Poetry in Motion


THE poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s - he takes the lead
In summer luxury,- he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.

-John Keats



A mentor text is a published piece of writing whose idea, structure, or written craft can be used by a teacher to model a particular type of writing for a community of learners (Strickland, Ganske & Monroe, 2002). As such, it inspires a student to utilize it as a model when writing something original (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002). Mentor texts can include  picture books, an excerpt from a chapter book, a newspaper column, a magazine article, or a poem. The rationale for the use of these texts is that our students need to stand on talented authors’ shoulders; they need to access a star on which to hitch their wagon.

Poetry is a good choice for struggling writers because it makes fewer demands on sentence structure and mechanics. However, since poems are written from the top of the page to the bottom, rather than across, and include frequent line breaks and “left out” words, children must be afforded time to become acclimated to this genre. A good starting point is exposing the neophytes to free verse poetry before asking them to adapt their ears and eyes and writing to the specific contours of rhyming poetry or cinquains. This last named form, incidentally, is the scaffolding structure I have chosen as a third grade exercise for my application.  

The two mentor texts I have chosen, “Owl Moon” by Jane Yolen and “Dogteam” by Gary Paulsen were selected because of their strong poetic characteristics and relatively short lengths.
“Owl Moon” is a story involving the father – daughter tradition of “owl watching.” The author, Yolen , is a master of sentence craft (Yolen, 1987). As such, it is written in the form of a prose poem, with each vibrant adjective, verb and noun flowing from the top of the page to the bottom. In point of fact each page can be viewed as a self-sustaining poem with the end of the page serving as a line break. Yet, she structures the narrative in such a cohesive manner as to proceed, event by event, toward a unified conclusion. Another notable element in the writing is the rhythm of the sentences, as she alternates between long and short strings of words, which add not only cadence, but spice to the piece.

In the course of the story, the reader is taken on a winter night’s journey through the woods as a father and daughter seek to spot the elusive Great Horned Owl. The story is told from the girl's point of view and resonates not only with the rhythm of its carefully selected words but also with its imagery (the use of vivid description, unusually rich in sensory words, to create pictures, or images, in the reader's mind). This literary devise can take many forms in “Owl Moon”, such as onomatopoeias, metaphors, and simile. By way of example, “Owl Moon” includes; “He calls the owl with a long ‘Whoo-whoo-who-who-who-whooooooo’ ” (onomatopoeia). “A train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad, song” (simile). ”The snow…was whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl” (metaphor) (Yolen, 1987).

Modeling poetry is critical (Laureate Education, 2007). Reading the text aloud to the children, as they follow along on an overhead or chart will serve not only brandish the form and language of the poem but will also showcase its attending literary devises, as well as model fluency.

Additionally, the oral interpretation will present teachable moments in which to introduce line breaks and examples of condensed language.  The evocative watercolor illustrations by John Schoenherr can be shown at the conclusion of each pages’ recitation.

Poetry can be an exciting classroom activity when poems remain the center of the learning. Accordingly, during this activity, generalizations about poetry, i.e., technical terms, as well as an extended analysis of the process, will be eschewed (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).  Rather, the beauty and rich variety  of the language will be bright lined, in addition to the vividness of the descriptive words and the power of the verbs.

A second or even third reading of the text will follow. Students will be invited to participate in the oral reading. This will particularly highlight the different ways in which a  poem can be interpreted. Voice inflection will be the conduit of this “aha moment.” Following the readings, there will be a full class discussion, emphasizing the students’ reactions and insights into the poetic piece.

The second mentor text I chose was “Dogteam” by Gary Paulsen. This entry is a carefully crafted prose poem that describes a dog team’s journey on a cold winter's night. As the author takes the readers across the moonlit, frozen trail, the vividly descriptive, sensory words draw them into the narrative. The watercolor illustrations by Ruth Wright Paulson add to the aesthetic value of the prose. Paulsen frequently invokes the “rule of three or four” in his writing. For instance: “They want to run, breathe to run, eat to run, live to run” or “Away from camp, away from people, away from houses.” This sequence of three or four similar words or phrases has a spellbinding impact which is not only easy to adopt but is also eloquent and effective as well (Paulsen, 1993).

A form of alliteration is also found throughout the poem……”is not the dog dance in the dog moon and dog cold and daylight over?” Personification is used, as well. “Some small songs of excitement (wolf noises) when the harnesses are put on…” (Paulsen, 1993).

As with all poetry, many short words are left out as the author seeks to condense his thoughts into a few judiciously chosen words. Paulsen frequently writes in the following succinct manner “Did you…they sing, little jets of steam from their mouths.” (Paulsen, 1993).

Following a few days of listening to and reading and reciting free verse poetry, the cinquain will be introduced. My plan is to model it, help students try it out in a writer’s workshop environment, and then guide them towards independence mistake (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002).

The form will be introduced as such:

Line 1:  two syllable word title (a noun)
Line 2:  four syllables (adjectives)
Line 3: six syllables (-ing participles)
Line 4:  eight syllable phrase.
Line 5: a two syllable synonym for the title (Sheakoski, 2007).

I will model this structure by sharing examples with the class.

Hound Dog
mournful, sleepy
running, hunting, jumping.
a sniffling, tracking cop with fur

cold, hot
eating, drinking, sipping
inhaling eggs, juice, and coffee
best meal

red, fast, shiny
roaring, whizzing, squealing
heading down the long black highway

After the students understand the characteristics of the cinquain, I will offer the entire class a scaffold in the form of an organizer.  They can choose to use the following organizer to compose original poems of their own, or they may elect to work without it.

A title (this tells what the poem is about). (Two syllables).
Two adjectives describing what you are writing about. (Four syllables).
Three –ing participles (Six syllables).
A phrase that adds to your description. (Eight syllables).
A synonym for the title. (Two syllables).

Students may also decide to work individually, with partners, or in small groups. Working collaboratively on poetry provides a safe structure for student creativity (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002). As the children begin the teacher-guided segment, my knowledge of their individual abilities is of paramount importance (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002). I will work with those students who are having a particularly difficult time either finding ideas, or transposing their thoughts into words. Think aloud strategies will be employed, as well as brainstorming and further modeling.

Dictation from student to teacher will also be on the table at this time. Further, if a problem area arises with a certain poem, I will suggest that the student read the poem aloud in order to assume the role of listener and be more able to detect the mistake (Strickland, Ganske et al, 2002). Once students have finished their cinquains, they can share them with the entire class. At this time, by way of review, we will revisit some of the learning. This may include questions such as how many lines does the cinquain have, what is distinctive about words in a particular line, and what are the most important words in the poem, etc.

Lastly, the students can look back and reflect on their efforts by responding to the following questions: What do you like most about your poem? If you could change something about the poem, what would it be? During our sharing time, which poems did you enjoy most? Why do you feel that way?

Following the teacher-guided segment, the students can progress toward more independent activities. They can choose from any number of extension activities. These may include creating a book out of the cinquains, illustrating their work, or creating a cinquain-oriented bulletin board. Their creations may also be emplaced in folders for future use in a multi-class poetry reading or classroom anthology.

In conclusion, struggling writers need scaffolding to help them overcome a myriad of problems, such as lack of creativity, a limited knowledge of grammar and mechanics, or a weak vocabulary bank. Word lists, riddles and simple poetic forms can help these children produce a product that is not only their own, but is deemed worthy of inclusion in public forums such as a class readings, a bulletin boards or anthologies.  The self esteem garnered by these accomplishments may indeed provide the “kick start” these strugglers need in order to overcome their writing deficits.


Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2007). Program Eight “Writing”
[Motion picture]. Baltimore: Glazer, S. and Bear, D.
Paulsen, G. (1993). Dogteam. New York NY: Delacorte Press.
Sheakoski, M. (2007). Retrieved October 11, 2009 from website:
Strickland, D. S., Ganske, K., & Monroe, J. K. (2002). Supporting struggling
readers and writers: Strategies for classroom intervention 3–6. Portland,
ME: Stenhouse.
Yolen, J. (1987). Owl moon. New York NY: Philomel Books.