ArticlePDF Available


This paper analyzes the poetry of 20 ninth graders in an urban high school. While these students were considered “failing” by the state’s assessment standards, we argue that, through poetry, these students were empowered to write against this "failing" student identity.
Illinois English Bulletin, Vol. 105, No. 2, 2018
© 2018 Illinois Association of Teachers of English
in praise of poetry
toward access and power
audrey a. friedman, chris k. bacon,
and joelle m. pedersen
broken family
by Clarissa, age 14
Chains. Strength, force, safety
Each link holding on to each other tightly
Without one link the next link has nothing to grasp to for
strength and force
Without a link there exists no chain
The more links there are the more strength the chain has
A powerful chain obtains more uses
When there is sorrow it rains and when it rains the chains rust.
The rusted chains become weak, they begin to fall apart
They begin to become useless, something with no value, no
8 In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Power
In Broken Family, Clarissa wields the power of words to
share and speak back against an experience of loss that may
have otherwise rendered her powerless. Figurative language,
extended metaphor, deliberate word choice, and careful
phrasing situate Clarissa as a powerful storyteller. Her words
build relevance and meaning, connect her to the reader, and
assert her identity as an individual. Despite this powerful
wielding of language, the state designates Clarissa as “failing”
based on the scores she obtained on her state’s standardized
English language arts assessment—a designation which can
prevent her from graduating high school. What accounts
for this discrepancy in which such a powerful writer can be
rendered powerless— “failing” in the state’s terminology,
or to use Clarissa’s words, as “something with no value”? Is
the issue truly the writer, or is the problem the very way we
understand, value, and assess certain ways of writing and
being? How, as teachers, can we work within systems that
privilege reductive, standardized assessments to leverage
students’ identities and linguistic resources to empower them
as writers in the twenty-rst century?
Like the other students we will discuss throughout this
piece, Clarissa’s writing illustrates poetry as a genre of power.
Unlike many other genres of writing, particularly those fa-
vored as easily scorable on standardized assessments, writing
poetry can help all learners feel condent in their learning,
giving them power and voice. Poetry is an eective reality
pedagogy (Emdin) because it values the unique discourses,
language practices, and experiences each student brings
to the classroom through their lived experience. Poetry is
unapologetic, authentic, and visceral. As poetry is adaptive
and does not need to conform to rules for standard written
English, it permits risk-taking, language experimentation,
and creative expression. Poetry is complex and linguistically
Illinois English Bulletin 9
demanding. Much like autonomy-seeking adolescents, poets
move away from the traditional and boilerplate, striving to
escape a standard, more conventional language “which is
[often] seen as oppressive” (Nofal 38).
As the students we showcase demonstrate, writing
poetry allows adolescents to assert individual identity and
identity within a community, be it their family, classroom,
or world. Negotiating this identity is critical as adolescents
struggle to identify with others and recognize a broader sense
of inclusivity. Poetry permits self-denition and processing of
past and present experiences, as it provides a safe space for
students to experiment with language, develop unique voices,
and make sense of trauma in their lives. Through poetry, ado-
lescents write their own stories, shape their own identities in
language, reect on the conict they have experienced, and
push back against the metanarratives from which they have
often been excluded. Poetry writing also provides teachers
with critical insight into students’ culture, experiences, and
talents. Poetry challenges preconceived notions about stu-
dents’ capacity to become procient in a variety of literacies
and arms linguistic diversity as an asset. Thus, participating
in classroom communities through poetry can leave lasting,
identity-arming impressions on students and practitioners.
Learning about Adolescents through Poetry
To understand identity development in adolescents’
poetry writing, we analyzed the rst of three drafts of poetry
written by 20 ninth graders in an urban public school in the
Northeast United States Most were multilingual and all were
considered “failing” by the state’s standards, based on their
performance on the state’s high-stakes, standardized assess-
ment in English language arts. After completing a poetry unit
in which they read a variety of poems from sonnets to free
10 In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Power
verse by American, British, and Asian authors, and listening
to poetry performed by a local poet, writers composed a poem
on any topic and in any form.
To understand the power of poetry in arming identity,
we applied four of James Paul Gee’s critical discourse analysis
tools: (a) Situated Meaning, (b) Signicance Building, (c) Con-
nections Building, and (d) Identities Building. Situated Mean-
ing acknowledges that text carries broad “meaning potential”
(Gee 157). Since poetry allows for the range of meanings that
particular words and phrases may assume, it provides access
to adolescents’ personal lives. Signicance Building asks how
writers use language to create or diminish signicance by
emphasizing the relevance and importance of certain ideas.
As poetry demands an economy of language, writers must
make choices, exposing what they wish to share. Connections
Building establishes power dynamics of the writer as agent
acting upon or agent acted on, connecting writer to audience.
Adolescents must negotiate intimacy versus isolation, form-
ing or not forming connections with others. Poetry helps them
use words and grammar to connect ideas to other ideas, to
individuals, and to themselves. Finally, Identities Building asks
what social identity or identities the writer is trying to enact.
Since “writing is thinking … a kind of self-making or forming”
(Van Manen 238), writing poetry enables authors to construct
identities for themselves and their audience.
Using these tools helped us see how writers experiment-
ed with language and ascribed meaning to social, cultural,
and emotional trauma. This process provided insight into
students’ identity and facility with language. What emerged
as more signicant, however, is how these writers used po-
etry to share struggles, emotions, culture, fears, and dreams,
shaping their own identities through language, making
sense of trauma they experienced, and pushing back against
Illinois English Bulletin 11
the metanarratives from which they had been excluded or
“written out.” Poetry aorded them the power to construct
and arm individual identity, identity within a community
of learners, and identity within the larger context of family,
culture, and the world.
Powerful Poetry, Powerful Stories, Powerful Identities
Fear, anxiety about school, discrimination, deception,
disloyalty, abandonment, anger, violence, loss of a loved
one, failed romance, and abuse resonated within almost all of
these poets. Even poets that described relief after waking up
from a terrible nightmare incorporated this motif to obscure
anxiety about school-related issues. Below, we analyze two
representative poems from this classroom, Clarissa’s Broken
Family and Lanie’s No Title (all names are pseudonyms). These
writers experimented with language to create tone, mood, and
imagery that illustrated personal conicts of deception, dis-
loyalty, and abandonment in ways that capture the potential
of poetry to animate empowerment through writing. After an
in-depth analysis of these two poems, we provide an overall
discussion of the poems of the entire group to exemplify the
ways in which poetry acted as a genre of access and power
in this classroom.
Broken Family
In Broken Family (see p. 7), Clarissa chooses “chains” to
situate and expand meaning and extend a metaphor. When
“Each link [in the chain holds] on to each other tightly” there
is “strength, force, [and] safety.” For Clarissa, tightly linked
chains signify the “unity” of family. Links permit connection;
more links make chains more useful and therefore, more
powerful. Clarissa identies strongly with her family mem-
bers; her links to them, and theirs to her, empower and aord
12 In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Power
comfort, “strength, safety” and joy. When “there is sorrow”
however, tears of rain make “the chains rust” weakening the
links and the “unity” of the family, which “fall[s] apart.” As
the family deconstructs, so does Clarissa’s sense of self and
a signicant part of her identity, rendering the chains—and
in many ways, the family— “useless, something with no
value, no existence.” “Link[ing] … holding on to each other”
builds the signicance of family not only to her identity as
individual but also to her identity within the community of
family. “Rusted chains [that] become weak” and “begin to
fall apart” diminish and render Clarissa’s perception of fam-
ily as “useless … [of] no value, no existence.” While Clarissa
perceives a tenuous connection to family, her connection to
the reader, her audience, and to anyone whose chains have
rusted, is poignant. We feel her pain, her trauma, her loss, her
confusion, and we wait, hoping to read words that suggest
a rebuilding of identity, but are left with “no existence,” our
cue as teachers to oer comfort, support—a link to a dierent
chain to which she might grasp or connect as she struggles
to reshape her identity.
no title
The sculpture possessed elegance.
Frustration and confusion in a dignied manner:
Mother lay sprawled on the cold kitchen oor
She wept almost as if
Performing on stage
Father pleaded with her while spreading butter on a piece of
Homemade bread
Father had seemingly displaced memories of his
Marital vows
The little boy stared at mother
Trying hard to gure out what the problem was
He knew something
Illinois English Bulletin 13
Dishonesty crowded his passage way
Disgust stood steadfast in his path
Mother was a trip
In this poem, Lanie the art and life critic scrutinizes
“the sculpture,” a metaphor for the play she is viewing and
recounting for her audience. She describes scene 1, which is
chimerical— “possess[ing] elegance” but “frustrate[ed] and
confus[ed]”—mirroring Lanie’s dynamic identity. As if provid-
ing stage directions, Lanie moves into scene 2, further situating
and expanding the motif: “Mother lay sprawled” on a kitchen
oor (cold as the sculpture), an actress who has “wept … per-
forming on stage.” The poet builds signicance through juxta-
position of competing tensions: “Father[’s] plead[ing]” while
“spreading butter” on bread that is “homemade.” A caring act
(making bread) that her mother has also performed counters
her father’s act of having “seemingly displaced memories of his
marital vows.” The characters are in tension, as are the elements
of Lanie’s identity. Scene 3: little brother appears, a confused
victim and onlooker of this tragic scene, intuiting “something”
is wrong but acutely aware of the dishonesty that each actor
is living—even Lanie. Although her poetry exposes her anger,
disgust, and vulnerability in an oddly “dignied” manner, she
hurts. Simultaneously connecting and disconnecting from her
feelings, Lanie lures her audience into the confusion. We have
sympathy for the mother, weeping and “sprawled” but question
her “performance.” We hear “father[’s] plead[ing],” but sense
his disingenuousness as he “spread[s] butter on a piece of / [h]
omemade bread.” We know to sympathize with the boy, the in-
nocent victim, trapped and disgusted by his parents’ dishonesty,
but Lanie’s dismissal of “Mother [as a] trip” not only reinforces
our confusion but also illustrates Lanie’s ambivalence about
how she perceives herself, her family, and the world. “Mother
was a trip” is the capstone of the last scene of Lanie’s life play.
14 In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Power
Poetry as Power
Within both poems, and across student work from this
classroom, we see the ways in which viewing poetry as a
specic, situated discourse reveals the range of linguistic com-
petencies students draw upon to write and rewrite situations
of adversity, challenge, and even trauma. Students situated
meaning in ways that drew upon poetry’s characteristic lin-
guistic exibility and ranges of meaning that can be expressed,
even in few words. Poetry revealed a fuller range of students’
linguistic and literary resources in ways that a narrative or
argumentative essay prompt might never access. Students
across the sample drew on signicance building not only to
recount experiences of adversity but also to reframe them
poetically through metaphor and gurative language. This
was done with depth, but also with concision, as demanded
by the characteristic brevity of the genre. Poetry allowed these
writers to disrupt what Hillocks has called the “longer is bet-
ter” mentality that denes scoring practices for standardized
writing assessment. In this way, students exemplied con-
nections building to shift power dynamics in these situations.
Both Clarissa and Lanie, as well as students across the sample,
spoke of adults, families, or systems that exerted inuence
over their lives, often rendering them powerless. Writers in
this classroom either called out this dynamic or called against
it. Writers—if only in the context of these poems—became
narrative agents of change. Through these actions, students
used poetry to engage in identities building, taking ownership
of authoring their literate selves, rather than having others
author them as victims or spectators.
In this way, we argue that poetry is unique in its abil-
ity to unlock the literacy potentialities that students already
possess, particularly through reection on their lived experi-
ences. In alignment with Emdin’s reality pedagogy, we learn
Illinois English Bulletin 15
that nothing is more real to students than the adversity they
discuss. Using poetry, they make sense of and speak back
to this adversity, drawing upon a broad range of linguistic
and literary resources, wielding language in resoundingly
complex ways.
Disrupting Disempowerment and Accessing Power
through Poetry
Reading these poems provides access to the authors’
worlds through the power of their words (Freire and Macedo).
If gauging eective writing by its communicative force and
capacity to elicit aective response, then there is no question
that these students are successful. And yet, according to the
state’s testing regime, all of these poets are failing writers.
How is this possible?
The current policy climate all but dictates that students
master the forms of discourse that are most easily measured.
The Common Core State Standards’ narrow focus on infor-
mational and argumentative writing widens the gap between
the language of schooling and the language of life. These
genres do not and cannot capture the full range of students’
experiences, identities, or language skills. In the standards
reform era, our valuation of creative writing in general, and
poetry writing in particular, is deliberately disruptive, oer-
ing a vision for teaching against the grain (Cochran-Smith)
of high-stakes writing assessment that works to reposition
students as authors with agency and purpose, rather than
scores on timed essay prompts.
The students in this classroom demonstrate that
using poetry in the classroom fosters student engagement,
motivation to write, and space for sharing and reshaping
identity. Poetry builds bridges between students’ language use
outside of school and the high-level academic discourses we
16 In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Power
expect them to master, acting as a point of entry to the broader
writing curriculum. Because poetry is a performative genre,
it draws on students’ oral language skills and capitalizes on
adolescents’ strengths and priorities as highly social beings.
Poetry enacts a particular relationship between reader and
writer, creating meaningful occasions for literacy production
and allowing for students to experience how purpose and
audience can shape language choices, to consider multiple
perspectives as they take on dierent narrative voices, and to
make thematic and stylistic decisions with authority. Writing
poetry can be integrated meaningfully with the reading of
poetry, enhancing students’ interpretive skills as they build
awareness of their own craft. Since poetry varies in length,
it also lessens the pressure on students to produce a certain
volume of writing, but still provides “short texts to teach all
kinds of language arts standards” as required by the Common
Core State Standards (Hahn and Wong). It encourages
students to leave behind the “longer is better” mentality that
has been reinforced by standardized writing assessment and
allows them to nd pleasure in the act of writing.
Incorporating poetry writing into the curriculum chal-
lenges models of literacy instruction which assume that
a threshold of mechanical competence must be mastered
before students can express themselves. As a venue for lan-
guage experimentation and cultural and identity exploration,
poetry writing encourages originality, authenticity, playful-
ness, and risk-taking. Although some poetry emphasizes
structure and form and relies on traditional poetic language,
poetry does not need to conform to rules for standard written
English. This removes the barrier for students of worrying
about whether their writing is “correct,” freeing the cogni-
tive space for them to focus on their ideas and who they are
as writers.
Illinois English Bulletin 17
Writing poetry moves students away from thinking
about language as a xed system that constrains or even
works against their desire for self-expression. Instead, it
fosters understanding of language as an adaptive tool,
constantly changing, full of innite possibilities for mean-
ing making, which students may use exibly to speak their
English teachers know well that poetry can function as
a vehicle for social change. The literary canon is replete with
examples of how poetry is a transgressive genre, reecting
anxieties about race, class, gender, sexuality, and language,
interrogating social norms, and giving voice to those who
have historically been silenced. Poetry has long served as
a venue for cultural expression, allowing writers to explore
themselves as individuals alongside their larger social posi-
tionings. With poets Clarissa and Lanie, we see what happens
when we open up space for students to push back against
the power structures that oppress and marginalize them: to
tell their stories on their own terms, to explore all facets of
their developing identities, and to make sense of the conict
and trauma in their lives. Through the medium of poetry,
students can nd meaning and joy in language, envisioning
possibilities for their future selves that are not available in
the ve-paragraph essay.
Works Cited
Christensen, Linda. “Where I’m from: Inviting Students’ Lives
into the Classroom.” Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume
2: Teaching for Equity and Justice, edited by Bill Bigelow,
Brenda Harvey, Stan Karp, and Larry Miller, Rethinking
Schools, 2001, pp. 6–10.
Cochran-Smith, Marilyn. “Learning to Teach against
the Grain.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 61,
18 In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Power
no. 3, 1991, pp. 279–310. ProQuest, doi: 10.17763/
haer.61.3.q671413614502746. Accessed 4 May 2017.
Cummins, Jim and Margaret Early. Identity Texts: The
Collaborative Creation of Power in Multilingual Schools.
Trentham Books, 2011.
Emdin, Christopher. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood
and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban
Education. Beacon Press, 2016.
Freire, Paulo, and Donaldo Macedo. Literacy: Reading the Word
and the World. Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
Gee, James Paul. How to do Discourse Analysis: A Toolkit. 2nd
ed., Routledge, 2014.
Hahn, Mary Lee and Janet Wong. “What Is the Role of Poetry
in Literacy Learning?” Literacy & NCTE, the National
Council of Teachers of English,
Hillocks, George, Jr. The Testing Trap: How State Writing
Assessments Control Learning. Teachers College Press,
Nofal, Khalil Hassan. “Syntactic Aspects of Poetry: A
Pragmatic Perspective.” English Language and Literature
Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 2011, pp. 37–54.
Van Manen, Martin. “By the Light of the Anecdote.”
Phenomenology + Pedagogy, vol. 7, no. 2, 1989, pp.
Illinois English Bulletin 19
Dr. Audrey Friedman is an associate professor at the Boston College
Lynch School of Education. Dr. Friedman has dedicated her research
to developing and nurturing reective judgment in adolescents
and adults in addition to alternative assessment in reading, writ-
ing, mathematics, and science in grades K–12. Her expertise spans
educational leadership and policy; language learning and literacy;
STEM teaching and learning; and teacher education.
Chris Bacon is a PhD candidate at Boston College. A former high
school English/ESL teacher, Bacon’s research explores bilingualism,
teacher education policy, and critical literacies. He teaches courses
on bilingualism and dialect variation in the Boston area and can
be reached at,, or
on Twitter @ChrisKBacon.
Joelle Pedersen is a high school English teacher and PhD candidate
at Boston College, where she teaches Secondary English Methods,
Literacy and Assessment, and Reading in the Content Areas. Her
research focuses on writing policy and the development of pre
service and in-service teachers as responsive and reective writing
instructors. She can be reached through email at joelle.pedersen@ and on Twitter at @JoellePedersen.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
The language of poetry is different from the language of other literary genres. That is to say, the grammar of poetry is different. This refers to the fact that the rules of grammars will have to be modified so as to permit certain "liberties" or "licenses" on the one hand, and to account for the novel kinds of restrictions that are imposed on linguistic units in poetry both within and beyond the sentence, on the other. Such grammar would reveal, by a comparison with the grammar of the ordinary language, many differences between poetic language, the ordinary language and any literary genre. Therefore, literature particularly poetry cannot be examined apart from language. Accordingly, poetry cannot be grasped without a thorough knowledge of grammar.
Anecdote as a Methodological Device In 1983, when the Dutch author Lize Stilma was invited to pub lish some of her wonderfully evocative narratives in Phenorne nology + Pedagogy, she was pleased that the journal would translate and publish her stories. However, she did not like the suggestion that her stories would be gathered in a section under the title "Anecdotes." Although she did not say as much, the word anecdote seemed perhaps too plain, too everyday, too ver nacular, too low-bred, too mundane. Anecdote is not a common ly accepted form of literary expression. Among authors, the notion of anecdote generally receives low status. In the be havioral social sciences, too, the employment of anecdote is avoided or frowned on. For behavioral scientists, the presence of anecdotes in research reports may indicate possible flaws in the evidential basis of scientific reasoning. But this poor status of anecdote may be undeserving. It is worth noting that in everyday life the anecdote is probably the most common device by which people talk about their experiences. When teachers speak of their daily practice, they tend to do so at the hand of anecdotes. I am tempted to suggest that among teachers, and also among parents, anecdote is the natural way by which particular concerns of educating and living with child ren are brought to awareness. Better yet, anecdotal narrative allows the person to reflect in a concrete way on experience and thus appropriate that experience. To anecdote is to reflect, to think. Anecdotes form part of the grammar of everyday theoriz ing. In a reflective grasping, anecdotes recreate experience but in a transcended (focused, condensed, intensified, oriented, and narrative) form. Thus the act of anecdoting as concrete reflect ing prepares the space for hermeneutic phenomenological re flection and understanding.
Can prospective teachers learn to be both educators and activists, to regard themselves as agents for change, and to regard reform as an integral part of the social, intellectual, ethical,and political activity of teaching? In this article, Marilyn Cochran-Smith argues that a powerful way for student teachers to learn to reform teaching, or what she refers to as teaching against the grain, is to work in the company of experienced teachers who are themselves struggling to be reformers in their own classrooms, schools, and communities. Cochran-Smith analyzes two approaches to preparing preservice teachers to teach against the grain, proposing that differences between them can be understood as the result of different underlying assumptions about knowledge, power, and language in teaching. By analyzing conversations among student teachers and experienced teachers in four urban schools, the author explores the nature of reformers' intellectual perspectives on teaching and demonstrates that regular school-site discussions are an indispensable resource in the education of reformers.
This book shows how identity texts have been used as a central focus for effective and inspirational pedagogy in multilingual school contexts that is engaging students around the world. The term identity texts was first used by the Canada-wide Multiliteracies Project to describe a variety of creative work by students, including collaborative inquiry, literary narratives, dramatic and multimodal performances, led by classroom teachers. Jim Cummins and Margaret Early describe their nature, the ways in which they relate to broader orientations to pedagogy and consider two pedagogical frameworks within which they have been integrated. This is followed by brief case studies of identity text construction by educators and students in schools in parts of North America, in Burkina Faso and Rwanda in Africa, and in Ireland. The identity texts produced held up a mirror to the students which reflected their identities back in a positive light. The closing chapters elaborate on their central role in bilingual instructional strategies and highlight future projects generated by brainstorming among the contributors to this volume. "Identity Texts" is essential reading for everyone concerned with developing appropriate pedagogy for schools and for all who work with multilingual children.
For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education
  • Christopher Emdin
Emdin, Christopher. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. Beacon Press, 2016.
What Is the Role of Poetry in Literacy Learning?
  • Mary Hahn
  • Janet Lee
  • Wong
Hahn, Mary Lee and Janet Wong. "What Is the Role of Poetry in Literacy Learning?" Literacy & NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English, index.php/2015/04/poetry-in-literacy-learning/.
The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning
  • George Hillocks
Hillocks, George, Jr. The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning. Teachers College Press, 2002.
Where I'm from: Inviting Students' Lives into the Classroom
  • Linda Christensen
Christensen, Linda. "Where I'm from: Inviting Students' Lives into the Classroom." Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 2: Teaching for Equity and Justice, edited by Bill Bigelow, Brenda Harvey, Stan Karp, and Larry Miller, Rethinking Schools, 2001, pp. 6-10.