A few years ago while writing a poetry lesson for my language communication classes, I came across a quote by Charlotte Mason that said,
“Poetry takes first rank as a means of intellectual culture.”
Intellectual culture? Hmmm. I’d never heard that term. I was intrigued and began researching what exactly it meant. I found scores of conclusive studies on the cognitive benefits of poetry, but I was still curious about how exactly poetry study would influence the intellectual culture of my classes.
So, I decided to test it out on my students. I opened my class with, “Today we’re going to take a deeper look at poetry.”
Moans, groans and eyerolls ensued. Definitely not the intellectual culture I was hoping for.
But my students are curious, so they leaned in to what I had to say.
I explained that poetry is one of the oldest oral traditions and was originally created to be heard rather than read. I shared that people would gather in large social groups and listen to poets share their works in lively and dramatic fashion. Friday night at the poetry house was the place to be! Everyone who was anyone was there!
I told my students that if they had lived during that time—pre-cell phone, TikTok, Netflix—they would have gathered with friends for days after the poetry evening to continue discussing the poems’ beauty and meaning. They would have looked forward to the shared experience of enriching the society’s social and intellectual culture. Their social lives would have been filled with poetry!
“Does that sound fun?”
“Um. No. I hate poetry.”
“Why do you hate it?”
“Because it’s too hard to understand. I do terrible on poetry tests because I never interpret it the way my teacher wants.”
Not surprised by my students’ negative attitude toward poetry, I continued with the lesson. I had chosen a poem I felt my students would relate to. It was titled, “Did I Miss Anything?” FOMO is real, so I knew this would work. I knew the title alone would ignite interest—and it did. All eyes immediately fastened on the poem. It contained six loosely structured stanzas with no set meter or rhyme scheme—but it was brilliant and written in a way that allowed lots of room for discovery.
The poem juxtaposed a student’s view of class verses a teacher’s view, and the stanzas’ first word flip flopped between nothing and everything. The poem’s first and last lines ended with the phrase “you weren’t there.”
For the full 75 minutes of class, we discussed the poem’s unique structure and language usage, the vocabulary and sentence types, the lineage and imagery—but it was the beauty and meaning of the poem that most engaged my students. It was the ability to think deeply and differently, the ability to articulate thoughts that had never existed before.
It was pure genius.
One of my students commented, “Whoa. I can’t believe I just said all that. I had no idea I was good at poetry.” The class was a bit shocked and delighted with what they could accomplish when given the chance to immerse in poetry.
They experienced something new. And deeply satisfying. They experienced “the first rank of intellectual culture.”
And they loved it.
From then on, I knew poetry study had to be a priority for my students’ language development. Without it, they would not reach their language communication potential. Without it, their minds would remain underdeveloped.
As I continued observing the effect of poetry on my students’ thinking and writing, I realized poetry should be offered to children regularly, even daily. Charlotte Mason believed the child’s daily reading “should include a good deal of poetry.” She tells us,
“It is the part of parents to bring the minds of their children under the influence of the highest, purest poetic thought we have.”
And to be influenced by it, our children have to be immersed in it. They have to spend time with the poem, studying its structure and the language elements used to create it.
Charlotte Mason says,
“Our way to an instructed conscience is to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Charlotte Mason’s methodology of language arts instruction because I’ve seen it produce superior results in my students’ language learning and growth.
When we offer students a complete work of poetry or prose, they are able to see how the separate elements of language arts are integrated into the work. They realize grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, and figurative language aren’t meant to exist in isolation. Each is a part of the whole and has its unique place in a work of living language, living human communication.
We begin with the passage and mark it to discover how the author structured it. We take a closer look and continue marking to observe the syntax and grammar concepts used. We explore deeper to find the literary devices and vocabulary chosen. We begin to digest the purpose and meaning of the work as the author teaches us how to think about language and how to write—how to take the individual elements of language and combine and order them in a way that makes our thoughts clear and known on paper.
INSTRUCTING THE CONSCIENCE
When we place our children under the influence of the highest thought through well curated literature and poetry, and use these quality works to instruct their conscience, we’ll see our children reach their highest language potential in thinking, writing, and speaking.
It’s from this understanding and from my experience that God inspired me to write Living Verse Language Arts in Poetry. I wanted to offer homeschool families a curriculum that employs the superior and effective method of an immersive, whole book, living language arts experience. I wanted to offer them a way to cultivate this “first rank of intellectual culture” while learning language arts.
I’ve curated a variety of the best of children’s poetry and pulled out the language arts elements embedded in the poems. I’ve created language lessons that prompt the children to immerse themselves in the poem—reading, marking, learning, and digesting all it has to teach.
The language elements are taught and then the children apply them to their thinking and writing, helping them understand that language arts is not just something to know, but something to use.
Language is an art.
And like any other art, it provides our children the freedom to choose from an endless possibility of ways to create—to combine words in a way that clearly and uniquely communicates their thoughts and heart.
Charlotte Mason tells us,
“They must grow up upon the best … and we shall train a race of readers who will demand literature—that is, the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life.”
As our children inwardly digest the beautiful and best of what’s offered in poetry and prose, they too will master the art of expression and offer their own inspiring ideas and pictures of life.