Why I teach poetry and mindfulness to my students

During a week-long meditation retreat I participated in a few years ago in the Santa Cruz Mountains the leader recited a poem at the beginning of each meditation session and then repeated it at the end. In the stillness of the forest, the poems dropped deeply in our psyches and bathed us with messages of self-acceptance, confidence, and resilience. As an English teacher introducing mindfulness to my students, I immediately felt the desire to share such a pure experience of poetry with my students, and use it as a jumping off place for their own creative writing.

Mindfulness, cultivating present moment awareness, is gaining traction in schools across the country. By promoting self-awareness and empathy, it helps improve students’ focus and impulse control, reduces their stress levels, and minimizes bullying and behavioral issues. Adding poetry to the mix encourages and reinforces students’ mindfulness, as well as sparks their imagination. Indeed, poetry demands this presence of mind. The American poet Muriel Rukeyser commented that a poem should “invite you to bring your whole life to that moment…”

 Integrating poetry into mindfulness practice also fosters students’ academic development. One of the Common Core Literacy Standards requires students to be able to describe characters’ traits, motivations, or feelings. By reading evocative poems and using them as models for their own creative writing, students will increase their ability to understand the nuances of not only the poets’ emotional lives, but also their own. This skill prepares them to successfully communicate and collaborate with peers on projects, which is included in the Writing Standards. Persevering in comprehending complex texts, such as rich poetry, is a rewarding endeavor, building stamina. Adding the creative challenge of writing their own poems allows students to understand the poems on a deeper level as well as experience the joy of self-expression.

Touching into their hearts through mindfulness practice and then writing and sharing from their own core allows kids to feel seen and honored—that their emotional lives are valid and welcome at school. As a result they become more self-confident and motivated to engage in cognitive and interpersonal tasks. They also learn to respect differing opinions as they begin to feel more at home with themselves and the school environment.