Science? Poetry? Let’s have a contest

Science? Poetry? Let’s have a contest

Ladd, George T

Integrating language arts and science in the classroom is not a new practice. In the past, children have read and written about science. Today, added to these activities, we find individual journal writing, oral reading and cooperative writing projects.

However, one language arts activity that is not growing in popularity is the involvement of children with science poetry.

The reasons for this are at least twofold. First, many teachers are reluctant to get their students involved with poetry. Second, many teachers have a fear of science. Put the two reasons together, and it’s easy to see why, beyond an occasional teacher-read poem, this form of communication is not frequently practiced in the elementary classroom.

One way to lessen teacher anxiety and increase student involvement in science poetry is to hold a contest. The word “contest” often connotes the image of fierce competition, rewards for few, lowered esteem on the part of “losers” and overall a destructive educational experience.

However, if a contest is conducted in a way that encourages participation, decreases unhealthy competition and promotes the sharing of products, it can energize students to use poetry to express their thoughts about the natural world. Writing and illustrating poetry not only helps the child demonstrate how clearly a science concept is understood, but also helps to clarify its image in the child’s mind.

How large? An initial question related to a poetry contest should be its scope. It could involve a single class, several classes, a whole school, a system, several systems or even, as is the case with Massachusetts, all of the schools in the state.

Perhaps a few words about our contest are in order here. The annual Massachusetts Science Poetry Contest — which I conduct with the help of others — is open to all students, including those in special education, in grades 2 through 6. The students participate through their schools, with each school submitting a maximum of 25 entries

Each year since its inception, participation has grown by 25 to 30 percent. Over 2500 students participated and we received more than 1,000 entries from 108 schools for the 1992-93 contest, which was our fourth annual contest.

Forms and topics. The next question may very well be the form of the poems. Not all forms lend themselves to the area of science; however, such forms as diamante, haiku, cinquain, limerick, acrostics and, of course, free verse are often used in writing science poetry.

The topics of science poems may vary, but we know from experience that poems based on immediate activities and possessing meaning to the child have greater value to the writer. Writing about a hands-on activity, a field trip and so on generates personal images upon which child will base his or her poem.

Where should the contest poems be written? The absence of undue external pressures and assurances for originality are vital if children are to receive the maximum benefit of a writing experience. For this reason, poems should be written in the classroom, although some teachers may compromise and allow final editing to be done at home.

Illustrating each poem, however, can and should be done outside the classroom. For some students, sketching ideas is easier than writing them. Drawings can often give greater insight into connections and understandings, and can be easily carried out at home. In addition, students sharing their poems with family members certainly has many learning outcomes for all.

Contest categories. Providing a variety of categories into which children might enter their poems often makes for increased interest and individuality.

Students participating in our science poetry contest can submit poems in the following categories : Most Original Poem (a unique expression or view of a science subject); Most Humorous Poem (fun with a science topic); Most Expressive Poem (one which sets a mood or conveys an emotion about science); Best Cooperative Poem (a science poem with two or more authors); and Best Long Poem (a ballad or poem with five or more verses — open to grades 5 and 6 only).

Who judges the poems in a contest? The classroom teacher, other teachers, principals, the local literary club, students at a local college or a state poetry organization are all possible judges.

In our contest, the poems submitted by the children are sorted, under my supervision, by graduate and undergraduate students at Boston College into the five categories noted above. The 10 best poems in each category for each grade are then chosen.

Last year, first through fourth place winners were chosen for each category and grade by undergraduates taking my course, “Teaching Elementary Sc ience and Health.”

But no matter who does the judging, the critical attributes of an individual or group serving as judges should be an appreciation of children’s writing efforts, familiarity with children’s literature and sensitivity to the needs of children.

In order to encourage children to continue writing, all students should have an opportunity to read their poems to teachers and other students, and each student’s poem should be published in some way. Posting children’s writing on the bulletin board or in local store fronts, and making poetry books or collections are all fairly simple and should be incorporated into any poetry contest.

Reading poetry that children write provides critical insight into what is happening inside classrooms, and even more important, inside the minds and hearts of children as they experience science and express themselves about these happenings.

If handled properly, a science poetry contest can be a worthwhile experience for all.

For further information, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: George T. Ladd, Campton Hall, Room G012, School of Education/CASE, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167.

George T. Ladd is a Professor of Education at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA. For the past three years, he has conducted the Massachusetts Science Poetry Contest.

Copyright Early Years, Inc. Feb 1994

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