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Poetry Can Free Student Voices: An Interview with John S. O'Connor

English teacher John S. O'Connor believes poetry can reach students. He particularly appreciates the way poetry—and poetry exercises like those in his book Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroomcan connect with those who are freestyle rapping on a corner or who can come up with rhymes on the spot though they may appear stiff and scared in class.

"Someone might tell you on the side that this person has a great sense of humor, but you'd never have an opportunity to witness it if you're only writing analysis after analysis of Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter. You're not hearing this other side of students that you might if you gave them the outlet of poetry and let them use their own words. Poetry enables them to use words in ways that they just aren't allowed."

Students Provide the Subject Matter

In addition to giving them license to find their voices, O'Connor encourages students to mine their experiences and memories for poetry. In fact, students' lives become the subject matter.

"I think many teachers, myself included, have lived with the fiction that kids are going home and they're thinking deeply about my class and when they're in my classroom they're only thinking about their love of language. But if I'm really honest with myself, I know that kids are coming in with baggage from a fight they've had the night before, a bad cafeteria meal, a failed math test--that their emotional lives are so different from what we might imagine them to be."

He makes assignments as "real world" as possible and finds outlets for students' work, such as publishing books and staging public readings, to make the effort meaningful. In Wordplaygrounds, O'Connor includes several poems by established writers such as Nikki Giovanni, Ted Kooser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Billy Collins, Pablo Neruda, and William Stafford that can be used as models for student writing. He also includes many examples of student works that have been inspired by published poems.

"Students wonder all the time--how is this relevant to my life? Kids often make the distinction between school life and the real world--sometimes they mean college, but often they mean their home lives. That's a real troubling distinction to me because if school life is not real world then it must be imaginary, in a place of make believe, where we're all filling roles and not being ourselves."

Real-World Connections

After being challenged by a student to write with the class, O'Connor now does that. He has produced a book of haiku illustrated by students (Room Full of Chairs), and has performed a CD of his poems to student-provided music accompaniment (Evenings and Other Beginnings). Both of these are available via online bookstores, illustrating for students a meaningful end product.

In Wordplaygrounds, O'Connor also describes ways he and his students have taken poetry beyond the classroom walls--via a "Haiku Project" that brought together students from different grades and subjects--physical education, English, art, music, French, Spanish, and German--and instituting poetry readings and a year-capping poetry finale.

O'Connor, who teaches at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, says poetry exercises have uses beyond poetry units—they can be used in other courses as good entry points to other types of writing, such as personal narratives, descriptive pieces, and autobiography.

The key, he says, is to give students practice at noticing and using language in creative fashion. He's seen students transfer their newfound language skills to reading and writing for other classes. "Kids will understand really playful passages in a novel that I'm confident they would not have come upon if they weren't in my poetry class."

Writing and sharing poetry also expands the audience beyond the teacher to include the class and others through publishing books or holding readings. O'Connor says it democratizes the "grading" process in that students really start to listen to their audience--they want to say things clearly and will revise in order to create a specific impression.

"I do think poetry writing affects kids in a different way. There's something more personal, playful about it. They invest more of themselves in their writing. . . . When kids are writing about memories they've had, photographs that are important to them, when kids are even being playful with sounds and making others laugh or be charmed or moved by something they've written, they feel there's something really wonderful about it."

Ordering Information

Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom; stock # 58196; $22.95, NCTE members; $30.95, non-NCTE members. You can order this and other titles through the NCTE Online Store, by calling (toll free) 877-369-6283, or by emailing

This article appeared in The Council Chronicle (March, 2005).

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A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts