Wednesday, May 04, 2005


West Lawn Elementary School in Grand Island put on an all-school “Poetry Café” in late April reminiscent of the beatnik hangouts of the 1950s. It is not known whether the youthful poetry presenters wore berets, but the principal had the kids all snap their fingers twice after each presentation. So that’s close enough.

What a great vehicle for teaching children about poets and poetry. They wrote original poems, memorized or read aloud famous ones, acted some out, and posted others on the Internet. Each classroom found an age-appropriate way to participate, and volunteers made the event special with plastic tablecloths and a makeshift stage, just like a real poetry reading, according to reports in the Grand Island Daily Independent and The World-Herald.

Considering that Nebraska has produced the nation’s poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, Ted Kooser of Garland, it’s fitting that this school has chosen a focus on poetry. It’s an oft-neglected literary tool and source of great beauty and inspiration for all ages through the centuries.

Rhyme and poetry are tremendously important in the development of literacy skills, especially fluency. Apparently, the orderly arrangement of sounds and words in poetry is helpful to a child trying to make sense out of sounds and words in what often seems like a chaotic world. With a good grounding in poetry, a child is more able to catch on to the rhythm of a piece of writing.

It’s too bad so many preschools and public schools have erased childhood poetry from the curriculum, including the nursery rhymes that have given so many generations a leg up on literacy. For the same reason, it’s a shame most schools have erased phonics, choral reading, short-verse memorization and recitation from their K-2 curriculum. Kids really need to feel the beat, and hear meaningful, well-arranged sounds, so that they can silently read them in an orderly, meaningful, rhythmic way.

Parents should make sure kids hear and speak a lot of poetry and songs at home, even if their preschools and schools do not grasp this. According to The Read-Aloud Handbook by the beloved Jim Trelease (Penguin Books, 1979-2001), kindergartners who can’t suggest words that rhyme are “prime candidates for later reading problems.” (p. 62)

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