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Engaging with Literature: A Video Library, Grades 3-5

Starting Out

Jonathan Holden begins exploring poetry with his fourth-grade class. He carefully guides them as they create and explore individual and rich envisionments of the text through discussion and writing. The class explores poems from Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash by Donald H. Graves and Hey You! C'Mere: A Poetry Slam by Elizabeth Swados.

“My job is to circulate and re-motivate kids when they stall [and] challenge them to take further steps in the discussion. Hopefully…I can keep them discussing and enjoying a poem; it helps push them to a higher level of understanding.”

Jonathan Holden, 4th-Grade Teacher
Nathan Hale Elementary School
Roxbury, Massachusetts

Students often don’t know how to discuss literature in interesting and productive ways in order to develop their understandings of a text with the help of conversations among peers. In such cases, teachers need to take steps to help students get started with such conversations; doing so not only helps students develop their comprehension and discussion skills, but also teaches them to appreciate the values of good literary conversations.

About this Video

In this video, you will see how Jonathan Holden helps students make personal connections to poems while they enjoy the play of language and the experiences poems offer. By helping students focus on things they like and things they don’t like about a poem, Mr. Holden helps them begin to make the personal connections that are an important means of literary engagement and meaning development. He also asks them to identify “puzzles” (questions) that the poems raise. This acknowledges that meanings in literature are not always immediately transparent and may take some working through in order for a reader to arrive at a satisfactory understanding. Asking students to complete a simple chart in response to a poem is one way to help them “get started” when they move into their discussion groups.

You will also see how Mr. Holden incorporates writing into his poetry class. For him the writing is an integral part of literature instruction, with each component informing the other. Mr. Holden believes that experiences with both writing and literary envisionment building help students develop deeper understandings in powerful and effective ways.

For resources that can help you use this clip for teacher professional development, preservice education, administrative and English/language arts content meetings, parent conferences, and back-to-school events, visit our Support Materials page. There you will find PDF files of our library guide, classroom lesson plan, student activity sheets, and other Teacher Tools.

Featured Texts

Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash by Donald H. Graves

The poems in this book describe the follies and joys of growing up. Focused on specific events in childhood-teasing a younger brother, giggling in church, hating squash-these poems are particularly appealing to boys and very usable in the classroom.

We have provided the text for a poem from this book called “Last Touch.”
The text is copyright 1996 by Donald Graves from Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash: Poems About Growing Up. Published by Wordsong, Boyds Mill Press, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

Hey You! C’Mere: A Poetry Slam by Elizabeth Swados

Everybody can be a poet! To prove it, seven young poets set out on a summer day and use ordinary situations as material for improvised poems. The slangy words and upbeat visuals suggest that poetry is something fun that happens when friends get together to play with language.

For a list of other poetry titles with poems that appeal to young readers, see “Text Pairings” in Teacher Tools and Additional Resources.

Classroom Snapshot

School: Nathan Hale Elementary School
Location: Roxbury, Massachusetts
No. of Students in School: 200
Teacher: Jonathan Holden
No. of Years Teaching: 2
Grade: 4th Grade
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 19

Appearances can be deceiving. Built in 1909, Nathan Hale Elementary School, when viewed from the outside, hardly looks like the center of academic energy and the commitment to excellence it is. The school has served youngsters in the surrounding Roxbury neighborhood (near Dudley Square where Martin Luther King worked and Malcolm X lived) for 93 years and appears well-used. However, walls covered with student work, flowers in public spaces, and the cheerful hum of contented children signal an energy and engagement that belies the sometimes age-weary appearance of the structure itself. Although most of the children at Nathan Hale arrive with the challenge of limited experiences with traditional academic literacies (85% qualify for free/reduced-price lunch), the faculty and staff are committed to providing them a solid academic and personal foundation before sending them on to middle school.

Reading and writing are at the core of every classroom. Students experience shared reading and writing, reading aloud, interactive writing, guided reading, and writer’s workshop. Every day ends with DEAR (Drop Everything and Read). In addition, teachers are trained in the early literacy learning initiative (MONDO/BEL) approach to teaching, reading, and writing.

Again, in contrast with its physical plant, Nathan Hale is committed to offering students experience with up-to-date technology. With the best student-to-computer ratio in the district, students have daily exposure to computer technology as a learning tool from kindergarten on. As they get older, they have access to the Internet. For more information on the school, visit this Boston Public Schools site.

Classroom Lesson Plan

 Getting Started With Poetry

Jonathan Holden’s lesson plan is also available as a PDF file. See Materials Needed, below, for links to student activity sheets related to the lesson.

Teacher: Jonathan Holden, Nathan Hale Elementary School, Roxbury, Massachusetts

Grade Level: Fourth

Topic: Poetry

Materials Needed:


Background Information:

Mr. Holden’s class reflects the general demographics of Nathan Hale Elementary. The majority of the students are African American; there are several Hispanic students and one Caucasian. The group has widely differentiated skills and abilities, and Mr. Holden notes that there are many resilient children overcoming great obstacles in the class as well.

In this lesson, Mr. Holden introduces his students to the pleasures of poetry. His primary goal is to help them develop a love of reading and poetry in particular while developing the comprehension and critical-thinking skills they need to remain engaged readers.

As he helps them get started with poetry, Mr. Holden emphasizes the oral nature of the form and focuses his initial lessons on sound (rhythm and rhyme) surprising language. He chooses poems that are readily accessible to all his students and ones that present experiences to which they can relate personally. By asking them to write poems themselves, Mr. Holden introduces students to the poetic craft from the inside out. Not only do they have the opportunity to play a bit with language as they express their own experiences, but as readers they become more sensitive to such language play in the works of others. Asking students to share what they are learning with younger students in the semi-formal setting of a Book Buddy meeting helps Mr. Holden’s students solidify their learning and develop confidence in themselves as readers.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • Listen to, read, and enjoy a large variety of poems.
  • Use language effectively to create knowledge, make meaning, challenge thinking, and expand their literary envisionments.
  • Respond to what they have heard through informal writing.
  • Discuss poetic language and form.
  • Experiment with writing their own poems, modeled on those they have heard and read.
  • Share what they are learning about poems with Book Buddies in a younger class

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Informal response writing to a variety of poems.
  • A number of original poems based on poems students have heard and read, including poems that are direct imitations of published poems. (See “Imitating Poetic Forms” in Teacher Tools for directions for this activity.)
  • A publication of revised poems from each student.
  • A lesson, planned and implemented, for teaching younger Book Buddies about poetry.

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Multiple poetic read-alouds
  • Modeling reading poems with expression
  • Modeling thinking about effective use of sound (rhythm and rhyme), effective language, and the pleasures of poetic surprise.
  • Modeling responses to poems-“What I like,” “What I don’t like,” “Puzzles,” and “Connections.”
  • Student discussion of their responses in small groups and in full-class meetings.
  • Teaching elements of poetic form: use of white space, line breaks, titles as integral to body of poem, repetition, use of sound, etc.)
  • Individual and small-group coaching.
  • Modeling poetic revision.
  • Demonstrating methods and criteria for publication.

Collaborative Structure of Class: 

In Mr. Holden’s room, the bookshelves are jammed with literature appropriate to a range of reading levels and on many topics, and students are urged to self-select books above and beyond the texts assigned for instruction. His students sit at tables in groups of four. Each student has a plastic crate holding his or her books, folders, and other supplies. A round table to the side of the room provides a staging area for Mr. Holden to meet with individuals or with small reading groups. At the front of the room is a carpeted area where the class gathers for class meetings. Often they return to their individual tables to respond to the literature, in writing, in discussion with their tablemates, or with a combination of writing and discussion.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Teacher reads and models response to the poem “Last Touch.”
  • Teacher discusses poem with class, reviewing information in poem to clarify meaning.
  • Teacher reviews guidelines for a good discussion, reminding students that personal connections are often key to good discussions.
  • Teacher charts response structure on board. (See “Structuring Literary Responses” in Teacher Tools for help.)
  • Students return to small groups with copies of “Last Touch.” Individually they spend time charting their personal responses to the poem.
  • Students share and discuss responses in small groups while teacher circulates, coaching and supporting discussions.
  • Students return to the rug for whole-class reflection on activity.
  • Teacher facilitates discussion: “How is a chart like this helpful to you? How can a chart help you understand difficult parts of a poem?”
  • Teacher models concept of a poetry slam, using Elizabeth Swados’s Hey You! C’Mere: A Poetry Slam.
  • Students use randomly selected topics to create instantly improvised “slam” poems that emphasize rhythm and sound.
  • Students share and enjoy their poems in both small groups and in a full-class gathering.Note: the following components of the lesson are not seen on the video, but are part of Mr. Holden’s overall plan.
  • With a new poem, teacher and students repeat the processes of oral reading and discussion.
  • Teacher models ways to develop questions by asking, “Who?,” Where?,” “What?,” “When?,” “Why?,” and “How?” and to use those questions to understand the poem.
  • In small groups, students read and discuss another poem using the questions for support as they work to develop a strong mental image of the poem’s content.
  • They use evidence from the poem to support their answers to their tablemates’ questions.
  • They participate in a whole-class discussion on the process.
  • They discuss what they have learned about poetry so far, and how they might share some of that with their Book Buddies.

Follow-Up or Culminating Activities:

  • Students will read and understand a short poem and respond to it for homework.
  • Students will write and revise their own poems, eventually selecting several for publication.
  • Students will plan and execute a short lesson for their Book Buddies, sharing what they have learned about poetry. (See “Teaching Book Buddies” and “Student Sample: Teaching Book Buddies” for examples of how Mr. Holden’s students responded to this assignment.)

Assessment: Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • Participation in large- and small-group discussions.
  • Written responses to poetry.
  • Poetry drafts.

The following activities might receive holistic or scaled evaluation (see Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles for a detailed explanation of holistic and scaled evaluation).


Professional Reflection

Take a step back from your classroom and examine the video clip in relation to your own instructional practices. Use the questions below to spark discussion about instructional practices in department meetings, team meetings, or as a prompt in your own professional journal.


  • When you introduce a new literary form or concept, what kinds of support do you find useful to provide students as they are getting started?
  • How do your students respond to poetry? If they are not comfortable with it, what are some activities that you might plan to help them learn to understand and enjoy it, both as individual poems and as a literary form?
  • Have you had difficult moments when working with poetry? What caused them? What did you do to meet the challenge?
  • What have been some of your most successful and/or pleasurable moments with poetry-either as an individual or as a teacher? What made them that way? How have you tried to replicate the experience for your students?


Teacher Tools

Whether you are a classroom or preservice teacher, teacher educator, content leader, department chair, or administrator, the materials below can assist you in implementing the practices presented in the video clip.

Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles

The terms assessment and evaluation are often used as synonyms. Distinguishing between them can be helpful as you plan instruction. Assessment means looking at what students can do in order to determine what they need to learn to do next. That is, assessment, whether of individual students or an entire group, is done in order to inform instruction. Typically assessment is holistic, often recorded simply as “credit” or “no credit.”

Evaluation occurs after a concept or skill has been taught and practiced and is typically a scaled response, indicating the level of achievement or degree of competence a student has attained.

Structuring Literary Responses

Many teachers find it helpful to provide students who are learning ways to respond to literature with a simple chart or form to record responses. Mr. Holden’s chart simply asks students to list what they liked, what they didn’t like, puzzles (questions or confusions) they identified, and personal connections they made. In this way, he is able to identify (and explicitly accept) a range of responses. The categories on the chart assume that students will find some aspect of the poem pleasurable, but it also accepts the fact that there may be parts that a reader doesn’t like. The chart foregrounds questions and confusions as a normal part of literary response, and provides an opportunity for making such problems visible so they can be dealt with. Finally, the chart reminds students that personal connections are central to the understanding and enjoyment of literature and brings those connections front and center for group sharing. You may wish to adopt Mr. Holden’s chart “as is” for use in your classroom (see “Poetry Response Chart”), or you may find that modifying it will make it more functional for you and your students. See “Students Informal Written Responses to ‘Last Touch’ “ for samples of how Mr. Holden’s students responded to this activity.

Text Pairings

As you plan literature experiences for your students, consider offering text pairings. Some teachers like to introduce students to a number of works by the same author. Others try to find texts with similarities in theme or content. Works or authors that have received awards and appear to be developing into contemporary classics are also favored choices. No list of suggestions can be complete or can address every criterion. You may find it useful to follow Mr. Holden’s example and group-specific poems for specific lessons. The list of poetry collections found in the Additional Resources section of the print support materials should provide a helpful starting point for collecting poems that your students will enjoy.

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the texts used in Jonathan Holden’s classroom:
Robert Pinsky started this project during his time as poet laureate of the United States. The project is dedicated to celebrating poetry’s role in Americans lives. Teachers’ materials include lesson plans for all grade levels as well as cross-disciplinary activities built on poetry.

Modern American Poetry
This site holds an extensive list of materials related to 161 modern American poets such as Robert Bly, Sherman Alexie, Lucille Clifton, Sandra Cisneros, T.S. Eliot, and more. Access to online works, biographies, and literary criticism for each poet can be accessed here.

The Electronic Poetry Library
In addition to biographical information about and individual poems from a collection of modern American poets, this site also provides access to sound files of poets reading their own poems and talking about their work.

The Academy of American Poets
A rich online library on poetry is available at this web site. It includes audio files of readings by authors, links to online texts, and a search feature that access complete poetry texts. Free registration allows you to enable a notebook feature to save texts and sound recordings to a personal file. Links to teacher information bring you to a site rich in materials, but they are generally designed for high school students.

Additional resources related to the tenets of this series:

Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site
This site provides lists of children’s books and ideas of ways to use them in the classroom as well as activities and topics of professional interest. A search for “poetry” locates a number of additional useful links.

Children’s Book Council
The Children’s Book Council is a non-profit trade organization dedicated to encouraging literacy and the use and enjoyment of children’s books.

Children’s Literature
This site provides a wealth of reviews designed to help teachers, librarians, childcare providers, and parents make appropriate literary choices for children.

Children’s Literature Web Guide
This Web site categorizes the growing number of Internet resources related to books for children and young adults. Much of the information found on this Web site is provided by schools, libraries, teachers, parents, and book professionals (such as authors, editors, and booksellers). It includes quick references to lists of award-winning and bestseller children’s books, teaching resources, links to parent resources, and journal and book reviews.

deGrummond’s Children’s Literature Collection
From the University of Southern Mississippi Libraries, the deGrummond Children’s Literature Collection is one of North America’s leading research centers in the field of children’s literature. Although the Collection has many strengths, the main focus is on American and British children’s literature, historical and contemporary. Their What’s New section details upcoming exhibits, many of which are available online.

KidSpace @ The Internet Public Library
The Reading Zone at KidSpace provides a number of online texts for children, including works in French and Spanish. A number of the links provide activities connected to the literature as well.

Articles related to effective literature instruction from the National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement:

“Classroom Discussion: Teachers’ Perspectives on Obstacles and Strategies” by Samantha Caughlan

“Engaging Students in Meaningful Conversation Leads to Higher Achievement” by Arthur Applebee

“How Classroom Conversation Can Support Student Achievement”

“Supporting the Process of Literary Understanding: Analysis of a Classroom Discussion” by Doralyn R. Roberts and Judith A. Langer

“What Do We Know About Effective Fourth-Grade Teachers and Their Classrooms?” by Richard L. Allington and Peter H. Johnson

Professional Organizations

American Educational Research Association
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
International Reading Association
National Council of Teachers of English
National Writing Project