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Q&A with performance poet Nile Stanley.

Q: How do educators tend to respond when you say poetry helps children learn to read?

A: Generally, I find educators know that reading poetry is good for the mind and the soul. Also many [teachers] themselves learned to read through the poetry of Dr. Seuss. I am hearing that poetry is supported by brain-based research. I get a lot of e-mails like this: "You can really have it both ways-skills and fun through poetry."

Q: What do you tell naysayers about the power of poetry?

A: "Neither thorns or nettles do I cultivate, I cultivate the white rose. As the poet Jose Marti wrote, greet everyone, even your adversaries, with a warm handshake and a poem, not an argument. I invite the naysayers, skeptics and even the curmudgeons to come and experience the joy of children learning to read, write and perform poetry. Seeing is believing.

Q: How has No Child Left Behind affected your work?

A: As a participant in the Harvard Literacy Institute, I talked with many of the key crafters of the current legislation. The answer to my research question, "Why can't poetry take a role within the teaching of reading?," [was that there] had to be a resource that specifically shows educators how to use poetry to teach the federally mandated "big five"--phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. In my book, Creating Readers with Poetry (Maupin House, 2004), I advocate a comprehensive approach to literacy, explicit instruction in skills and continued rich literature and writing opportunities. With poetry we can have joy, meaning and "rhyme with reason."

Q: As author-in-residence at a Duval County (Fla.) Public Schools elementary school, how do you incorporate poetry into daily instruction?

A: I begin by asking the literacy coaches and teachers, "What content and skills can I teach through poetry that will compliment the language arts standards you are trying to address this week?" ... [Using] a mini-lesson format, we experience the poem by repeat reading and performing it. We reflect on the poem through thinking, retelling and discussing. We apply the skills we learn through writing, illustrating or using technology.

Q: As a visiting poet, how do you live up to your nickname, Nile Crocodile the Reading Reptile?

A: There is a high level of enthusiasm, excitement and engagement. The teachers and children ... get into the act of reading, chanting, singing, performing and writing poetry. Sometimes the tension of the high-stress, high-stakes curriculum is so high that the poetry seems soothing--so alluring, children break out by dancing to the poetry. A "poetry break" elicits a full spectrum of responses: joy, sadness, surprise, laughter, reflection and relief.

Q: How have you seen poetry help turn struggling readers into successful readers?

A: At the poor, urban school where I work, almost all of the readers are struggling. Does poetry make a difference? Moses Lee Jones (pseudonym) ... is the title of my poem that inspired my book. In fourth grade, Moses was emotionally handicapped and learning disabled. He used to act out in class by screaming. He lived with his grandmother because they took his daddy away to jail. Despite his weaknesses, he auditioned for and made poetry club for his performance of "Dreams" by Langston Hughes. Moses went on to perform and write original poetry. He was a poor reader, but excellent performer. He is now a B+ student in middle school and plays the trombone.

Q: Can you give an example of how one particular school system is embracing poetry?

A: In Juneau (Alaska) School District, three of the six elementary schools support professional development with poetry to a large degree. Principals supported and recognized poetry by attending my workshops and class visits. They help teachers align poetry learning with the district's change efforts and goals. I [worked with teachers to] engage students with poetry and literacy activities that compliment the standards-based curriculum. Poetry is not fluff; it is the real stuff of learning. During a full week at each school, [I modeled] effective literacy instruction [and later offered] follow-up consultations with teachers.

[The district also created] a learning community [around poetry]. Once students perform poetry for other classes, they want their parents to see them as well. [This creates] an entire feedback loop of parents, teachers, community and children--a synergy, if you will. "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

Nile Stanley is a reading specialist, researcher, visiting poet and professor of education at the University of North Florida.
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Title Annotation:Curriculum update: the latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies
Author:Ezarik, Melissa
Publication:District Administration
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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