One of the best ways to teach students about historical events is get them emotionally involved in the content. So how to do that?

Previously, we’ve talked about using images and primary sources as effective tools to engage our kids.

Today I’m going to suggest that you encourage them to write their own poetry. We can do this by stealing a strategy called Found Poetry from our language arts colleagues.

As Dunning and Stafford explain, ( Dunning, Stephen, and William Stafford. 1992. “Found and Headline Poems.” Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises. Urbana, NCTE. ) the advantage of found poems is that

you don’t start from scratch. All you have to do is find some good language and “improve” it.

These two teachers note that

poems hide in things you and others say and write. They lie buried in places where language isn’t so self-conscious as ‘real poetry’ often is. Writing found poems is about keeping your ears and eyes alert to the possibilities in ordinary language.

So what we want to do is get kids to dig into documents or textbooks or historical novels and find those things that “hide in what others say and write.”

Instructions:

  • Ask students to choose (or you select for them) a passage from the text, primary source or novel that you have selected. That selection should include a lot of strong description or dialogue.
  • Explain that the class is going to use the passage to compose original poems, called found poems.
    Pass out or display the Model of Found Poetry.
  • Define found poems for the class as poems that are composed from words and phrases found in another text.
  • Ensure that students understand the examples.
  • Step students through the process of composing original found poems, using the Found Poem Instructions.
  • For homework, ask students to return to the prose passage that they have chosen to write their own found poems for homework.
  • Have students work in small groups to review their poems using a rubric similar to the one posted below

The Library of Congress has also posted some lessons that incorporate poetry into history instruction. You might also find this lesson useful as you look for ways to engage kids with content using poetry.

Have fun!