills. Do students have a good sense of the rhythm and rhyme accurately? Working together, students will have their collective word bank. I’d like to throw out the idea of allowing them to use a rhyming dictionary, as there are a number of them. RhymeZone and Rhymer.com are just two. Other participants voiced their own suggestions, including a Mad Libs-like approach, in which a number of words are omitted and new words are substituted as long as they’re grammatically appropriate (e.g., singular noun for a singular noun).
Janusz demonstrated the prediction and completion activities with a couple of poems by Odgen Nash. A Flea and a Fly in A Flue is short and playfully illustrates the use of homonyms and homophones. A Word to Husbands is an concise view on harmony in marriage, which would likely produce chuckles and reactions, which you could build on should you wish to have a larger conversation about relationships.
Judith Viorst was another poet highlighted, and her funny poem Mother Doesn’t Want a Dog can be used in part or in full. Similar to Nash’s poem about a husband’s wisdom, Viorst pokes fun at a child’s ability to argue and persuade.
Which other poets does Janusz favor? He mentioned his fondness for works by Richard Wilbur and Russel Edson. He has used Edson’s The Fall to develop students ability to think outside the box…in English. Such a poem is not inaccessible to an ELL and interpretations can be discussed as a class. The works of some poets have published on YouTube, and Janusz has followed two writers whose verses push the audience to think beyond: Billy Collins (Do a search on YouTube. I found one playlist.) and Todd Boss (see created playlists).
I’d like to thank Janusz for entaining us and informing us in Atlanta. I’m especially grateful that he has allowed me to summarize his presentation. I couldn’t include every little golden nugget, but many have been passed along.
Photo credit: People, Girl, Woman, Female, Smile by StockSnap. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/photos/people-girl-woman-female-smile-2557413/.