The potential of poetry writing in elementary classrooms

Maura Telfer, Rider University student

“The only true poets are children” states Flora J. Arnstein, author of Poetry in the Elementary Classroom, life-long teacher and poet. I have found a personal power in poetry that has made me curious about the potential of poetry in elementary schools, especially in upper elementary school. At that age, students are becoming independent learners and discovering many aspects of themselves as students and as individuals.

Confidence seems to play a critical role in the lives of all students, particularly upper elementary students. This observation led me to devise a research project regarding the possible connection between upper elementary students engaging in poetry writing sessions and their overall sense of self-confidence. This project became an explorative study for the capstone of my honors program at Rider University overseen by Dr. John Baer. Analyzing the results of this study may pave a road to further explorations, questioning and potential shifts in my pedagogical theory.

Study summary

Students between the ages of 8 and 11 years old were asked to free-write poems on open-ended prompts. They were given freedoms with the form, structure and content of their poetry. Each student completed a pre-survey and post-survey on Google Forms that asked them about their feelings and experiences with writing in their academic career. Students also recorded their confidence levels before and after freewriting.

There were two versions of the study because of the limitations caused by COVID-19 on schools in the fall of 2020. One version of the study requested students take a pre-survey before creating four poems in response to four different prompts. Of the four students who participated in this version of the study, two students were in fourth grade, one was in fifth grade, and one was in second grade. The second grader had already turned 8 years old and was therefore eligible for this study. This longer study was not possible for the majority of participants. As a result, 25 participants responded only to the pre-survey, first prompt, and post-survey in a shortened study. All 25 of the students who participated in the shortened study were fourth graders.

The prompts for each poetry assignment were:

     #1:

Write a “Where I’m From” poem! Feel free to write it however you want! If you are unsure where to start, you may use the example poem by George Ella Lyon below. However, you do not have to use the example if you have an idea!

     #2:
Write a poem about something or someone important to you.

     #3:
Write a poem about one of the most important days of your life.

     #4:
Write a poem about one of the hardest things you had to do OR one of the biggest challenges you have faced.

Survey results reveal increased confidence

The exploratory study showed an overall increase in confidence levels after participants participated in freewriting poetry in both versions of the study. In the shortened study with 25 participants, there was a 12% increase in the level of confidence after the freewriting poetry session. The average confidence level was 3.96 out of 5 before writing poetry, with 5 being the highest level of confidence and 1 being the lowest level of confidence. After writing, the average confidence level was 4.52 out of 5. Similarly, in the four-prompt study, there was a 16 percent increase in confidence levels after freewriting four poems. The average confidence level was 4 out of 5 before the writing activities. After writing the four poems, the average confidence level was 4.75 out of 5. While this is still a pilot study, the positive results suggest that a larger scale study might be well warranted and shifts in the pedagogy of poetry instruction might be considered.

Often, poetry is a unit that many students and teachers dread. Continual exposure to poetry writing may benefit students more than the current one-month dedication to poetry in April (National Poetry Month). I am excited about the insights that further exploration of the ideas in this study might provide to help educators and learners.

In the future, if the results of additional studies and research support the findings of this explorative study, teachers may be able to use freewriting poetry to help young students become more self-confident. Students who are confident in themselves, their abilities, and their environment will be able to take the necessary risks for successful writing and learning. If these poetry practices can increase student confidence, then classroom use of poetry might change significantly to best support young writers. The academic discussion that this study might spark has the potential to improve writing instruction as well as students’ outlook on the writing process and their view of themselves.

Maura Telfer, an NJEA Preservice member, graduated from Rider University in spring 2021. She accepted a position as a third-grade teacher this year

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