Connecting Science and Poetry
By Sylvia Vardell
In a recent article, “Physics And Poetry: Can You Handle The Truth?” writer Adam Frank admitted, “Poems and poetry are, for me, a deep a form of knowing, just like science. Yes, obviously, they are different. But each, in its way, is a way to understand the world.” Although it may seem surprising, poets and scientists both seek to observe, explain, and understand the world around them. Poet Sara Holbrook reminds us, “In fact, in Ancient Greece there was no distinction between a scientist, poet, or philosopher” (2005, p. 92). Linking reading and science offers opportunities to develop both comprehension skill and content knowledge and poetry is the perfect vehicle for capitalizing on those teachable moments of overlap and connection. Poetry’s brevity, conceptual focus, and rich vocabulary make it a natural teaching tool for connecting with science. Several additional advantages come with using poetry across the science curriculum:
- Poetry is accessible to a wide range of reading abilities.
- The brief format of much poetry taps the essence of a subject.
- Poetry can provide sensory experiences, giving children the sense of touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing.
- Poetry can make a topic memorable through the use of highly charged words and vivid images.
- Poetry can help children talk about issues that concern them.
Poetry often involves a high level of abstraction in language and ideas, and requires specific critical thinking skills and deeper comprehension. Infusing poetry across the curriculum can serve to jump-start or introduce a topic, present examples of terminology or concepts, provide closure that is concept-rich, or extend a topic further. Plus, there are many thematic poetry collections devoted to science-related subjects, such as animals, weather, seasons, space, dinosaurs, and geography, to name a few. Look for the Newbery honor poetry book, Dark Emperor and other Poems of the Night (2010) or Ubiquitous (2010) by Joyce Sidman or A Strange Place to Call Home: The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats and the Animals That Call Them Home (2012) or A Full Moon is Rising (2011) by Marilyn Singer, for just a few recent examples.
All kinds of books have a great deal of potential for supporting science learning. A brief consideration of recently published poetry books will quickly reveal many poems that connect with the sciences and several poets who regularly create poetry books with science-rich content like Joyce Sidman and Marilyn Singer, as well as Avis Harley, Jane Yolen, Carole Gerber, Leslie Bulion, J. Patrick Lewis, Betsy Franco, and Douglas Florian, among others.
Getting started with science poetry
One way to begin incorporating science-themed poetry is to inject poems into activities that are already a part of your schedule. If you share Mother Goose rhymes with young children, try The Green Mother Goose; Saving the World One Rhyme at a Time edited by Jan Peck and David Davis (2011). Or start a story time with a seasonal poem from Sid Farrar’s book, The Year Comes Round: Haiku through the Seasons (2012) or a selection from Lee Bennett Hopkins’s collection, Sharing the Seasons (2010). If you want to invite students to read aloud, look for Carole Gerber’s poetry for two voices, Seeds, Bees, Butterflies, and More! If you regularly provide support for science units, try connecting thematic poetry collections with those topics. Look for Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems (2012) by Kate Coombs or At the Sea Floor Café; Odd Ocean Critter Poems (2011) by Leslie Bulion to supplement an “oceans” unit or Face Bug: Poems (2013) by J. Patrick Lewis or Nasty Bugs (2012) edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins or Bug Off! Creepy Crawly Poems (2012) by Jane Yolen for the study of insects. No matter what we are already doing to promote science learning, poetry can help supplement, support, and enrich it.
Pairing poetry and informational books
Pairing science-themed nonfiction or informational books and poetry may seem to be an unlikely partnership at first, but these two different genres can complement one another by showing children how writers approach the same topic in very different and distinctive ways. In addition, children will see that they can learn a lot of information from both a poem and a work of nonfiction. Poetry has an advantage over informational prose in that it typically consists of many fewer words. Poems can be read and reread in very little time and each rereading can be approached in a slightly different way, for example, through choral reading or poetry performance. Look for poetry anthologies organized by subject matter, when possible, since they help make the content connection obvious. Here are some suggested pairings of nonfiction books and poetry collections on related science topics:
1. Pair Steve Jenkins’s Actual Size (2004) with Valerie Worth’s Animal Poems (2007) or Pug (2013)
2. Pair Peter Sis’s The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin (2003) with Mary Ann Hoberman’s and Linda Wilson’s poetry anthology,The Tree That Time Built: A Celebration of Nature, Science, and Imagination (2009)
3. Pair Sy Montgomery’s The Tarantula Scientist (2004) with Jill Corcoran’s poetry collections about people who Dare to Dream… Change the World (2012)
4. Pair Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream (2009) with J. Patrick Lewis’s biographical poetry book, Vherses: A Celebration of Outstanding Women (2005)
5. Pair Caitlin O’Connell’s and Donna M. Jackson’s, The Elephant Scientist (2011) with Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s Cousins of Clouds; Elephant Poems (2011)
6. Pair Brian Floca’s Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (2009) with Amy Sklansky’s Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space (2012)
7. Pair James M. Deem’s Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past (2008) with Jane Yolen’s Once Upon Ice and Other Frozen Poems (1997)
Share these science poetry titles in combination with the nonfiction work on the same topic, examining how information is presented in prose or poetry. Read excerpts or selections aloud and identify the key details shared in each passage. Consider how the book’s illustrations (whether as paintings, prints, or photographs) offer details alongside the poetry. Make a Venn diagram showing what facts are gleaned from the poetry, from the nonfiction work, and which overlap in both sources.
Jump-starting the research process
In his anthology, The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry (2012), J. Patrick Lewis provides an introduction to many, many different animals in over 200 poems—all illustrated with stunning full-color photographs. A second grade teacher used the book prior to the annual research project on animals to push children to go beyond the familiar cats and dogs they usually choose as their research subjects. She read widely from the poems and showed the illustrations, introducing animals like the tortoise, flamingo, yak, etc. They browsed through the book and brainstormed a list of possible animals to study. As they chose their subject (in pairs or small groups), she led them to reading informational picture books, looking for three key facts about their chosen animals. Then she ended with reading aloud more animal poems to see which factual details were repeated in the poetry. Look for more animal poetry books like: Amy Gibson’s Around the World on Eighty Legs: Animals Poems (2011) or Katherine Hauth’s What’s for Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World (2011) or Janet Wong’s Once Upon A Tiger: New Beginnings for Endangered Animals (2011).
Creating “found” poems
Children can also work together to create a collaborative “found” poem from a science source. Use a descriptive paragraph from a nonfiction book or a news article or encyclopedia entry as your information source. Students underline or highlight what they think are the most important words in the informational passage. Which words are essential to describing the subject? Then the students copy the words in a vertical list and a poem begins to emerge. Students decide which words are essential and which arrangement is both clear and most poetic. Then post the poem alongside the original source and talk about these two different ways of sharing information. Georgia Heard offers examples of “found” poems in her book, The Arrow Finds its Mark: A Book of Found Poems (2012).
Creating a collaborative mural
For a more visual approach, students can work in pairs or small groups and do research on a specific subject in a unit of study, seeking out relevant poems, and creating a visual product to share their findings and impressions. This can take many forms, both physical and digital, but I love the old-fashioned mural. For example, the topic of space is a popular one in science study and lends itself to an expansive project. Gather a set of space poetry books like Amy Sklansky’s Out of This World: Poems and Facts About Space (2012) and Douglas Florian’s Comets, stars, the moon, and mars (2007) and invite students to choose a favorite poem and topic. They can copy the poem, research the topic further with print or online resources, and then create a collaborative drawing or tissue paper collage to represent their topic—posting both their art and selected poem on a door or wall covered in black craft paper. Many more ideas can be found at online teaching resources like NASA.gov (using the “For Educators” link), and Energy.gov.
Science in The Poetry Friday Anthology series
For more science-specific poetry, look for The Poetry Friday Anthology
series for the elementary grades (K-5) and middle school (grades 6-8) which features “Science and Technology” as one of the weekly themes. This includes poems on topics such as Skyping, apps, texting, and computer screens and keyboards—unexpected subjects for poetry. In addition, “Take 5” mini-lessons and activities are provided for every poem, too. The new Poetry Friday Anthology for Science
focuses exclusively on science with a poem-a-week for every grade level, K-5 focused on the following themes: scientific practices, lab safety, questioning, observations, predictions, hypotheses, investigations, scientific tools, data, matter, force, motion, and energy, light and sound, space, sun, earth and moon, the water cycle, weather and climate, forces of nature, soil and land, natural resources, ecosystems, adaptations and traits, cycles, patterns, the human body, kitchen science, video technology, building things, simple machines, the science fair, famous scientists, science careers, and future dreams and challenges. Contributing poets include: Susan Blackaby, Leslie Bulion, Joseph Bruchac, Kate Coombs, Cynthia Cotton, Kristy Dempsey, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Margarita Engle, Douglas Florian, Carole Gerber, Mary Lee Hahn, Avis Harley, David L. Harrison, Sara Holbrook, Jacqueline Jules, Bobbi Katz, Julie Larios, J. Patrick Lewis, Kenn Nesbitt, Linda Sue Park, Heidi Bee Roemer, Laura Purdie Salas, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Lee Wardlaw, and Janet Wong—with some poems even in bilingual, Spanish/English versions. Interested in a sneak peek at The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science due out in spring, 2014? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for a free digital sampler.
Outstanding Science Trade Books list
And don’t forget to check out the annual list of “Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12” produced by the National Science Teachers Association in collaboration with the Children’s Book Council. This list typically includes 1-2 new books of science-themed poetry (as well as science-rich literature in other genres) every year. For more information as well as previous book lists, go to http://www.nsta.org/ostb
Poetry in nature magazines
Many magazines and serials that are published for children also regularly feature poems. In fact, magazines are often the first medium in which many new poets get their work published. The poems in magazines are often new and not yet available in books, so they can be fresh and fun to seek out and share. Nature and science magazines include poetry regularly. See, for example, Ranger Rick, Your Big Backyard, ChickaDEE, and Odyssey. Children who are avid subscribers may enjoy sharing poems from their favorite magazines.
Professional resources for science and poetry
There are many helpful resources that offer insight on the new science standards as well as helpful teaching strategies including:
_____. 2012. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
Honey, Margaret and Kanter, David E. 2013. Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators. New York: Routledge.
Sousa, David A. and Pilecki, Tom. 2013. From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Vardell, Sylvia. 2012. The Poetry Teacher’s Book of Lists. Princeton, NJ: Pomelo Books.
Vasquez, Jo Anne; Sneider, Cary and Comer, Michael. 2013. Grades 3-8 STEM Lesson Essentials: Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Portsmouth: NH: Heinemann.
There are also several key professional resources that support using poetry in science. This includes Using Poetry Across the Curriculum (2010), by Barbara Chatton which provides comprehensive lists of several hundred poetry books and poems organized around the national science standards including: inquiry, scientific tools, physical sciences, life sciences, and earth and space science, technology, personal and social perspectives, and the history and nature of science. Poet Sara Holbrook offers do-able strategies for infusing poetry across the curriculum in her book, Practical Poetry; A Nonstandard Approach to Meeting Content-Area Standards (2005). And in my own book, The Poetry Teacher’s Book of Lists (2012) you’ll find bibliographies and lists of tips and strategies for selecting and sharing poetry across the curriculum, including lists of poetry books gathered around the topics of: seasons, spring, Earth Day, summer, animals, birds, cats, dinosaurs, dogs, food, gardens and gardening, insects and bugs, mathematics, general science, space and the planets, time, trees, and weather.
In her work Give Them Poetry: A Guide for Sharing Poetry with Children K–8, Glenna Sloan (2003) issues “a word of caution in the matter of ‘using’ poetry in the service of other areas of study: Poetry should be allowed to develop literacy on its own” (16). There are many possibilities for linking poetry with subject matter, but do not forget to stop and enjoy the poems for their own sake, too. That’s a good reminder.
The more connections we can provide between what children are learning in various areas of study, the deeper their learning will be. If poetry can be that vehicle for connecting books, skills, concepts, and information across the curriculum, we owe it to children to infuse poetry wherever we can. We can encourage children to think like a poet AND a scientist in observing the world around them, using all their senses, seeing how things work and gathering “big words” as they read, write, and learn. As Albert Einstein reminds us, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
This topic-- science and poetry-- has become my most recent obsession and my friend and collaborator, Janet Wong, are working away on launching The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Stay tuned for details.
Plus, we'll be making a presentation on this very topic at the next conference of the International Reading Association in May. With the new emphasis on the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards), we are trying to position POETRY as a must-get resource for SCIENCE. More to come.