CYC-Online 77 JUNE 2005
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language in the classroom

Experience beyond words: Giving children a voice through poetry writing

Karenlee Clarke Alexander and Linda Shaw-Benson

The authors offer two writing strategies educators can use to help students find their voices and achieve success.

Poetry tries to give voice to everyday states of mind in new ways, to wake us up to the ordinary, and at the same time to come as close as possible to the edge of what cannot be said: experience that in its intensity or oldness is beyond words. – Jones, 1997, p. 684

When I look at the stars they light me with sunshine. I hear the wind blowing and I feel honorable. – Fourth-grade student

Knowing oneself involves finding one’s voice. The young people we work with – fourth-grade students, all Ojibwe (more commonly known as Chippewa) Indians – have much to say once they find their voices and learn the power and magic of words. All of our students live on a reservation in northern Minnesota. Some of them are below-average readers and writers, and others are nonreaders and nonwriters. All have experienced deprivation in their home environments-from economic hardship to loss of loved ones to physical abuse. Our students have come to know themselves and find their voices through poetry writing.

By writing poetry, students learn that they are capable of great honesty, hope, and reverence for life, and educators gain insight into the lives of their students. Perhaps most important, students learn that they are capable of using words to express their anger, frustration, hopelessness, and feelings of loss, as well as their happiness, curiosity, delight, and wonder. By using two types of poetry-writing techniques-sensory visualization and “I am” list poems-students simultaneously face difficult issues in their lives, connect with their cultural heritage and spirituality, and learn to find their voices and express themselves.

An Alternative Route to Mastery
Students experience joy through mastery in school. The circle of courage model (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 1990) is based on Native American empowerment values and includes mastery, along with generosity, independence, and belonging, as the necessary components for the success of youth who are at risk. A tenet of the circle of courage model is that schools must focus on making students competent in order to lead them from inadequacy to mastery (Brendtro & Brokenleg, 1993).

Not all students can experience the joy of success and mastery through word drills and other traditional teaching methods. It becomes necessary, then, to find alternative ways for students to achieve. Poetry appeals to children with special needs because of the economy of words (Raiser, 1994). Poetry also works with visual images and musical rhythm, which further appeals to students who have special needs or who have difficulty reading and writing. The success of using the arts (poetry, fine art, music, dance, or drama) with emotionally and/or behaviorally challenged youth relates to the function of metaphor (Alexander, 1990). The arts permit access, through the verbal and visual imagery of metaphor, to “self-exploration and expression of feelings not possible with the logical, intellectual modes ofthought emphasized in traditional education” (p. 128).

Sensory Visualization

Prewriting exercises. One of the most important aspects in preparing students to write poetry is the use of visualization techniques. Visualization helps students concentrate and become more aware of their innermost thoughts, feelings, and senses. The objective of the teacher is to facilitate this process by setting the mood.

Before the students are asked to write on a particular subject, it is important that they have experience from which to draw. Students should be given time to get acquainted with the subject they intend to write about through books, encyclopedias, pictures, art, videos, classroom discussions, and previously written poetry. Once students have gained enough experience on the subject through a multitude of media, and are ready to write, the visualization process may begin.

It is important for the teacher to participate in this activity so he or she can help the students with the next step, the writing process. A teacher may want to write his or her own examples on the board (see Table 1 for a sample visualization exercise).

Table 1

Topic: Rain Forest Flowers

Smell Clean
Hear Birds singing
Bees buzzing
Taste Excitement
Touch Satin

The writing process. Begin the writing process by explaining how writing poetry may not be as difficult as it seems, and give an example of the variety of ways words can be combined into sentences or phrases and, ultimately, into poems. The elements exist already (in the word lists students made in the pre-writing exercises); they just need to be put together. Explain that poems do not have to rhyme and that punctuation does not have to be as structured as it is in a composition or essay. Point out that not all of the words need to be used, and the words that are used do not have to be placed in a certain order. If a student gets stuck, it is helpful to make a few example sentences out of his or her word list. Provide examples such as the following:

Sunlight casts its shadows
On the dew-covered flowers
Bright beautiful colors
Swaying to and fro
Dancing in the wind to the music
Of the singing birds and bees
As the last rhythmic dew drops
Fall gently upon the forest floor.

Students feel a great deal of accomplishment using this method to write poetry, so it is important that they have a chance to illustrate and share their work with others. Some suggestions for sharing include the following:

"I Am” List Poems
"I am” statements can be used to create list poems and are a unique way for teachers to gain insight into the lives of their students (see Table 2 for a sample poem). “I am” statements are also important in giving students the opportunity to look within themselves and perhaps gain a new perspective on their true selves.

Excellent teacher-student rapport is essential if “I am” statements are to be successful. There must be an atmosphere of security and respect between students and teacher in order for the statements to be open and honest. It has been our experience that any hint of hostility, distrust, or breach of confidentiality on the teacher’s part will inhibit student responses. Without honesty, the healing aspect of this type of writing will be lost.

Discussing. A good way to begin this activity is to have a class discussion of some of the hardships one encounters during life. The discussion can include the choices everyone makes in life and how the consequences of those choices define who we are as unique individuals. The teacher should facilitate the discussion, letting the students do most of the talking. When the flow of discussion begins to subside, read the students some examples of previously written “I am” statements, including your own, in which you speak both as a child growing up and as the adult you are today. Let the students see that during childhood and adolescence, you too experienced hardships, felt feelings of failure and inadequacy, and exhibited unbecoming behaviors. But also let them see – through means of a recent “I am” statement – that there are lessons to be learned from mistakes, that obstacles can be overcome, and that there is hope for the future.

Beginning to write. Tell the students you would like them to write their own “I am” statements. Make sure they understand that there are no right or wrong statements and that whatever they write will be held in the strictest confidentiality.

Ask students to write at least 10 statements, being as honest with themselves as possible. (Of course, they can always write more if they wish.) Allow 20 minutes for students to reflect on and write their statements. Once the statements are written, it is up to the teacher to decide the direction of the activity. Depending on how the activity has gone, you might want to use this as an opportunity for future goal setting, as a catalyst for classroom discussions, as a basis for individual conferences between you and the students, or as a chance to form support groups or mentoring relationships. Or you may decide to end the activity with the “I am” statements.

Finding a Voice
Poetry writing enables teachers to teach writing in a new and fun way, while also helping students feel accepted. As children write about something they are visualizing, they often start tapping into their own life experiences, which gives them more and more to think and write about. Van Antwerp. (1998) described an experience she had working with a streetwise,school-phobic 13-year-old girl. Although her student’s “language skills were immature, she had developed a love for this subject ... She wanted to write, she wanted to be able to express herself and get all the bottled-up feelings out onto paper” (p. 214). This is an important step in the goal of mastery, especially for students who face emotional, behavioral, and academic challenges. Even those students who are below-average readers and writers or nonreaders and nonwriters can gain the necessary confidence to move toward mastery. In the words of poet Hilde Domin, “poetry will help young people ... find their way to a better world” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 249).

Sample “I am” list poem

I am a boy who lost his brother.
I am a boy who used to play with fire.
I am a boy who used to sniff gas.
I am a boy who skipped school to go to the mall
and steal.
I am a boy who almost killed myself doing stupid stuff,
I am a boy who is learning the hard way.
I am a boy who has to be told twice of my mistakes.
I am a boy who learned from my mistakes


Alexander, K C. (1990). Communicating with potential adolescent suicides through poetry. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 17, 125-130.

Brendtro, L. K, & Brokenleg, M. (1993). Beyond the curriculum of control. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems, 1(4), 5-11.

Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Brockern, S. (1990). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity. New York: HarperCollins.

Jones, A. A. (1997). Experiencing language: Some thoughts on poetry and psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 66, 683-700.

Raiser, L. (1994). Art and language arts. In E Anderson (Ed.), Art-centered education and therapy for children with disabilities (pp. 132-158).

Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas. Van Antwerp, K. (1998). Sunflower seeds and cigarettes. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 6,213-214.

This feature: Alexander, K.C. and Shaw-Benson, L. (2001) Experience beyond words: Giving children a voice through poetry writing. Reaching Today’s Youth 5.2. pp36-38

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