Using poetry to teach special education students can be challenging. Many special education students have learning disabilities that leave gaps between their physical age and their reading level. But the right poems can still be an effective tool in the classroom. Educator William Dillion argues that mastery of all aspects of a poem are not necessary for special education students. Rather, poems can help students gain interest in a specific subject and develop a positive interest in reading in general.
Elizabeth Bishop’s "The Fish"
This poem's simple premise is about catching a fish. The subject is simple enough for a special education student to understand, but the language is vivid, descriptive and emotive enough to hold his or her interest. While some specific words in the poem might need to be explained beforehand, the teacher can ask students to listen for details about how the fish looks and what happens to it. Students can also discuss the motivation of the person in the poem, and why they let the fish go.
Alfred Noye’s "The Highwayman"
Most readers recognize this poem by its familiar refrain: “A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.” While teachers will need to introduce time, place and vocabulary, special education students can still enjoy the poem's sense of adventure. Written in a more traditional and Romantic mode than “The Fish," this poem possesses universal themes. Teachers can have students retell the story as it might occur in present times. Dillon calls this interactive method “cooperative reading,” in which teachers help students with difficult words or passages, but let them read whenever possible.
Kelly Graham’s "I Am Ethan"
Besides the traditional literary canon, teachers can use popular poems written by special education students themselves or by family members or friends of special education students. The language of these poems tends to be accessible, and the thematic content relevant to the trials and tribulations special education students face on a daily basis. One such poem is “I Am Ethan,” written by Kelly Graham for her autistic son. Students can easily identify with lines like “I get frustrated so easily and my hand won’t work that way / I don’t understand why those other kids won’t let me come over and play.”
Tyrone Wade Counts’ "Special Friend"
This is another great poem written for a special-needs audience. Tyrone Wade Counts explores the meaning of true friendship in plain and emotive terms. The poem defines a “forever friend” as someone who “makes you laugh until you can’t stop,” but also “convinces you that there is an unlocked door just waiting for you to open it.” With this poem, teachers can have students discuss their own feelings and thoughts about friendship or even use the poem as a springboard to a personalized writing assignment.
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