Transcript from an interview with Sylvia Vardell


I am a professor at Texas Woman’s University. I teach courses in children’s literature, young adult literature, multicultural literature, poetry, all kinds of literature-related courses primarily for librarians or people preparing to be librarians but also teachers and prospective teachers.

Poetry Friday

Poetry Friday began in the blog world. A woman names Kelly Harold, who’s a children’s literature blogger conceived of the idea that on Fridays bloggers should stop what they’re doing and post something about poetry, whether it’s a poem that they love, a poem for the occasion, something about a new poetry book, anything poetry related. This was 2006. And it really caught on. There’s probably 50 or more bloggers now who stop every Friday and post something poetry.

And then one person on a revolving basis volunteers to sort of corral them all, and you can go to their site and have a link to all of the blogs that have something about poetry. And it’s really caught on. People find that Friday is sort of a more relaxed day in the corporate world and in the blog world and in the teaching world. And it’s a day to pause and enjoy poems just for fun.

Poetry Friday Anthologies

Poetry Friday caught on in the blog world, and I’m a blogger myself, wow, like seven years now blogging about poetry specifically. I’m interested in how to help teachers, librarians, and parents find and share poetry with kids. And I’ve been posting regularly for quite some time. And I was collaborating with my friend and colleague, Janet Wong.

And we were talking about various poetry projects we’d been pursuing. And we wanted to create a book of poetry that would do the same kind of thing, provide help to your educator or your parent or grandparent on how to find and share poems. So, we came up with this notion of a book that would include poems as well as strategies. And because it was sort of grounded in this Poetry Friday blog idea we coined it a Poetry Friday Anthology.

And it’s really caught on. Just like the blog concept, the book concept has really caught on and found a responsive audience, especially among teachers and librarians.

Take Five Activity

In the Poetry Friday Anthologies we have new original poems that have never appeared elsewhere by – well, every book has a different assortment of poets, but from 70 to 100 different poets who write for children.

And then the unique component that you don’t find in other poetry books is what we call a “Take five” sort of mini lesson. Take five as in, “Take a break.” Take five as in five steps.

And every take five mini lesson has a five-step approach that’s very simple, very doable, and somewhat structured so that your lay person who’s new to poetry will feel real comfortable and confident in doing it. And the five steps always include number one, the adult reading the poem out loud. We always suggest some way to do it that’s fun like with a prop or pantomime. But basically it’s you just presenting the poem to your audience, kids.

And then step two is always read the poem a second time, but invite your audience to join you in reading it out loud. And again, we provide a variety of strategies. Sometimes it’s join in on a repeated word or refrain. Sometimes it’s, “Read the last line with me.” Sometimes it’s an echo read where you “Repeat after me.” But it’s always organic to the poem. It makes sense because of the way the poem is written, and it’s a way for the kids to hear the poem a second time and join in, own it.

The third step is always to pause a moment and discuss the poem in a fun sort of connecting way, not in a poem analysis way, but we ask – and we provide a prompt or some way to get in to discussing the poem so that you don’t have to rack your brain for what to say. But it’s not analysis.  It’s helping the kids connect the poem with something in their lives like have you done this before, have you heard of this, what does it make you think about, that kind of thing. And it’s just a moment. It’s not a full‑blown, you know, half-hour discussion.

The fourth step in our take five is always a skill moment. This is particularly for teachers. In our new book we’re going to look at connecting the poem with a book. But in our first three books it was all focused on skill development. And again, it’s a sort of a gentle approach, one simple skill that grows out of Common Core or the Next Generation Science Standards, whatever the content area. And it’s to help kids understand that skill but in the context of an interesting, fun, engaging poem.

And it’s after you’ve read it out loud twice and after you’ve connected it with your life. So, it’s hopefully a sort of an inductive back-door approach to understanding a poem rather than a dissect and analyze the poem. It seems to be working that way. That’s our intention because you want to respect the beauty and fun of the poem and not make it another lesson.

And then finally number five in the take five, if you have time, is we always connect to another poem to keep the poetry momentum going. And we reference a poem in the book. “This poem is like this poem. Read them both.” And then just that’s it. You don’t do any more lesson. But sometimes we also connect with another book of poetry like the poems about a dog, here is a collection of dog poems, just to get kids to think and read and hear more poetry.

And all of that is supposed to be in about five minutes’ time. And I’ve done a ton of these take five lessons with teachers and librarians and kids. And you really can do a wonderful, meaningful poem lesson in five minutes.

Poetry and standards

Connecting poetry and skills and standards is somewhat of an art. And I pride myself on being able to help scaffold that for your – especially your novice teacher or librarian because I’ve been doing this for 30 plus years. So, I read all the poems. I spend a lot of time thinking and reading the poems. Then I’m very familiar with all the standards. I’ve learned – I’m from Texas so I know the Texas standards.

And I’m very familiar now with the Common Core state standards. Because Texas did not adopt the Common Core, I need to know both. And then as we moved into our science poetry collection, I immersed myself in the Next Generation Science Standards. And I also have referenced various teacher guides and manuals that also try and do the same thing so I can see how other practitioners and educators are approaching skill instruction.

And so it’s just sort of a matching process. You read your poem. You think about the classroom or the library or the age level of the audience of the poem and then you look at the skills that are provided for that age level or audience and then you see okay, what is the best fit. And again, remember I said it was just one skill in the take five. We’re not trying to teach everything you possibly can in one poem. The poem wouldn’t hold up, and that’s not appropriate.

But for example, a poem that is sort of a tongue-twistery poem is a perfect vehicle for introducing alliteration, and that’s one of the skills in both Common Core in Texas and other states. And so you can read it out loud, have the kids join in with you, talk about the poem and what it says, and then say, “Did you notice that the letter B appears many times? Where is it? Let’s hear it again.” And voila, you’ve sort of gently helped children see a skill that was there all along, but you’ve brought it to the surface and helped them articulate that.

Poetry in Common Core

I was pleased to see that poetry was explicitly included in the Common Core.

For me that’s sort of a silver lining, if you will, because quite often poetry is an afterthought, if it’s even thought of at all in a lot of skillsets and curriculum guidelines. It’s like, “If we have time, we’ll do a poem,” but the fact that it’s there in the standards mean we have to spend some time with it. And it’s created a need for teachers to understand how to do that. So, that’s a plus.

Now, how you do that is the question and then how it’s assessed is another question that we haven’t really even talked about as a profession. I’m pleased that poetry’s on the menu, so to speak. That’s a good thing. And I’m trying to do what I can to guide educators in doing so in a way that still respects the beauty and language and fun of poetry.

Mainly to me the argument is more poetry, not necessarily the skill focus. The more exposure kids have to hearing and reading 100 poems in a school year, the more they will get that genre, the more prepared they will be to try and write a poem, the more they’ll understand how a poet constructs a poem. That is the key. And when you just do one poem a year, one poem in poetry month, that’s not enough exposure for kids to really get poetry and understand it and be able to appreciate it. And unfortunately that’s been our model for a long time.

So, the skills are really not the answer. The approach is the answer and I would say quantity is important. Just a lot of exposure to books and poems is going to help no matter what your skill instruction model. And so we’re trying to infuse more poetry and then guide people in seeing how to do that in just a few minutes’ time because poetry is such a tight little package, you know, so much language and imagery in just a few words. It’s a great vehicle for helping kids to learn language and learn skills, but we still want to keep it fun and respect the pleasure of the poem.

Poetry in Middle School

We have explored the sharing of poetry with older readers in particular at the middle school level because that is sort of a transition moment where in young childhood poetry can be so many things, chants on the playground, jump rope rhymes, jingles, Mother Goose. It comes pretty naturally actually in early childhood. And then we’re trying to inject more poetry in books and poetry out loud also to add to that.

But then they transition into middle school and then high school and all of a sudden poetry becomes more serious and they become more serious. And so they’re more able to dig deeper into the meaning of a poem, the construction of a poem. You still want to keep it fun and engaging and open because we’re not a big fan of, “What does this poem mean? There is only one answer,” because poetry does mean so many different things to so many different people.

Any given poem can speak to you in one way at age eight and a different way at 18 and beyond. And so that is something we really want to value and encourage. But there are more sophisticated skills that can be introduced as kids get older and again as they have more exposure. I found even 10-year-olds can handle some pretty sophisticated discussions if they have read and heard a lot of poetry.

They begin to see it on their own. You really don’t even have to pull it from them. They start to notice things. And that is the ideal environment for poetry teaching is a lot of poetry exposure, a lot of open discussion, and then they begin to point out, “Did you notice the surprise at the end, did you notice the author repeats this, did you notice the author uses a first person?”

And in the middle school years we even – in the Common Core standards interestingly enough, we even encourage kids to explore how the poem is experienced when you read it quietly to yourself, when you share it out loud, when you see a video of it, you know, looking at the different media we might use to engage with a poem. So, that’s kind of a fun, interesting multimedia way to experience poetry that older kids are more adept at doing.

Poetry across the curriculum

Connecting poetry across the curriculum is a very appealing sort of practical way for your average classroom teacher to inject a little bit more poetry into his or her day because you have to teach many different subjects, and often your curriculum is sort of packed. So, you’re thinking where am I going to find time for a poem? But if you have a poem about science, then you can use it in science class and not just in reading or English Language Arts.

Or if you have a poem about a historical event, you can infuse that into social studies. I teach a course, a graduate course for teachers and librarians on poetry for kids. And one of my units or modules is all about poetry across the curriculum. And it’s inevitably their favorite one because it’s a “Eureka!” moment. Oh, I can do poetry just about anywhere. And there is so much wonderful poetry that’s published about science or nature topics, about history and people of the past, even math poems and technology-focused poems. There’s quite a variety available.

So, it’s a nice way of helping people who are maybe not as comfortable with poetry at seeing, “I can do it here, I can do it there.”

Poetry and science

We picked science as our first area for making a really in-depth study because it – a couple of different reasons. One, it’s one that your practitioner seems very interested in doing because I think they’re a little uncomfortable with science quite often and so they’re more comfortable with poetry, language, literature. And so this is a tool for them in their science instruction that sort of bridges the two.

And if you share a nature poem in a science class, you feel more confident. Okay, I can tackle this topic. I think it’s a great fit in social studies as well, but that’s another topic. And then these new science standards emerge, the Next Generation Science Standards, and it felt like a timely moment to help – again, to help educators see all right, I have new standards, new skills. I’m a little nervous. I feel comfortable with literature. Maybe not as comfortable with science. How can I do this all together? And so our science poetry anthology provided both the science-focused poems and the strategies that would help them do that.

Scientists and poets

I love that idea that a poet and a scientist do very similar kinds of things because it seems like opposite. You know, you think science, serious, data‑driven, analytical; poet, loosey-goosey, freewheeling. And yet both of them are very focused on observation, on details, on the sensory experience of the world.

And a poet is trying to capture a moment, an image, a place, an animal in very specific language to create an image that you can understand and see instantly. And a scientist is trying to do a very similar thing, very explicit observation. What exactly am I seeing using just the right words perhaps for different purposes but a very similar approach. And the more I got into this, the more I saw that scientists really love poetry and appreciate that about poetry. And I think maybe poets are not as aware that science is poetry friendly. So, it’s been fun to make that bridge and have people see the overlap in connections.

Poetry and ELLs

I’m a second language learner myself. English was not my first language. And I came to become more comfortable with learning English a lot because of rhyme and rhythm and poetry as a young, young child. And I think it has a lot to offer as we help children who are adding English as a second, third, fourth language because it does offer very few words, very rich, vivid words so that there’s typically a visual construct for a poem that helps them see something. They’re high-frequency words usually.

And the rhythm – if it’s a rhyming poem. It doesn’t have to rhyme, but a poem that does have a rhythmic, rhyming structure also helps them predict what the words will be. So, it becomes sort of a shortcut for learning language that can be really helpful for kids who are learning English as a second language or a new language.

And I’ve also found that they can be very adept at writing poetry. Even with a limited vocabulary they use the words very intentionally and very vividly and sometimes in odd ways, but they’re ways that make perfect sense. And poetry is all about just the right word and just the right arrangement. And I found that just really interesting that you might think oh, poetry, that’s too sophisticated for kids whose English is still developing, but it’s just the right tool in terms of helping them understand language and using their language too.

Poetry books

Having taught at the university level for many years, I developed a course in poetry for children to help librarians and teachers get familiar with the genre. And I didn’t find a book that I could use that I liked so I decided to write it. And I put together all my ideas and strategies, my favorite lists of poetry, how to evaluate, how to share, et cetera.

And the American Library Association published it in 2008, and it did really well. I was so pleased. It got a great response, and they asked me to do a second edition, which came out this year. And I’m really pleased that there is a book now that’s very practical and full of information about the awards that are given to poetry and about how to share it with kids, how to sing a poem, all kinds of things.

I’ve authored several now at this point to help promote and guide educators in sharing poetry. It’s kind of a thing, an obsession. And one is called Poetry People. It is a reference book about 60 plus poets, and it basically features each poet one at a time with some biographical info and then a short little treatment about their works at least up to that point. The poets keep writing, of course. And that was fun to dig deep into all those different people who write for kids.

And I created what’s called The Poetry Teacher’s Book of Lists. And it’s essentially 150 lists of poetry organized in all kind of ways. So, you can find poems about dinosaurs, for Presidents’ Day, as well as about 25, 30 different lists of strategies, how to promote Poetry Month, how to set up your classroom or library. So, that’s very practical also.

And then I collaborated with my friend and colleague and poet, Janet Wong, and we have now created three anthologies of poetry. We call them The Poetry Friday Anthology; one for kindergarten through fifth grade, one for middle school, and one focused on science at the elementary grades. And each of those has original poems by a variety of poets, and then I create the mini lessons or the take five activities that go with every single poem. And we are working on a new book that will come out next spring all tied to holidays and celebrations.

Poetry Tag Time

Janet Wong, friend and poet, and I first got started at presenting at conferences, formed a friendship, decided we wanted to promote poetry to people who didn’t already know and love poetry, and we thought that the digital book might be the way to do that. And we worked with poets to create three different e-books that feature original poems. And the first one – well, each one has sort of its own wrinkle. And the first one is called Poetry Tag Time because each poem is linked to the next poem, and each poet then wrote their poem sort of in response to the previous poem. So, you can see the connections from poem to poem.

The second one was for teens, and then the third one was a holiday-focused collection. And that was a lot of fun. We’d hoped the e-books would be the entre into the non-poetry-loving world. So, it’s been interesting to see the response to the digital format.

Children’s Literature in Action

I authored a textbook for children’s literature survey courses called Children’s Literature in Action. And that is also now issued in its second edition. I’m very proud of that. And it’s sort of a handbook or manual for your novice librarian who is just getting started and working either in a school setting or a public library setting and needs to know about the whole field.

So, it’s every genre with everything you need to know to become familiar with the current books, the awards that are given, and then again strategies. I’m a big fan of practical practitioner-oriented ideas that will help you choose, use, share, and celebrate books of all kinds with all kinds of kids.

Poetry baggage

What discourages teachers from sharing poetry? A couple different things can happen. Often I think we’re influenced by how poetry was shared with us when we were kids. And most people have a pretty positive experience in a parent’s lap or on the playground with friends. But somewhere along the line we often have, often a teacher, who tells us we don’t get it, we haven’t found the right meaning, and that can be a turnoff.

That’s unfortunate. Some people I find are just not well-versed. They just don’t know poetry. They haven’t looked at it in years. They haven’t really thought about it. They may be more apathetic than negative. And some people just are not sure how to cover the skills. They’re anxious about what the curriculum might require. So, a variety of reasons; sometimes personal ones, sometimes professional ones.

But I almost always find that people who hear it read out loud, who have some guidance on how you might present it with kids are like “Oh, I can do that.” And I love that. I love that that’s what happens because it is – poetry is such an easy thing to share. I find kids always respond beautifully without exception, especially with a humorous poem if you don’t know the kids at first or with a poem about a topic that’s super relevant. Kids get it. It’s not a problem. We’re sort of the problem. Our baggage can be the problem.

Second generation immigrant

My parents being from another country, born and raised in Germany, immigrants to the U.S., I’m sort of a classic second generation, make my parents proud kind of gal. And there my mom’s love of books and reading especially was very influential on me. But I was teaching kids when I was five or six and having the neighborhood kids. I’m kind of a bossy person, and teaching came very easily to me.

But I also love that role that teachers have of working with children, seeing what it is that they need and understand or don’t understand and helping guide them to some understanding. I love that process, that back and forth that learning what you need to learn and then trying to help someone else learn it too. It’s a great dynamic. And yeah, I’ve been a teacher all my life and probably because my parents thought, “Yes, you want to come to your new country and embrace your new country and make a difference.” And they’ve been very, very supportive my whole life.

"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl