Kids need poetry in school

Susan Terence
April 6, 2005

Why do children and teens like writing poetry?

It's an excellent and necessary means of self-expression. Poetry necessitates scratching below the surface, plumbing emotions students are often afraid to share with their peers. Students will often reveal long-hidden troubles they'd be otherwise reluctant to divulge.

Teachers frequently tell me they have a much deeper and fuller understanding of their students after reading their students' poems. I've noticed a closer sense of community forming in a classroom where students regularly share their own poetry.

Through the medium of poetry, students can more easily understand and identify with their classmates' sadness, fear, loneliness, rage, excitement, awe and pleasure. What child (or adult, for that matter) wouldn't relate to these lines from "My Dad" by Alan Roberson, a third-grader at San Francisco's Ulloa Elementary School? "My Dad and I are best friends/because he is the other half/of my heart./Without him, I could die./Just the smile on his face keeps me alive./His laugh brings me joy. /His face is the snow./Without him, I could melt."

Poetry can also help students define who they are. An outstanding 11th- grade poet in a San Francisco high-school carpentry class a few years ago became a leader in his school through his revelatory poems. He encouraged his classmates in his all-male shop class to become fearless writers and serious readers of poetry.

Poetry is a much freer form than prose writing. Even students with limited language skills can excel at poetry. I've seen second- and third- graders who could barely write a sentence later compose heartbreaking poems about divorce or a death in the family. To wit, here are a few lines from "Roots" by Gerianna Geminiano, another third-grader from Ulloa Elementary: "The orange carrot is all that's left of memory./The green lettuce is the last of the heart./The smooth snail's skin is my eyes./The purple radish is my family."

The universality of poetry by writers such as Pablo Neruda, Yehuda Amichai, Ono No Komachi, Claribel Alegria, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Langston Hughes expands students' awareness of various belief systems, lifestyles and historical events.

California Poets in the Schools, celebrating its 40th year, is the largest artists-in-the-schools program in the country. Last year, 170 of the program's poet-teachers assisted more than 30,396 California students -- 3, 697 in San Francisco alone. Over the years, the program's Bay Area poet- teachers have collaborated with San Francisco Performances, the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Poetry Center, the San Francisco Art Institute, the SFUSD Youth Arts Festival, River of Words, Youth Speaks, Writers' Corps, the San Francisco Education Fund, and innumerable bookstores and libraries including City Lights Bookstore, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books and Christopher's Books to assist students in expanding their written and oral language skills. Poetry is an "inclusive" exercise that engages all students intellectually, artistically and emotionally and provides a safe outlet for students' deep- seated feelings.

April is National Poetry Month. If there is not already a poetry program at your child's school, remind your school's teachers and administrators how poetry promotes literacy and emotional well-being. Ask them to support a poets- in-the schools program. Check out or purchase poetry books from your library or bookstore. Read poetry aloud to your children. Encourage them to keep a journal of their poetry at home. In some small way, poetry opens up and saves our lives.

Student poetry readings
In marking April as National Poetry Month, two San Francisco bookstores and a branch library will host readings by student poets.

City Lights Bookstore (261 Columbus Ave.): Miraloma Elementary School fifth-graders from 11-11:30 a.m. on Tuesday; and Yick Wo Elementary School fourth- and fifth-graders on May 17 from 11-11:45 a.m.

A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books (601 Van Ness Ave.): Student poets from Lincoln and Lowell high schools and Ulloa Elementary School will perform their poetry from 12-1 p.m. Friday as part of "Have a Poem on Me." Audience members can participate in a sample poetry lesson and then write and perform their own poem. Chronicle writer, Leah Garchik, will be a host at the event and announce the California Poets in the Schools LIT student poet-laureate awards.

Anza Branch, San Francisco Public Library (50 37th Ave.) will present a reading from Jefferson Elementary School students on April 27 at 7 p.m. Other S.F. students are invited to share their poetry in an open mike at the event.

For more information on California Poets in the Schools yearly statewide poetry anthology, youth laureate program and programs in the classroom, please phone (415) 221-4201 or (877) 274-8764, or e-mail, or visit