What Poetry Teaches Us About the Power of Persuasion

In a book entitled The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning, Eleanor Duckworth explains that the most important thing a teacher can do is to give his or her students the space to have a new idea and feel good about having it. She argues that this is the key to intellectual development. I would argue that there's no more natural space for a teacher to value a student's idea than in a poem. Because in a poem, a student not only has the freedom to express a new idea, but to do so in novel language he or she has just created. More so than any other type of writing, a poem takes into account the indispensable dimension of well-chosen words.

Learning about poetry (how to read it, write it, and appreciate it) is an integral part of teaching students about all forms of writing. A poem is not just a place to present a student's grammatical knowledge (in fact, it is often the space to subvert it!). Poetry, more than any other form of writing, trains students to take into account the style of language. This close looking and listening is crucial to writing well in any manner. It would be hard to say that any outstanding essay does not involve meticulous word choice or the ability to persuade a reader through sheer aesthetic prowess. Poetry teaches students how to do this.

In the "Importance of Poetry in Children's Learning," Michael Benton argues that poetry is key to children's learning about language because poems read differently than other forms of writing. Even though contemporary poetry rarely adheres to traditional poetic forms, all poetry (contemporary or otherwise) pays close attention to the sound and form of words. When students develop a deep familiarity with the craft of language in a poetry class, they learn how to express their new ideas in sentences and phrases full of their own style.

There are practical ways to do this in a 2012 classroom. When I teach classes on the argumentative essay, one of my favorite books to bring in is Jay-Z's Decoded. It is a gift for teachers, because Jay-Z provides very clear, close readings of his own poems. (This is something few poets throughout history have provided.) I have had many successful lessons in which I have played his song "99 Problems" for students and then showed them how he breaks down its construction in Decoded. Once students can see that Jay-Z wrote each line with such purpose, crafted many complex ideas into powerful verse, it paves the way for meaningful discussions about how to create any argument in language. Students can see that their ideas are important, and that style helps their impact come through.

Kenneth Koch, the author of Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, was a revolutionary educator who brought poetry to thousands of public school children in New York City. He famously argued that the best poetry refuses to "condescend" to the minds of children. If we care about how well our students write, we should not condescend and limit their exploration of language, either. We should make sure students have the space in schools to learn that they can write, and develop a lifelong passion for words. Poetry is the way to do this.

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Dorothea Lasky is the author of three poetry collections including, most recently, Thunderbird.

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