It’s no secret that poetry isn’t taught in schools well. I say this as a former high school teacher, so I’m not hating on teachers or schools. I’m hating on the mentality standardized tests have created. Teachers rush to fit in all the material that may appear on a test–and then the students don’t enjoy what they’re actually reading.
Kids aren’t stupid. They know the end game is a score.
But this is even more reason why we, as teachers and parents and aunts and uncles and general humans, need to foster that love of reading–and specifically, reading poetry. Sure, I’m biased, I write poetry, so I want other people to read poetry. But not because of the fact that I read it, but because it’s helped me in so many areas of my life–and my students’ who ended up falling in love with it.
While I’m no longer a high school teacher, it was one of the best and most formative experiences of my life–and seeing my students’ faces aglow from finding that thing, their thing, is and was priceless. There’s nothing like that feeling when you see someone absolutely blossom and connect to something that speaks to them, to their pain and joy.
Teaching poetry to kids who didn’t want to read poetry was amazing, because it showed me what kids actually learn from it–and why it matters for kids of all ages. Sure, if all you teach is “The Wasteland” and iambic pentameter and Shakespeare, there may be a lot of scowls (although even Renaissance sonnets can appeal if they’re taught well). But introduce Lemon Anderson, Carvens Lissaint, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rachel McKibbens, Malcolm London, Stephen Burt, and Sarah Kay into the mix–and you’ll get an entirely different reaction.
I was lucky to be able to teach students from all backgrounds, both economic and racial—and being able to introduce them to a poem that speaks of black womanhood or not being able to afford college or being Palestinian or dealing with anxiety and depression is so valuable. And it’s not just for teens, but young kids too.
Kids, like you, just want to relate to something. They want to be seen. They need literature and language that speaks to them. I’m not saying to get rid of the classics, but having other options is important too (and thank the stars for things like YouTube and Ted Talks that have poetry kids like to hear and watch–and for Instagram for being a place people of all ages share it, making it more accessible).
Here’s how poetry can change your life–and your kid’s life for the better:
1. Learn use of language. You literally master how you speak and write, because everything counts in poetry–and you’ll pay attention to the small things, which brings me to point #2:
2. Attention to detail. Whether it’s remembering that soccer game, math homework, or what ice cream flavor someone likes, learning to pay attention to the small things is a skill forever useful in life.
3. Empathy and nuance. Reading poetry, and encouraging students to write poetry, helps develop trust, vulnerability, compassion, and empathy. They can learn to see others’ perspectives while also understanding their own emotions–and how to deal with them.
4. Articulate emotions and feelings as therapy, gaining a sense of identity. All kids struggle and deal with some kind of personal issue, whether it’s an argument with a friend or parent, or dealing with low confidence. That’s why learning to use words as a form of therapy is helpful. Of course, writing doesn’t replace clinical therapy, but it’s cathartic and therapeutic. It also gives kids agency, allows them foster an identity, and develop independence.
5. Analyzation skills improve. Having to pick apart the different facets of a poem means that critical thinking skills are automatically being improved and developed. Every aspect of life needs this skill. And honestly, you learn grammar better if you’re actively engaging with it more, which poetry does–and that helps someone learn how to read.
6. Creativity. Even if your kid doesn’t love art, it’s always important to think outside of the box and challenge your imagination–and I mean, if you’ve ever read Robert Frost, you know good poems do this.
7. Generosity for oneself and others. Learning to grasp and empathize with different perspectives also enables someone to become more generous and diplomatic–and we all need a little more goodness in the world.