Sunday, April 18, 2010

Poetry: The Power of Words

With my first box of 64 crayons I was absolutely thrilled. I remember pouring over the varied shades of green, deliberating over my choice with great intent as if it really (really!) mattered. As with colors, we learn to appreciate words when they prove themselves uniquely useful--the only word in the world that will do.

Help children get a feel for this. Teach them to appreciate shades of meaning and nuance. Offer up a splendid spectrum of synonyms and encourage them to be as particular as poets. 

April is National Poetry Month. The Academy of American Poets offers standingout lessons and resources for teachers and librarians, including a fine collection of illustrated poems. Also, visit National Public Radio and browse their favorite poetry picks. Most are not for children, but it was there I first learned of the Kids Can Press who publish a series called Visions in Poetry, modern updates of old classics like Casey at the Bat. Check out their rendition of Jabberwocky. To see each illustrated page, click on "View a Lookybook" in the sidebar. 

Use poetry to foster an interest in words and an awareness of their power. For research-driven information on how to do this, I again point to The Word Conscious Classroom (Scott, Skobel, & Wells, 2008).

As we teach adolescents to use words like a precision tool, we must also teach them the potential damage that can be wrought with words. We model a positive, uplifting use of words.
Noted linguists Denning, Kessler, and Leben (2007) write of this issue in their text English Vocabulary Elements:
Ultimately, an enhanced and enlarged vocabulary, like any part of the complex phenomenon called language, is a multipurpose tool. Like a hammer, it can be used either to build or to injure. The individual is responsible for the use to which it is put (p. 182)

I recently read a collection of poems written by inmates at the Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, a penitentiary of the highest security. According to the book's forward the poems were written to facilitate the flow of healing. That is perhaps the highest purpose of poetry--to bring about growth, restoration, and inspiration.


Denning, K., Kessler, B., & Leben, W. (2007). English Vocabulary Elements, Second Edition. Oxford University Press.


  1. Anonymous4/21/2010

    This post gives us food for thought. I find that a 'good' politician can use his words to present himself as an expert and shape the thoughts and perceptions of his constituents. They regard his advice with trust and do not bother to look into the facts. Crafty politicians and lobbyists take full advantage of out laziness and this foolishness or naïveté has shaped our future. Collateral debt obligations and credit default swaps are two good examples here, most people have no clue what they mean yet they protest the presidents banking bill that is designed to regulate them. They don’t realize that similar practices brought about The Great Depression. The bankers and hedge fund managers who created these instruments were thought to be genius’s because the average man couldn’t understand their logic. These words create a lexical bar that stymied many sophisticated bankers and investors. We trusted their guidance and laid our riches at their feet. They knowingly gambled our savings at their casino, investing in packages of bad investments and then taking out insurance that it would fail. It failed, we lost trillions, and the bankers collected their enormous fees and bonuses. AIG couldn’t pay the insurance because it wasn’t backed with securities. We bailed out AIG and the bank. We lost again. We will be paying their debts for generations. Whole countries that invested with them are bankrupt. And we are now defending them, by protesting a bill designed to regulate bankers, hedge fund managers, collateral debt obligations and credit default swaps. The wonder of words is well illustrated here. We need to build curious minds or we will all follow the Pied piper right into the sea. Good work on your blog!

  2. Right on, Anonymous. Not sure I can add much to your comment--it's very thorough. Shady characters can and do use mumbo jumbo to control, confuse, and exclude. The lexical bar, as you say, is real, and we should be wary of any big wig who cannot paraphrase their message into plain English, with words like "scam"


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