Georgia Heard was 10 when her father “went away to the Vietnam War to fly helicopters.” To cope, she began to write down her feelings. Around the same time, whenever there was a family birthday, she would write a poem as a gift. “My mother and grandmother would have tears in their eyes,” she says. “This was the first time I realized words are powerful—they can move people.”

By the time she got to college, Heard had decided to become a poet. She started working with Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which took her into New York City schools to teach poetry. She is now the go-to classroom poet for many schools (she also conducts teacher workshops) and is prized by kids and teachers alike.

Do you share your personal story with students to help them understand what they can do?
Absolutely. Sometimes I show them my notebooks. Probably 90 percent of what’s in the notebooks doesn’t turn into a poem, but I’ll show them how a certain entry turned into one. It doesn’t look like poetry, but then I start to extract it.

What is poetry?
People have been trying to answer that question for centuries: What is poetry? If you look in the dictionary, it’s a very dry definition. Just like when you try to define the word love, it’s very hard to define it. You can talk about the elements of poetry: image, rhythm, metaphor. But that doesn’t really define it, either—those are just some of the elements. Sometimes I read to them what other poets have said. Robert Frost said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat.” I ask, “What does that mean?” and we come to a definition together.

Why is it important to teach poetry? How does it benefit kids?
It’s the doorway into literacy for a lot of kids, especially the struggling and reluctant ones, and even English language learners. It’s short and manageable—you can write a five-line poem, and it can be beautiful and complete. Grace Paley said, “I went to the school of poetry in order to learn how to write prose.” If you look at what the school of poetry can teach, there are so many elements of language and writing—word choice, rhythm, revision—that it can teach kids in a short form.

What are some of your favorite poems to use in the classroom?
I use the list poem a lot. It’s the easiest to write. I produced an anthology of list poems, Falling Down the Page, because there are so many kids who have trouble getting started. It’s a way for them to start writing poetry and not think about rhyming or counting 5-7-5 on their fingers. Some of the poets I use in the classroom are Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Pat Mora, J. Patrick Lewis, as well as anthologies from people like Paul Janeczko.

How is it different working with younger versus older kids?
When I work with kindergarten kids, it’s like the Wild West—if I say poetry is like a little song in your heart, they might all sing “Jingle Bells”! But middle school students are thirsty for a way to express their mixed feelings. My job is to help them use concrete language to pinpoint what they’re feeling.

For teachers who don’t think they have a “knack” for teaching poetry, what would you advise?
Maybe they had a not-so-positive experience themselves in school, or they’re more linear and feel like poetry isn’t for them. To revive or establish their connection, I suggest they find a few poems they truly love, not that they’re supposed to love, and have them share those with students and talk about why they love those poems. I think they will fall in love with poetry if they find their own way in.

How can teachers make National Poetry Month feel fresh?
Kids can create a poetry anthology about animals, friendship, even something topical like global warming. They can write apostrophe poems, which are “letter” poems to someone (or thing) who isn’t there; Paul Janeczko has a great anthology. I would also have kids act out poems and illustrate the images of poetry and make picture books. My upcoming book, Awakening the Heart, is on “heart mapping”; kids make a drawing and inside they write words about people or about memories they have. The words they write are like little seeds they can pick up later and write more on.

What should teachers be careful not to do when teaching poetry?
They should be careful not to have students write in a single form, like the cinquain or haiku or limerick. There’s nothing wrong with those forms, but kids can get so busy counting syllables or trying to rhyme that they forget to express what really matters to them. The other thing is that reading only funny or rhyming poems gives the impression that that’s all poetry is.

How can teachers use poetry throughout the year?
They can start or end every day with a poem. They can read a poem after recess to center kids. If they took even 20 minutes once a week to read and write poetry, by April, kids would know so many poems and so much about poetry.

What are some ways to use poetry across the curriculum?
Poetry personalizes information. When you’re studying the Civil War, for example, instead of just learning causes and dates, kids can read a poem about it. Or if they’re doing an experiment on how plants grow, ask them to create poems about what they’re observing. It’s not just, “It’s math class, so I’m going to read a poem about math.” It’s a way for kids to internalize and integrate what they’re learning.

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Photos: Courtesy of Georgia Heard