Poets in the making: confirming identity in English

Dr Janet Dutton and Dr Kathy Rushton discuss the value of poetry in the classroom in the development of critical thinking and literacy.

Peer reviewed article.

For me the private act of writing poetry is song writing, confessional, diary-keeping, speculation, problem-solving, storytelling, therapy, anger management, craftsmanship, relaxation, concentration and spiritual adventure all in one inexpensive package.

(Stephen Fry, 2007 p. xii)

Like Fry we think that poetry can allow students to express many of their ideas and emotions while also helping them to engage with the ideas of others, but unlike him, many of us do not share his knowledge of or facility with language. For several years, we have been working on a project to support students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds to develop both literacy and their understandings about English language and literature. We focussed on the reading and writing of poetry as one way to engage students and to confirm identity. We also sought to support their wellbeing by actively calling on their own experiences and linguistic resources. Our expertise and work as English teachers and teachers of pre-service English teachers has confirmed our belief that teaching poetry is one of the most effective ways to confirm identity and encourage students to engage with English language and literature.

To support teachers to do this, a series of workshops was held to outline some strategies that could be used. As the participating teachers were concerned to improve literacy and language, the professional learning workshops focused on drama based pedagogy and the development of oral language as strategies for achieving this. A conscious decision was also made to work ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with teachers at the programming and planning stage. In this way the teachers’ existing units of work were used as the basis for developing written texts; and poems and poetry writing were included as part of the process. Our decisions were informed by our view that the classroom teacher knows the most about their own class (Timperley, 2011) and by working this way teachers were in control of their own work and were making their own decisions about content and pedagogy. What we offered were some ideas about how students might be engaged in literature and literacy development through reading and writing poetry.

Why Poetry?

Poetry provides an opportunity to do all the things Fry suggests and who better to answer this question than poets themselves. The former British Children's Laureate, Michael Rosen, sees ‘literature as being in effect, 3000 years of wisdom about human behaviour put in a form that we can understand and take pleasure in.’ (Rosen, 2009). This is the goal many teachers pursue, to engage students in learning. Rosen argues that this is just what literature and poetry can do. However, he also notes that "for some incredible reason, we have created an environment in some schools, in some classrooms (not all, please note) where the writing of summarisers, extract-hacks and writer-substitutes has been promoted above the level of those who’ve spent their whole lives trying to perfect ways of encapsulating wisdom and feeling into literary form” (Rosen, 2009). This is a cry to pursue quality; rather than simplifying or dumbing down, to instead provide scaffolds for students.

Poetry provides that link between spoken and written language that move along the mode continuum (Hammond, 2001; Martin & Rose, 2008) which can support reflection about language. In the classroom this provides opportunities for discussions about all levels of language from structure to grammar and vocabulary. Even though, as Huisman (2016) notes the teaching of poetry in primary education often tends to focus on ‘levels of expression and wording’ whereas in secondary education the focus shifts to include ‘semantics and context’ (p.8); poetry affords the opportunities to teach all of these aspects of language. Indeed, she makes the important point that:

All written or heard language, not just poetry, requires this active construal by the reader/hearer to make sense. But the interpretation of poetry particularly requires a continued close attention to all levels of language.

(Huisman, 2016, p.8)

This is a great gift for teachers struggling to support students whose level of literacy is hampering their learning or for students who are not engaging with English literature and poetry. Poems may be long but many are also very short and this affords the teacher the time to explore and discuss a poem while giving students the time to reflect about both its meaning and its construction. For instance, these short excerpts from some poems by Australian poets provide a rich starting point for discussing important themes as well as how language is used to develop the subject matter and the tenor which engages the reader or listener with the poet’s perspective.

Lionel Fogarty's poem (1990) 'Stories'

Cook didn't find us,

we found them first

They didn’t see us in the bush

Near the tree

And over the sky.

or from Omar Musa’s poem (2017) ‘Danny said I couldn’t tag along because I had a future’

If we were angry

They would hate us.

If we were polite-

Just the same.

So we did what we felt.

We lashed out.

Or from Ali Cobby Eckermann’s (2015) ‘Kaleidoscope’

A boy sits on the shore of languages, water babbles

There are no rocks, no constants, the tide laps gently

On the horizon sunset appears and colours stretch

Twilight will arrive like vowels that sustain the sky

Stars burst in a global dance, in the distance a didgeridoo blows

Comets script the language names, the boy recognises his own.

Whoever the poet is and from whatever time or place, there is meaning and music in the words and by careful selection students may find their own experiences reflected in some of the poets they read.

How reading and writing poetry can develop critical thinking and literacy

I think poetry, when handled well, offers autonomy. It does this, I would argue, through several channels: Suggestion; Reflection; Juxtaposition; Physicality of language; Mutability of language and interculturalism.


Unfortunately, it is not just the students who may find it difficult to appreciate or write poetry, often it is also the teachers. In Weaven & Clark's (2013) research they found that many of the teachers they interviewed found teaching poetry a challenge: ‘It’s just something that I’m not really comfortable writing, and so how do I get over that discomfort so that I can teach confidently in a classroom. Because we all know that we teach better when we’re competent with the subject material’ (Weaven & Clark, 2013 p. 209). These challenges are amplified when the students are already disengaged with literature and poetry and perhaps more so if they find it difficult to make a link from their own cultural heritage or personal experiences to the texts they are studying.

As Rosen also notes ‘One of the important parts of being a child is hearing words, whether spoken directly to you, or spoken in the air, without knowing what they mean. Instead, all you hear is the word’s physicality, its material existence, if you like – its sound, its tone, its pitch, its volume, its rhythm, its place in a cadence of words and the like.’ (2009). This is how young children develop vocabulary as they master their mother tongue and it is a similar process for older students developing their first or an additional language. It is essential to both hear the language and then use it to interact orally or in writing. This process can be confronting or very comfortable depending on the support which students are given. For instance the language of Shakespeare may be challenging for many students to read, but when Baz Luhrmann presented his actors in a modern setting in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, any young student could view the film and understand all the nuances of Shakespeare's language as the viewer is able see the play unfold in a setting with which they are already familiar. Indeed, it is the writing of poetry which can provide one of the best scaffolds to support the understanding of poetry because the writer needs to solve the problems that the subject matter and the form present. For instance, the poet, Mark Strand, says that in writing poetry he has deepened his understanding of the poetry of others, ‘If my readings have any acuity or sensitivity, it is probably because I have paid close attention to how my own poems worked, and to which ways and to what extent I might improve them’ (Strand, 2000 p. xxiii).

Many decades ago the poet and academic, Kenneth Koch (1970) used a variety of strategies to support disadvantaged, bilingual students to write poetry. While many other poets may have worked in communities, Koch’s account of the processes he employed are unusual because he has provided very accessible prompts for teachers to promote poetry writing. This is probably why his book has been re-printed several times and is still available today. We employed some of his ideas to promote poetry writing, and as Rosen has stated, it is hearing and reading poetry which is the starting point for writing so we shared some poems, such as those suggested above, which related to the topics teachers were addressing.  Table 1 provides some suggestions and examples which we used to help students to start writing poetry. The suggested structures free students with low levels of literacy to experiment with themes and expression and provide opportunities to develop vocabulary in a meaningful way.

“Wishes, Lies and Dreams”

Kenneth Koch, 1970, Vintage, N.Y.

1.Wishes p.138

I wish…Joint construction:-

I wish I was a green goanna with lots of money

I wish I was a blue bird that never did  homework

I wish I was a pink parrot that ate lollies all day

I wish I was (describing adjective/ noun)

I wish I was a pink parrot (add an adjectival phrase) with lots of money (add an adjectival clause)

that ate lollies all day

Ask information report questions like: Where does it live? What does it eat? What does it do? Develop complex sentences

(Begin with a jointly constructed text in Early Stage 1)

2. I used to be (adjective)

But now (adjective)  p.156

I used to be little

But now I’m very big

3. I seem to be (adjective) p.246

But really I am (adjective)

I seem to be happy

But really I am worried

I seem to be smart

But really I am scared

4. Comparisons – simile p.87

Spring is like…

Autumn is like

Use a colour/and a word from your language

Summer is like… orange fire

Winter is like… grey ciel (sky)

5. Metaphors  p.143

Use “is” to compare two things

The snow is a snowflake

The blue sky is an ocean

The blackboard is a black notebook

An apple is a red rose

A bat is a big fat stick

Mrs Wiener is a lovely flower which shouts

Tomas Torres Y4 from “Wishes, Lies and Dreams”

6. Lies  p.192

Each line must be a lie

The Dawn of me

I was born nowhere

And I live in a tree

I never leave my tree

It is very crowded

I am stacked up right against a bird

But I won’t leave my tree

Everything is dark…

Jeff Morley Y5 from “Wishes, Lies and Dreams”

Table 1. Examples of poetry starters

How can poetry help to confirm identity?

It is also important not to underestimate what students know and understand about the world, even if they cannot always express their ideas clearly in English (Ewing, 2010).  As Rosen states:

‘I’ve seen children looking at pictures of refugees escaping the bombing of Barcelona in 1936 and then writing poems based on the idea that right now, they’ve got to leave and take with them important things, important memories, important wishes and desires.  And then I’ve seen these children, some of them refugees themselves – from a wide range of faith and national backgrounds: Bangladesh, Nigeria, the Caribbean, eastern Europe and the UK –   share these around in a circle, talking of such intimate details as a hug from a grandmother or a look in someone’s eyes.’ (2009)

For this reason, we made suggestions about the texts that were chosen for study. They didn't need to reflect each and every student's personal experiences or cultural heritage but they did need to indicate that these aspects of their students’ lives were important to the teacher. Universal themes like love, hate, the love of nature or the nature of war resonate across time and space, but the language chosen to present these themes can invite or exclude the reader/listener depending o n the support they have in understanding the message.

One of our suggestions was to invite students to respond to poetry by producing an Identity Text in the form of a poem. An identity text (Cummins, 1981; Cummins 1986; Cummins, 2015; Cummins & Early, 2011) is a multimodal, oral or written text that draws on an individual’s experiences and linguistic resources. It is a text shaped from material and experiences from each student’s own background and which includes the opportunity for first language use.  We suggested the concept of identity texts (Cummins, 1981; Cummins 1986; Cummins, 2015; Cummins & Early, 2011) as a way of engaging students and supporting literacy development.  Cummins, Markus & Montero (2015) draw attention to ‘essential aspects of the link between identity affirmation, societal power relations, and literacy engagement’ (p. 556) and suggest that inviting students to tell their own stories is one way to support the confirmation of identity.

Producing a text which is valued in an educational context provides students with an opportunity to represent their own identity and culture while maintaining the integrity of the NSW K-10 English Rationale that states:

By composing and responding with imagination, feeling, logic and conviction, students develop understanding of themselves and of human experience and culture. They develop clear and precise skills in speaking, listening, reading, writing, viewing and representing, and knowledge and understanding of language forms and features and structures of texts. (NESA, 2012, p. 10).

Being able to negotiate aspects of culture in this way (Alloway, Freebody, Gilbert & Muspratt, 2002) is also a form of ‘interim discourse’ between students’ ‘primary discourses’ and the ‘secondary discourse’ or more academic discourse which is the goal of schooling (Gee, 2000). Seen from another angle it supports the move from spoken to written language and provides students with a purposeful and creative activity in which to reflect on their language choices. The prompts offered by Koch (see Table 1) provided a structural starting point for writing poetry and they also afforded students the opportunity, which Koch exploited, of inviting students to use all of their linguistic resources including their first language or dialect to express themselves. Cummins, Hu, Markus & Montero (2015) similarly state that: ‘…teachers [could] expand the instructional space beyond simply an English-only zone to include students’ and parents’ multilingual and multimodal repertories even when they themselves didn’t speak the multiple languages represented in their classrooms.’ Reading and writing poetry provide these opportunities.


One of the obvious benefits of teaching poetry is that it introduces students to the language of poets. Every reading allows opportunities to engage with and reflect on the poet’s language choices and as Rosen (2009) suggests also to consider the juxtaposition, physicality and mutability of language. When the cultural perspective which a particular poet may offer is also considered, just a few lines such as those previously suggested can provoke a very rich discussion while also demonstrating to students how such a poem may be constructed. For example, by using the picture book “Why I love Australia’ by Bronwyn Bancroft a young student, Lucy, was able to produce her own identity text entitled “Why I love the top end” based on her account of a trip to the Northern Territory.  Using the example of the lyrical language in Bancroft’s text, she was able to paint and describe her own scenes.

Marvellous sun going down at dusk over ancient artwork

When meaning is the focus students can easily be supported with appropriate vocabulary development and the use of language features. One double page in Bancroft’s text describes a city at night “Modern city lights like a jewelled necklace adorning an ancient landscape.” The language in the text provided a template and in some cases the vocabulary for the student to use in her new identity text. In this case an adjective ‘marvellous’ and prepositional adverbial phrases of time ‘at dusk’ or place ‘over ancient artwork’. Support can be given to enable students to reflect on their own experiences and draw on these to write their own poems. This allows the focus to be on their own personal expression and developing their skills as language problem solvers in the service of making meaning.

Moffat (1981) suggests that the levels of abstraction that a writer has to master when writing for different audiences, changes according to the audience. Expressive writing or writing for the self or a known and trusted audience, as when writing in class with a focus on the process of writing rather than the product, is the most personal and the least difficult. Writing for a more remote audience is more challenging so the ability to explore ideas and problem solve the challenges of the form from the levels of text, including word choice and therefore vocabulary building, can be introduced to students through the study of a poem to which they can respond. In short, the development of expressive writing in any poetic form requires thought about all aspects of language (Ewing, 2010; Huissman, 2016; Moffat,1981; Rosen, 2009) and by using poetry and identity texts, teachers can help students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds develop their literacy, express their ideas and emotions and engage with English language and literature.


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How to cite this article – Dutton, J & Rushton, K. (2018).  Poets in the making: Confirming identity in English. Scan, 37(3).

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