Poetry is a broad genre without boundaries. Play with the elements of rich language — rhyme, rhythm, shape, form, and imagery — and use them to communicate an experience, an emotion, a viewpoint, a thought, and a poem is born.
Poetry is a playground for children — there are no rules and it can begin in the air/ear without crippling expectations. The sophisticated reader and writer can advance; the struggling reader and writer falls in love with words.
— Paula Green
Poems can communicate with immediacy and deceptive simplicity. Ralph Fletcher, children's author, compares a poem to an X-ray, allowing you to see the bare bones of something you might have taken for granted. Poetry introduces children to language, entertains, and offers subversive delights.
Laughter and humour are core elements of many children’s poems. Many poets write to entertain, but hope children will see parallels in their own lives. There are many popular poets who transform daily life into hilarious chaos, including:
- Jack Prelutsky
- Paul Cookson
- Roger McGough
- Shel Silverstein
- Michael Rosen.
Poetry in the classroom and school library
In 2017, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) ran a project for teachers to highlight the importance of poetry as a vehicle for improving children’s engagement with reading and writing.
Teachers found that children enjoyed poetry more when they were allowed to ‘bask’ in poems as a regular part of the school day, without any need to give a concrete response. They also found it was important to give children time and opportunity to hear poetry read aloud, and to practise and perform poetry.
The Power of Poetry research summary
New Zealand poet Rachel McAlpine says, ‘a teacher’s role is pivotal’. Demonstrate a love of poetry yourself, and students will follow.
Using poetry with students
Poems are ideal for sharing. Start by making your classroom a poetry-friendly place where children can discover the curiosity, wonder, and fun of poetry, and find their own voice. Ideas for reading, sharing, and promoting poetry include:
- read poetry aloud to students every day
- request a poetry selection from National Library's lending service on a theme or centre of interest
- explore different forms of poetry – haiku, acrostic, concrete poems, and more
- display poetry around the classroom, along corridors, on doors and windows
- print a short poem on a blown-up balloon and hang it in the classroom
- place copies of poems on school buses — a project called 'poetry in motion'.
Creating poetry to engage young readers and writers
- Create an A to Z poetry anthology for your class with a poem for every letter of the alphabet.
- Share a poem with the class each week for them to illustrate and build their own poetry collection.
- Write poems on the playground with large pieces of chalk, create poem trails all over the pathways. By doing this, your students also become pavement artists!
- Use pages from old, unwanted books or newspapers to create blackout poetry.
In the house of history, you would shiver
and shake at such a sight.
Cold hard steel poles surround you as you try to flee
Thoughtless faces staring blank.
— David Deng, Takapuna Grammar
Poetry in the school library
Include a wide variety of poetry books in your collection. Large and small in size, funny and serious, classic and contemporary, homegrown and international.
Consider your poetry collection's:
- range and appeal
- location and signage
New Zealand poetry
We have some excellent poets in New Zealand who write about our environment, identity, and everyday life. Every reader should be able to find something they recognise in what they read. These poets are a great place to start:
- Margaret Mahy
- Joy Cowley
- James K Baxter
- Apirana Taylor.
For older students, there are:
- New Zealand Poet Laureates such as Selina Tusitala Marsh
- Courtney Sina Meredith
- Sam Hunt.
Paula Green's Poetry Box blog for children features poems, interviews, and challenges for children up to year 8 to enter, with the best published online. For senior students, her Poetry Shelf blog for adults is rich with current content about the New Zealand poetry scene — latest publications, events, themed poetry, reviews, and interviews.
Toitoi is a quarterly publication with content written and illustrated by students up to year 8.
School for Young Writers provides classes and competitions, and a quarterly magazine of student work — Write On.
Diversity and poetry that explores issues
By paying tribute to the men and women whose only instrument is free speech, who imagine and act, UNESCO recognizes in poetry its value as a symbol of the human spirit’s creativity. By giving form and words to that which has none — such as the unfathomable beauty that surrounds us, the immense suffering and misery of the world — poetry contributes to the expansion of our common humanity, helping to increase its strength, solidarity and self-awareness.
— Irina Bokova, former Director-General of UNESCO
Diversity in poetry
Michael Rosen has pleaded for more diversity, originality, and new material from all cultures. Poetic voices representing New Zealand’s diverse communities include:
- Selina Tusitala Marsh
- Robert Sullivan
- Daren Kamali.
Poetry for wellbeing
Young people also find comfort and encouragement in reading and writing poetry about their daily lives. Reflecting on issues, experiences, and feelings helps to build empathy and connections. Some poets who explore our everyday lives include:
- Joseph Coelho
- Naomi Shihab Nye.
Poetry for exploring the environment
Poets exploring the environment and the natural world include:
- Andrew Fusek Peters
- Nicola Davies.
Poetry that explores topical, contentious issues
A more serious sub-genre of thematic poems deals with topical, contentious issues such as bullying and climate change. Historically, poetry has endeavoured to reflect issues and real experiences. War poets Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen were instrumental in presenting the unpalatable truth of World War I.
Poets who explore issues and produce poetry that is emotive, unsettling and thought-provoking for all ages include:
- John Foster
- John Agard
- Maya Angelou.
Spoken word or performance poetry
Spoken word or performance poetry is composed to be performed before an audience. As New Zealand's own ‘word witch’ Margaret Mahy said, poems are for the ear, the simplest introduction to the physical quality of words.
Poetry slams — where spoken word poetry is performed in a competition setting — are becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand and overseas.
New Zealand Poetry Slam runs a national competition. It aims to further awareness and appreciation of poetry and live performance, and to find New Zealand's top performance poet.
It’s exciting to see a live slam, but there are also many performances to be seen online. Platforms such as Button Poetry and Action Education also provide programmes working with youth to develop their ability to express themselves, and reflect their world experience and concerns through poetry.
Just as hip-hop and rap have moved into the music mainstream as a voice for the disenfranchised, poetry that celebrates rhythm, beat, and story carries strong messages.
Rastafarian rap poet Benjamin Zephaniah says he wants to change the world with his poetry.
Verse novels are an increasingly popular subgenre of poetry. Offering thought-provoking stories, they are often autobiographical and flexible in format. Shorter than novels, they are an attractive introduction for reluctant readers.
A few authors of verse novels include:
- Ann Burg
- Jacqueline Woodson
- Kwame Alexander
- Sally Murphy
- Sarah Crossan
- Steven Herrick.
Genres for young adult and young readers has more information about verse novels.
Poetry books and resources
Books and Reads — for kids and teens — allows you to explore, find, and share children’s and young adult (YA) poetry books and reviews.
New Zealand poetry resources
EPIC — databases where you can search for poetry ideas.
New Zealand Poetry Society (NZPS) — an extensive range of links to poetry sites, journals, courses, and resources.
Poetry — in English Online — access to a range of teaching resources.
Poetry Kit — Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters updates its poetry kit each year. It's full of exercises, tips, and links to websites, and can be downloaded by students and their teachers in the lead up to the National Schools Poetry Award.
Ralph Fletcher — writer and poet Ralph Fletcher offers inspiration for young writers and their teachers.
The New Zealand Poet Laureate blog — thoughts from poets laureate.
30 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month — National Academy of Poets, includes a poetry promotion poster you can download.
Favourite Poem Project — an American project where people read their favourite poem and say why it's special to them.
Laura Candler’s poetry teaching resources — useful resources.
Poetry Class — learning resources from The Poetry Society (UK), including lesson plans.
Poetry Foundation — for teachers and students of all ages to immerse themselves in poetry.
Poetry Learning Lab — the Poetry Foundation has lots of resources, including interviews with poets and poetry read-alouds.
Poets.org — from National Academy of Poets. Has lots of resources, including Poem in Your Pocket and Poem-a-Day.
ReadWriteThink — online reading and writing activities for students and lesson plan ideas for teachers. They have several interactive resources and an app kids can use to 'wax poetic'.
The Children's Poetry Archive — is the Poetry Archive's lively site for younger children with links to thematic poems, and poets and their works.
The Poetry Archive — UK-based site providing an online collection of English-language poets (including some from New Zealand) reading their own work. Includes educational resources for teachers, such as background material on poets, filmed interviews, and links for students.
The Poetry Society — founded in the UK in 1909. Enjoys a worldwide membership of over 4,000 and champions poetry for all ages.
World Poetry Day — a date (21 March) adopted by UNESCO in 1999. Has articles and recommendations for teaching poetry in secondary school.
Young Poet Network — provides workshop challenges, competitions, and support for poets aged 11 to 17 years, and educational resources for teachers.