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Teaching Compassion Through Poetry

No matter what topic you’re discussing in the classroom, a poem is a great way to get kids to flex their creative muscles, and explore their own feelings and the experiences of others. It’s also the perfect medium to use when discussing social justice issues.

From a single session on a topic that ends with the writing of a poem to an entire after-school club devoted to humane poetry, HEART students have used this form to explore important issues for years.

Here are a few ways that we’ve combined poetry and humane education in the classroom.

The Persona Poem

The beauty of a persona poem is that a student can inhabit the life and experience of anyone or anything. Whether they write from the perspective of a forest that is facing the imminent threat of deforestation, a child who is forced to work in the fields all day to support their family, or a dog who has been left at the shelter, the student is able to imagine what it’s like to face the issues specific to that character.

In one of our NY schools our educator Ali Berman did this lesson with 5th graders on the topic of water scarcity. After all, over 800 million people don’t have access to clean water and millions of children have to travel miles to get water each day instead of going to school.

Once you’ve covered the facts on your chosen topic, a great way to get kids thinking creatively is to ask them, “What are some words to describe how (insert character of choice) would feel in this situation?”

The students who learned about water issues put together this list: afraid, worried, embarrassed, frustrated, terrified, miserable, thirsty, unfair, scared, horrible, mad.

Ali then asked the students to pick two or three words from the list and write a poem from the perspective of a child who had to walk a long distance each day to get water.

One of the students wrote this poem:

Are you worried when you don’t
have anything to drink! When water
is gone don’t you feel mad? My family
doesn’t have money to let me go
to school. So I have to stay home
and go to the river so
we can get water to drink.

– By Evelyn

Another student chose to write her poem in third person:

She has no water.
She has no taps.
She walks one mile everyday.
People laugh.
She feels embarrassed,
frustrated, unfair, afraid,
terrified and miserable.
Worried that her and her family
won’t survive.
“Mad and sad,” she says.
But with her family to light the path
she keeps going and keeps her head held high.

– By Lydia

Writing About Home

Our educator Kim Korona in her 9th and 10th grade after-school club devoted to humane poetry had the opportunity to work with students on a variety of issues. For one class, they compared two poems. The first, “The New Colossus,” is a sonnet by Emma Lazarus that is on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to the USA. Kim contrasts that invitation with ‘”Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes, a poem that shows how, as a person of color, America has not lived up to its promise to be fair to Hughes.

Many of the students in her club were first or second generation Americans. They discussed the Lazarus and Hughes poems and then were asked to write about a country they consider to be home, whether that’s the USA or some place else. Students wrote about the ways in which places they consider home inspire and disappoint them as well as personal pleas to make their homes safer and more caring places to live.

This powerful poem came from one of the students in the class.

Let It Be Peace

Oh Congo until when your violence gonna take and let’s stop stupid
things and look forward.
You don’t know what the future brings us so let’s stop acting like little
kids and be more mature.
And let peace be upon you and love each other.
We all lost families and friends so let’s stop violence; beseech you for
the love of your race.
Let’s grow our mind and think very wisely.
Believe in you that you will stop violence and jealousy.
Why don’t you want your neighbor to progress in their lives?
Jealously brings priceless between you!
Stay safe and be in peace.

By: Mbizi

Having students read and write poetry while discussing humane issues is a great way to show them just how powerful the written word can be. So many of the great poets have used poetry to raise the public consciousness about important issues. Reading their works, and having students write their own pieces is a perfect way to get students thinking critically and creatively. Then, consider asking them to read their work aloud to the class.

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