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Snapshot 4: Learning through poetry

This snapshot describes how a teacher used poetry to change her students’ experience of learning in English.


This year 11 class comprised almost equal numbers of Māori and Pākeha students, plus one Asian and one Sāmoan student.

The students had a wide range of issues, medical and behavioural. As a result, their capacity to concentrate or maintain focus was limited and their experience of learning largely negative.

I wanted to find an approach to poetry that would make it both relevant and accessible for my students, and for them to gain confidence in reading and writing, participate positively in class, and feel proud of their work.

Our learning outcomes were defined in terms of the key competencies – particularly participating and contributing, relating to others, and using language symbols and texts – rather than external (NCEA) assessment.

Curriculum focus


  • Multiple

Reading, writing, speaking, and listening with a focus on the language features sub-strand

Key competency focus

  • Participating and contributing, relating to others.

Teacher action

I chose the book Love that Dog by Sharon Creech because the language is accessible and the narrator/speaker voices many of the negative opinions and struggles that my students relate to.

I introduced a structured process and reinforced it through repetition so that students had the security of knowing what was coming up.

The process was:

  1. Read aloud from the start of the book, checking understanding, until the narrator mentions a poem.
  2. Turn to the back of the book and read the poem.
  3. Turn back and see the narrator’s response.
  4. Write your own response to the poem.
  5. Share your response in a pair, then a group, then (by the end of the unit) the whole class.

Initially the focus was on sharing. As the students grew more comfortable, I introduced learning about techniques. For example, before we looked at the poem “Love that Boy” by Walter Dean Myers (the first stanza appears in the book), I removed the line breaks and, as a class, we decided where they might go.

This led to a discussion of the purpose of line breaks and punctuation, which then became a focus for the next poem they wrote. When they shared this poem, I asked other students to comment and critique.

As a final step, once each student had created a portfolio of work, they chose one piece to read aloud. We invited their dean, the deputy principal, and the principal to the reading and asked them each to also bring and read a poem.

What happened?

The outcomes of this process were:

  • a more positive classroom environment, with students critiquing each others’ work in a specific and constructive way
  • an increased understanding of the reasons for word choice and form, including syntax and punctuation
  • ownership of and pride in their own work, culminating in the public reading of a poem
  • the students feeling valued by the school/senior management (reinforced when the principal distributed chocolate fish!)

Last updated July 17, 2012