From J. Patrick Lewis: Common Core State Standards and Children’s Poetry 

Common Core State Standards

Lee Bennett Hopkins encouraged me to query educators and poets about the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that have been adopted by 46 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. I sent the following statement to a number of them, and asked them to reply. Fourteen of their responses follow.  

In short, the CCSS call on public school teachers to strengthen nonfiction so that, according to the Washington Post, “by 12th grade students will be reading mostly ‘informational text’” in place of a sizable chunk of fiction and poetry.

This effort is being spearheaded by educational publisher Pearson, which stands to make millions through staff development, assessment materials, and the adoption of new CCSS textbooks.

One teacher “is mourning the six weeks’ worth of poetry she removed from her eighth-grade English class at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, Arkansas.”

As someone who appreciates the impact this issue could have, would you kindly comment on what you think the CCSS are likely to mean, in your view, for the future of poetry and poetry teaching in American public schools, as well as children’s poetry publishing in general?

Here are only two of the hundreds of relevant articles and blog pieces on the

From Sylvia M. Vardell, Ph.D.
School of Library & Information Studies
Texas Woman’s University

I always have such mixed feelings whenever the topic of “standards” comes up. As a former classroom teacher, I understood the practical need to coordinate some set of expectations for teaching and learning across the grade levels, but I also know that teachers are feeling squeezed when it comes to bringing creativity and innovation into the classroom—in favor of “teaching to the test.” It’s a constant struggle for balance (between a coordinated curriculum and creative teaching). It may surprise you that I was actually pleased to see poetry incorporated into the new Common Core standards, since poetry is rarely mentioned in mandated standards and therefore rarely included in lesson plans and teaching. So, in a roundabout way, poetry might get MORE attention now that it’s “itemized” in the Common Core. The danger, of course, is that poetry may also be butchered in the name of test preparation. That’s why I’ve been working hard to help novice poetry teachers get comfortable with sharing poetry (through The Poetry Friday Anthology with Janet Wong) so that they see how gently the Common Core standards can be introduced and reinforced through weekly poem sharing. The standards include at least one poetry element in the Reading area of every grade level (K-5: RL. 1.4; 2.4; 3.5; 4.5; 5.4, 5.5, 5.6, 5.7) and mention alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, sensory images, metaphors, similes, structure, and point of view, to name a few. For those who already love poetry, this provides documentation for spending classroom time on poetry and for those who are new to poetry, I hope it will present a teachable moment for delving into what poetry has to offer. That is my hope!

From Georgia Heard
Children’s Poet and Teacher

Now, with the Common Core State Standards adopted by nearly every state, and its emphasis on poetry’s more pragmatic cousin—informative and explanatory reading and writing—I feared that poetry might not survive in schools. The truth is that poetry is included in every standard in the CCSS except for the writing standard. For K-5, poetry appears in Reading: Literature; Reading: Foundational Skills; Speaking and Listening; and Language, and for grades 6-12 reading poetry also has an essential place.

The CCSS attempts to set out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century, and part of that vision is for students to partake in close, attentive, critical reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying works of literature including poetry. I believe that poetry will now have an even greater role in American classrooms, and, as a result, children’s poetry publishing will thrive.
For more on poetry in the CCSS, read Georgia Heard’s newest book, Poetry Lessons to Meet the Common Core State Standards (Scholastic, 2013), and check out an interview with Georgia Heard on Scholastic’s blog:

From Paul B. Janeczko
Children’s Poet and Anthologist

After working for 20 years as a high school English teacher and another 20 years as a visiting poet, I have been in hundreds of classrooms and worked with thousands of students and their teachers. I have become increasingly alarmed at the time schools are taking away from learning and enrichment to spend on testing, as measuring and comparing schools and students has become an end in itself.

With “No Child Left Behind,” and more recently with the frenzy for implementing Common Core School Standards, more and more teachers were forced to “teach for the test,” rather than teaching for the students. Teachers are forced to remove poetry from their curriculum in a frightfully unbalanced approach to educating children, with an unreasonable and unwise emphasis on “informational” texts.

I am alarmed that poetry reading and writing are becoming more marginalized in the classroom. We, as a society, do not read enough poetry. Writing in The New York Times Book Review some years ago, literary critic Anatole Broyard asked, “Where will our flair come from, our hyperbole, our mots justes? Unless we read poetry we’ll never have our hearts broken by language, which is an indispensable preliminary to a civilized life.” What better reason to demand that poetry takes its rightful place in the lives of school children?

From Douglas Florian
Children’s Poet and Illustrator

Can you name five works of fiction or poetry you read in high school? I can name at least 20, starting with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Now, can you name five works of nonfiction you read in high school? Not so easy this time. Why is that? Because fiction, poetry, and theater stick to our synapses. But they can also relate to real world issues. Think of how relevant The Ugly American, Failsafe, and Catch 22 were to the Vietnam War, disarmament, and the growing military industrial complex.

Lately there’s been a push towards facts, facts, and facts. “Just the facts, Ma’am.” But can the raven be reduced to feathers and bones? Can leaves of grass be reduced to stalks and blades? Can an Apple iPod be reduced to circuits and plastic? Go ask Poe. Go ask Whitman. Go ask Jobs.

From Barbara Kiefer, Ph.D.
Charlotte Huck Professor
Department of Early Childhood
The Ohio State University

I’m trying to organize my thoughts to say something intelligent in the face of such nonsense. I am a successful, fairly smart person. I read poetry, nonfiction, and lots of fiction. I read newspapers and magazines. I learn about history from Hilary Mantel and Barbara Tuchman. I learn about science in Barbara Kingsolver’s books and Joyce Sidman’s poems. I learn about dying from Mary Oliver and Dylan Thomas. William Shakespeare’s plays give me a framework for thinking about life. I hoard books in case I ever run out of something to read. I have books for airplanes, books for going to sleep, books for when I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and can’t go back to sleep. Thank heavens there is no common core board looking over my shoulder and telling me that my percentages are off. When will these “experts” who establish quotas look at real lifelong readers for their models of what children ought to be doing?    

From Jane Yolen
Children’s Poet and Author

There is often as much or more “common core” in poetry as there is in any nonfiction, and it does not go out of fashion or date as quickly.

Think of a poem like Emily Dickinson’s

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides—
You may have met Him—
did you not
His notice sudden is—

The Grass divides as with a Comb–
A spotted shaft is seen—
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on—

He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn—
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot—
I more than once at Noon

Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone—

Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me—
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality—

But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone—

as the perfect opening for any in-depth study of snakes. It talks of their particular and peculiar locomotion, mentions several places where snakes may live, and comes around to fear of snakes, which therapists call Ophidiophobia but Dickinson nails with: “Zero at the bone.”

Think of Tennyson’s “The Eagle” whenever you begin a study of birds:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Or if studying famous artists and their art, this about a Chagall painting which I wrote.

The Flying Horse

There is no arguing with soldiers,
no pleading while wearing the yellow star.
There is only escape: on the rails, in the air,
on foot across mountains, one by one by one,
leaving behind the camps where men in stripes
and women with shaved heads, and children—
never forget the children—
rock to and fro with G-d’s name on their lips.
So you leave behind the bistros of Paris,
soldiers lurking in every corner;
leave behind a lifetime of work,
paintings of Vitebsk on every wall.
But Death, that old leveler,
can find you wherever you go,
even on a sledge pulled by a rooster,
even as you rise into the darkling skies.

Think of Leo Marks’s love poem to his dead fiancée, which when he was a codemaster in World War II he gave to the beautiful French agent Violette Szabo to use as her cipher before she was dropped into occupied France in 1944. What an opening for a study of codes and even World War II spying.

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

No need to stop teaching poetry. Poets are the true codemasters of the world. Let the poetry teach you—and your students—and help you get to the real Common Core.

From Steven Withrow
Children’s Poet

A byproduct of imposing one-size-fits-all educational or artistic standards is the bypassing of genuine philosophical debate. The imposers assume they know more than the imposed-upon—that something is broken and must be fixed instantly—and the swiftness and extensiveness of the changes are often intended to avoid the very thing that poets prize most (or do they?): emotional ambiguity. As W.H. Auden pointed out, “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”
To say that poetry is valuable for children in schools seems reasonable on its face, but underneath the statement flows a centuries-long river of conflicting opinions about the uses of imaginative literature, and verse especially.
My own blade in the battle is my belief that a good poem tells us something we don’t quite want to hear. Even the blithest of rhymes for the youngest of ears, odes to unabashed joy, remind us: This will not last. You will not keep this. And you can wail and go numb, or you can dance and rejoice—it’s your choice. Children sense this conclusion already; they carry the evidence in their cells. Poets give hope and hopelessness a durable form.
If poetry is valuable for children in schools then a poem is valuable as proof that we each deserve to choose for ourselves, at every moment, how we respond to life…and to death. Although the effects of such difficult and continual choices are seldom what we expect, the freedom to choose is the true common core we all sing about and some of us versify.

From Ralph Fletcher 
Children’s Poet and Teacher

I approach the Common Core from the perspective of a writing teacher. I’m not a big fan of these new standards, though admittedly not of all of it is bad. Should kids be writing more nonfiction? Should we help students learn how to make an argument in their writing? Probably yes and yes. What irks me is the extreme way the standards are interpreted, and the tendency in education to swing from one pole to another.

With the Common Core I worry that young writers will now spend less time writing stories. And I think that’s a mistake because telling stories is where kids find their stride as writers. I fear that poetry, too, will get less emphasis, both in reading and in writing. When young writers write poetry they learn the power of metaphor, compression, and image. They learn the sly, supple power of language.  

From Joyce Sidman
Children’s Poet

Please don’t lose literature in this effort to standardize! Any interest most of us have ever had in history has been sparked by literature—the stories of people, told well. Stories that echo in the heart. Poems that reveal a different way of looking at the world. Surely literature can be paired with high-quality informational text—to provide context, emotion, and understanding. Without the stories, history (and social studies, and even science) is dead.

From Peggy Oxley
Grade 2 Teacher
St. Paul School, Westerville, Ohio

If the Common Core standard on nonfiction is strictly enforced, it will certainly impact the study and enjoyment of poetry and fiction adversely, which will deprive students of two of the richest and most important parts of language arts education. People have been reading, writing, and studying poetry and fiction of all kinds down through the ages. They have always been essential vehicles of communication between people of all cultures as well as strong links between people and cultures of all historical ages. I would certainly advise Common Core advocates to include strong components of poetry and all genres of fiction as well as nonfiction in our educational requirements to maintain and strengthen our understanding of and relationships with all those with whom we share the planet.

From Janet Wong
Children’s Poet and Anthologist

Most of the arguments about the Common Core seem to come from the poor application of the standards, not the standards themselves. The standards clearly provide for poetry to be taught; this is actually something to celebrate. Teachers who have been neglecting poetry are now required to teach it. 

If you are a teacher who is being pressured to teach in a certain way “because of the Common Core”: copy, read, highlight, and make sure that you understand the standards so that you can defend your practices with section citations. Fight for the right to teach poetry—and recognize that poetry should not be limited to the language arts curriculum. If you teach at the elementary level, use poetry to teach history, math, and science. If you teach middle or high school, make it easy for your history, math, and science colleagues to use poems; provide them with poems that have clear curriculum connections. While you’re at it, give a book of sports poems or yoga poems to the P.E. teacher. I will repeat myself here because I want it to become our mantra: The standards clearly provide for poetry. And this is something to celebrate!

From Marilyn Singer
Children’s Poet

To be honest, I have not read much yet about the Common Core Standards. However, it’s my understanding that poetry is very much a part of them and that the suggestion is to spend more time and depth on each individual poem. To me, this can have pluses and minuses. The pluses include greater comprehension, respect for craft, and what I call “cross-pollination”—pairing poetry with other literature and subjects, such as science and math. The minuses? Over-analysis leading to antipathy—the same problems that less effective teachers and their suffering students have always had with poetry. When I was a high school English teacher, I spent a great deal of time with each poem. But that time always started with 1) choosing poems I loved; 2) reading the poems out loud. It seems to me that Common Core or no Common Core, teachers themselves must learn to love poetry, and that starts with hearing poetry read aloud and, understanding, as that wonderful teacher and poet Georgia Heard put it, “Don’t forget that literature is heart work.” 

From Bev. Gallagher
Grade 3 Teacher
Princeton Day School
Princeton, New Jersey

As a teacher of third graders, one of my profound delights is opening up the world of books to my children. How they ooh and aah when they discover new books. Whether they are learning about Roberto Clemente or dipping into the tale of Half a Moon Inn or hearing a delicious poem in Black Swan White Crow they are fully immersed in the world of literature. What a treat it is to use such fine works to teach accompanying reading strategies so students can navigate their way—whether they need to understand characters’ intentions, unpack salient information, or pay attention to language. To do that well and become strategic readers, my students need to have all genres available to them—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays, etc. How can they create an authentic toolbox of skills if we limit their choices? How can we not let them marinate in the finest literature? These 21st century learners need to have all options available so that they can use their skill set strategically and masterfully. That certainly would not be a possibility if we limit the richness available in their lives.

From Mary Lee Hahn
A Year of Reading Blog
Grade 5 Language Arts Teacher
Daniel Wright Elementary, Dublin, Ohio

I’m approaching the switch to the Common Core Standards on a “need to know” basis. They aren’t exactly giving me hives, but I’m on the apprehensive side of curious to find out how they’ll impact the way I do business in my 4th grade classroom.

Georgia Heard’s session at All Write, “Understanding the Core Standards: Reading Standards for Literature—Poetry,” seemed like a good place to dip my toes in. And the main message I got from this session? Good teaching is good teaching, no matter what labels they give us to name the pieces and parts.

Georgia started with the big lessons that poetry teaches—lessons of language. Poetry is filled with figurative language, and with the language of heart and soul: rhythm and sound, compression and precision, images, and figures of speech. (And she showed us where all of these pieces and parts and labels can be found in the Common Core standards.)

She named the questions we need to ask of poems we read and write:

  • What makes this a poem?
  • What is this poem about?
  • What is the poet’s message?
  • What tools did the poet use to help show his/her meaning?

(The standards these questions address already exist in our state standards…nothing new here…)

And she showed us how, by living with and climbing inside one poem a week, students would build knowledge about poems for their “music” and for their “meaning” toolboxes for reading and writing poetry.

Monday: read the poem aloud. Make sure students can see the poem. Read it again. Turn and talk. What do you notice? What’s it about?
Tuesday—Thursday: illustrate it, act it out, read it chorally, do quick-writes about the poem/off of the poem.

Friday: Now that you love and understand the poem, dig into the craft tools the poet used. Talk about how the poem’s built, how the poet uses compressed language (not ALL of the words another writer might use on the same topic).

Georgia’s final message:

Don’t forget that literature is heart work.