Poetry: Adding Passion to the Science Curriculum

Peter Eastwell
Science Time Educational Consultancy

(This article is reproduced from The Science Education Review, Volume 1, Number 2, 2002)

Introduction

This article considers some potential benefits of providing poetic learning experiences within a science curriculum, and provides practical classroom techniques and resources to support the strategy. Allow me to begin by sharing two poems recently written by students.

“It’s Change . . .”

Mum I don’t want to go to school today,
‘cause I fear our world is in decay.

I feel my teachers are part of the plot,
I’m the only one who sees through the rot.

Scientists are cloning pigs and sheep,
Saying, it’s change – a quantum leap.

Biologists are making stem cells grow,
Saying, it’s change – the way to go.

Geologists are finding cracks in our earth,
Saying, it’s change – predicting it’s birth.

Archaeologists are digging up fossils and bones,
Saying, it’s change – time for clones.

Yes, scientists are causing me great concern,
Giving us kids too much to learn!!!

Emma Gorrie, Year 8
St. John’s College, Dubbo
New South Wales, Australia

I Want to be a Scientist

I want to be a scientist
I want to own a lab
I want to be a specialist
You might think I’m mad
I want to use a laser beam
I want to win awards
I want to measure gravity
And study different laws
I don’t want to be a circus clown
I don’t want to be a nurse
I don’t want to be an undertaker
And drive around in a hearse
I don’t want to be a fireman
And battle fires all day
I want to be a scientist
A scientist of today!

Adele O’Driscoll, Year 6
St. Peter’s School, Rockhampton
Queensland, Australia

Reasons for Using Poetry

Science poems can be meaningful, profound, and critical, or frolicsome, amusing, and diversionary, and may be further categorised as emphasing observation, imagination, or emotion (Watts, 2001). Reading or hearing quality poetry can enliven traditional science content and extend learning. A common response to good poetry is: “I never thought of it in that way.”

Poetry can also enhance students’ understanding of scientific developments and the role of scientists. Abisdris and Casuga (2001), for example, use the poetry of Robert Frost in a unit on atomic structure. They define symbolism, metaphor, and analogy for their students, point out how these are also important parts of science, and give examples of each from science, literature, and everyday life.

There are at least three further good reasons for making provision for at least some students to write science poetry. First, Gardner (1983) suggested that we have at least seven different intelligences, where intelligence means the ability to solve problems or create products of value within a cultural setting: linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal or “social,” and intrapersonal or intuitive. He has recently added a naturalistic intelligence, and is working on a spiritual intelligence. Future successful adults will need to be resourceful and flexible, and use many of these different ways of being intelligent, or smart. For example, one can combine science with drama and music to create, in an audience, an increased awareness of how scientific discoveries are affecting, or may affect, our lives.

Second, poetry can help us to be creative. When one writes poetry, the whole brain is needed; both the left side (e.g. language and logic) and the right side (e.g. visualisation and creativity). Many employers, for example, are looking for people who can be creative by using their whole brain. We want scientists to be creative problem solvers, and exceptional scientists are those who look at the same things everyone else looks at but see something different. Third, like music, the rhyme and rhythm of poetry can help us remember things.

Much traditional science education has been found to alienate students (Eastwell, 2002). The affective domain is important in education, because feelings and emotions shape attitudes, tastes, moods, and motivations for learning. Re-humanising school science may have a positive impact in the affective domain (Taber & Watts, 1996; Watts & Bentley, 1983), and the use of science poetry could be one vehicle for achieving this. For at least some students, poetry may foster a sense of wonder, enthusiasm, and interest in science.

Strategies and Resources

One needs to avoid selecting poems that are beyond the developmental level of the students, such that the meaning must be laboriously explicated for them. This may not only turn students off science, but also promote a resistance to reading and writing poetry. Randle (2001) has recently authored an excellent collection of poems, including six science poems, for primary students. At www.gwjudge.eurobell.co.uk one will find many original poems about geology, fossils, oceanography, mathematics, nature, and physics. Watts (2000) contains a collection of science poems submitted by students and teachers, together with descriptions and discussions of the use of poetry in science classrooms. This author (the Editor of SER) would be pleased to receive recommendations for sources of quality science poetry, as the subsequent publication of these sourses will create another useful teacher resource.

The teacher might read a poem to students, or students might read silently or to others in pairs and then to a larger group, or a choral format could be used. Choral reading can include line-at-a-time (individual or small group speak a line or two, and alternate with another individual or group), antiphonal (two groups, each formed on the basis of same sex or similar pitch of voice, alternate in speaking a piece), refrain (one student speaks most lines, with a group chiming in at the refrain), and unison (whole group speaks all lines together).

When it comes to encouraging students to write poetry, Cecil and Lauritzen (1994) suggest an eight-step plan: 1. Provide a literary scaffold, or framework. This might include imitating an existing poem, beginning each line with “I dream . . .” or “I wish . . . ,” or using each line to describe different feelings about a particular colour, perhaps using each of our five senses. 2. Read a poem that uses this scaffold. 3. Use the scaffold to write a group poem. 4. Celebrate the product. 5. Invite students to write their own poem, using this scaffold or one of their own choosing. 6. Revise, after peer review. 7. Edit, following a conference with the teacher. 8. Share the finished poem with various appreciative audiences, and perhaps even collate the class poems into a book.

Randle (2001) provides guidance and advice for primary students in writing couplets, parodies, limericks, narratives, acrostics, haiku, and shape “poems,” and includes a section on poetic language, although she does advise against novice writers attempting acrostics and haiku. At the high school and adult level, Randle (1998) gives step-wise guidance for writing poetry, together with advice for performing poetry, including entering competitions. Listening to poems that have been composed by other children their own age can inspire and reassure students as to their ability to read, write, and understand poetry, and such science poems will be a regular feature of SER.

Writing poems could form optional, or compulsory, parts of a science curriculum. For example, demonstrating understanding in poetic form could be an assignment option for particular tasks during the year. For another task, such as summarising laboratory rules, all students might be asked to compose a poem. Writing science poetry could also be a task for some students during an enrichment program.

Students may enter their compositions in The International School Science Poetry Competition (www.flexi.net.au/~willdown), which also has divisions for the New South Wales and Queensland Science Poetry Competitions (Australia), or another competition. Selected entries in the above-mentioned competitions are published in The Science Education Review, and the poems in this article are such entries.

Conclusion

Science is one of various ways of knowing, including the aesthetic mode of knowing. Using poetry in science education can be an aesthetic experience, stimulating students’ observation, imagination, and emotion. As such, this strategy may make just one small contribution to the efforts of science educators aiming to ensure that the study of school science proves to be a fulfilling experience for, ideally, all students.

References

Abisdris, G., & Casuga, A. (2001). Atomic poetry: Using poetry to teach Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus. The Science Teacher, 68(6), 58-62.
Eastwell. P. H. (2002). Scientific literacy. The Science Education Review, 1(1), 1-3. (www.flexi.net.au/~willdown/scedview.html)
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.
Randle, C. (1998). Help! A Handbook for Writers and Performers of Rhymed Verse. Preston, Queensland: Author. (Available directly from Carmel Randle, M/S 852, Preston, Queensland 4352 Australia)
Randle, C. (2001). I Need a Poem, Mum. Preston, Queensland: Author. (Available directly from Carmel Randle, M/S 852, Preston, Queensland 4352 Australia)
Taber, K. S., & Watts, D. M. (1996). The secret life of the chemical bond: Students’ anthropomorphic and animistic references to bonding. International Journal of Science Education, 18, 557-568.
Watts, D. M. (2000). Creative trespass: Fusing science and poetry in the classroom. Hatfield: Association for Science Education.
Watts, M. (2001). Science and poetry: Passion v. prescription in school science? International Journal of Science Education, 23, 197-208.
Watts, D. M., & Bentley, D. (1983). Humanising and feminising school science: Reviving anthropomorphism and animistic thought in constructivist science education. International Journal of Science Education, 16, 83-97.