J. Patrick Lewis Reads Chromosome PoemThere are many ways to provide students with a memorable context for your content area of study. Reading aloud part of a diary entry, letters written by soldiers to family and friends, a short story, a historical novel, an essay, a newspaper article, or a poem can help students imagine and visualize the information to be learned. I offer poems as a way for students to learn and remember your subject’s content and to help create strong readers and thinkers.

J. Patrick Lewis Reads the "Chromosome Poem"

The Benefits of Using Poetry to Teach Content

A collection of poems for history, geography, science, and math is the first step to bringing a human element and a personal, often humorous touch to the topics you are studying. This helps students retain information and vocabulary — they now have vivid and/or humorous mental images that forge remembering connections.

Second, poems are short and cut to the heart of a topic. You can use a poem to connect students to your content topic in powerful and memorable ways. “Chromosome Poem,” for instance, is a catchy way to remember some of the traits chromosomes are responsible for determining. Then as students learn more about the topics, they link new information to their own lives and make connections to other texts and experiences.

Third, and perhaps most important, poetry helps students explore important issues in your content area, issues that extend beyond the classroom into their lives, communities, and the world. This volume contains poems on war, immigration, natural disasters, and technology that are sure to spark lively discussions that can enhance the content you’re teaching. It’s this stepping beyond the facts — making connections, analyzing information, and creating new understandings — that enables students to “get into” your subject and see its relevance to their lives and their world.

Using the poems to raise issues is a key teaching idea that asks students to think with the facts about a topic. I recommend raising issues wherever possible because issues invite students to use the facts gathered to create new understandings and develop social and community responsibility.

A Quick and Easy Routine for Using the Poems in Your Class

In four or five minutes, you can read aloud J. Patrick Lewis' Chromosome Poem (PDF) — or listen to him read — and have a brief discussion with students that can raise key issues to guide their study of a topic. Here is a simple routine to help you get started:

  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 their 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.

Once you’re ready to move beyond this brief but effective framework, you can offer students ideas for projects and writing.

For or Against Genetic Engineering
Here’s one science mini lesson using the “Chromosome Poem” you can try. Use “Chromosome Poem” as a springboard for exploring the controversies around the genetic engineering of fruits and vegetables. Find information on the Internet, interview adults and peers, and use the data you’ve collected to take a position for or against the genetic engineering of fruits and vegetables. Transform your data into an opinion paragraph or a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.

Using Issues and Themes to Build Comprehension
In addition to relating to the topics you teach, Poems for Teaching in the Content Areas: 75 Powerful Poems to Enhance Your History, Geography, Science, and Math Lessons addresses issues and themes that are part of our lives today. Asking students to connect a theme or issue to a poem and then explain how they arrived at the connection encourages them to use facts and details while thinking at high levels.

One way to begin incorporating issues and themes is to distribute a list of them to students; see my sample list below. Organize students into pairs, and invite them to link one or more poems to an issue or theme. Explain that partners will have to present their connections to the class and support these with details from the poems. Note that some poems will relate to two issues or themes.

Themes and Issues Covered in the Book

  • War/Death
  • Racism
  • Discrimination
  • Human Rights
  • Justice/Injustice
  • The Holocaust
  • Change
  • Immigration
  • Family
  • Disasters
  • Ecology
  • Preserving the Earth's Air
  • Genetic Engineering
  • Natural Wonders
  • Exploration
  • Weather Changes
  • Evolution
  • Biology
  • Space Exploration

For more ideas about how to teach content using science poems, go to Science Student Writing Ideas (PDF).

This article is excerpted from Poems for Teaching in the Content Areas: 75 Powerful Poems to Enhance Your History, Geography, Science, and Math Lessons by Laura Robb and J. Patrick Lewis.