How to Teach 4th Grade: The Poetry Unit

Roque Dalton


Like You

By Roque Dalton (Translated by Jack Hirschman)

Like you I love love, life, the sweet smell of things, the sky- blue landscape of January days.

And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears. I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread, the poetry of everyone.


     The second day of Student Led Conference is over and I got to tinker with my school’s fourth grade poetry unit of study. I was able to collaborate with the fifth grade teachers, our literacy coach, my teammates, poets and folks of the twitterverse to hopefully improve learning at my school.

The students and teachers will explore that poetry deals with rhythm, word choice and emotion. We hope to have the teachers and students write together. We want to explore how poetry is a profoundly different writing genre.

The students will ask the same four questions when they read a poem:

1.     “What makes this a poem?”

2.     “What is this poem about?”

3.     “What do you notice about this poem?”

4.     “What tools do you notice the poet uses?”


The beautiful Georgia Heard led me to these questions and I love them for their simplicity.

During the IMMERSION week, the teachers and students can explore the following possible teaching points:

“What are the qualities of a mentor poem?”, “What does imagery look like in poetry?” “What poems do you love?” “What poems can you write that are influenced by your reading?” “What could a Favorite Poem Logbook look like?” “How do poets gather ideas?” ” “What is rhythm look and sound like in poetry?” “How is emotion shown when writing poetry?” “Why does poetry sound better read aloud?” “Poets experiment with list poems.” “Poets discover poetry through prose.” Poets are aware of their emotions.” “Teachers and Students read poetry aloud.” “Children read poetry from books.” “Poets use choral speaking and two voices when reading poetry aloud.” “Poetry spans across the curriculum.” “Poets discuss and analyze poetry.”

During the INQUIRY/ANALYSIS WEEK, students and teachers will explore the following possible teaching points:

“We envision poetry from our writers notebooks.” “Poets envision poetry from their narratives.” Poets aspire to choose a topic.” ” Poets discuss the craft of writing poetry.” “Poets attempt to use metaphors” Poets inspire other poets.” Poets search for more challenging and/or varied mentor poetry.” “Poets think of similes.” “Poets discuss and analyze poetry.” Poets work with sound and repetition.” Poets work with details” Poets review their collections of poems.”  “Poets help each other write and understand.” “Poets revisit and re-analyze poetry” “Poets FIND poems.” Poets revise poetry they have written too quickly.” “Teachers write poetry with children.” Poets learn poetry through choral speaking.” “Poets consider the world of visual arts when writing poetry.

The possible teaching points during the MOVING BEYOND THE COMFORT ZONE WEEK:

“Students read poetry many times over from many different perspectives.” Poets give poetry as gifts” Poets discover when to add in line breaks.” Poets reread and notice opportunities for repetition.” Poets attempt alliteration” “Writers draft poetry on left side of a piece of paper and revise on the right.” Poets reread drafts to rate and revise for voice.” Poets attempt onomatopoeia.” Poets return to mentor poems to study craft more closely.” Poets go from the ordinary to the poetic.” Students write poems to guess the meaning of poems.” Children use personification naturally, poets do too.” Poets heart map to find their inner vision.”

I will share the last EDITING, PUBLISHING, PRESENTATION WEEK ideas and teaching points in a future blog posting.




Dalton, R. (October, 2008 03). Kasama project -like you (como tu). Retrieved from

Graves, D. (1992). Explore poetry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Publishers.Heard, G. (1999). Awakening the heart. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Holbrook, S. (2006). Outspoken: how to improve writing and speaking skills through poetry performance. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Publishers.

Ray, K. W. (2007). Study driven, a framework for planning units of study in the writing workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books.




Spring Breakdown

First day of Student Led Conferences are over and I am happy to report that the parents and children were generally very happy with the results. Alas, I have to admit that Spring is upon us and I am have to adjust my teaching practice to accommodate to my current situation. The students are all lovely children, however I need from time to time pause for off task behavior. I still will value their personalities. I just need to keep my sanity and offer a more brain friendly environment that does not interfere with my teaching philosophy.

The following is a body of thought on how I hope to make the necessary classroom management improvements. I hope they prove helpful:

  • Discussion- It is time for me to have a talk with the students about “March Madness” and how this time of the year brings out the hyperactivity in children. I will talk with them about it each morning for two weeks.
  • Smile (even more) I find that this helps.
  • “Let go of the reins.” The kids are more developed and independent than they were in August. I will give them their deserved space and choice.
  • Meditate at home. I tried to schedule this at school but I am simply too busy. Teachers will understand what I am talking about.
  •  Brain Rules: I will check my copy of Brain Rules by John Medina for tips on coping with stress.
  • Library visits:I will encourage more library visits and errands. ( This tip is from Dr. Michael Thompson) Watch this documentary video!
  • Ukulele/Chess Lessons– I may offer lunchtime uke and chess lessons in return for more engagement and class time focus.
  • Banana dance: Whenever the students are sitting too long, we do the “Banana Dance” Basically, we get up and dance as silly and stupidly as humanly possible. If the kids only knew I stole this idea from Chris Elliot.
  • Brain Breaks: These look encouraging.
  • Be happy. Keep your problems at home.
  • Inspirational Quotes: Last year, we had a kid bring in an  inspirational quote to share then post on the door. Amazing how this renews a sense of community.
  • Future Focused: I plan to constantly talk about their future.
  • Make note of our remaining days together. This will help them stay on task to get the most of their time left together.
  • Plan shorter intervals of teaching, longer intervals of student thinking.
  • Dojo: I usually abhor behavior reward systems but Dojo looks like it might work.
  • Watch Ken Robinson’s video at home: This animation is good as it gets in reminding me of the overwhelming amount of distractions in this generation of kids. I gain new insight each time.
  • Review the class agreements from the beginning of the year and let the kids make new ones.


Teachers; What do you do to combat boredom in the classroom?

Please share your thoughts. I am always looking for new ideas.

Related articles

Book Clubs in the International School Classroom

The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of the cooler trends in elementary education is the push to book clubs. My readers’ workshop class has children that love the printed word. In 4th grade, my primary responsibility is to not get in the way and to share my mutual love of books. I do not take this lightly.

I was fortunate to attend a literacy conference at my school where Maggie Moon spoke of her thoughts on book clubs. Maggie is a former NYC schoolteacher and educational consultant from The Reading and Writing Teachers Project, Teachers’ College. She now works as an educational consultant with international schools. She is an invaluable resource. My fellow teachers  and I love her work.

Maggie promotes the liberal use of book clubs in the classroom for they help enhance reading, collaboration, and conversation skills. “When students talk, they provide a clear window to their comprehension,” says Maggie,” as well as strengthen students’ passion for reading good literature.”

Maggie spoke of her goals for elementary-age book clubs. She mentioned that teachers allow students to make title choices. The groups self-manage their groups. The talk should grow new thinking. The groups will increase reading volume and stamina.

Maggie spoke of the role of teachers during a book club conversation. She coached us to lean in and prompt the students to ask specific questions to keep the conversations flowing. She instructed us to model and to highlight the specific traits of a successful book club. She spoke of the teacher as the person responsible for students to become proficient members of book clubs. She spoke of the need to reflect on the conversations so that you can fine-tune your future teaching points.

In my classroom, I have watched my students conduct advanced book talks. They read, read, read, annotate, and then talk. The groups are messy at first but with time they settle into routines that adults would be happy to emulate. My first years at my current school left me agape at what my students could do as readers, thinkers and conversationalists. Now, I take their achievements in stride and push them constantly to think even more deeply. I owe a great deal of thanks to the  many folks such as Maggie Moon for pushing me to strive even higher as a literacy teacher.

They have renewed my passion for teaching.


Moon, M. (2013, March 03). Maggie Moon LinkedIn. Retrieved from

Related Links to check out:

An Interview with a Master Teacher of Balanced Literacy

One of the best perks of my job is that I am able to collaborate with master teachers from around the globe. My school  houses some of the most impressive cast of teachers around and it is an honor each day to learn from them. With that in mind, in the upcoming weeks I am looking to interview a few teachers to both learn and share their craft. imgres

First off is Colin Weaver. Colin is a master teacher and avid hockey player. He was highly recommended from administration. While teaching literacy, Colin notes each discussion with his students. From his extensive note taking, Colin prepares highly effective lessons geared to getting the most from his readers and writers. Students, parents and teachers all rave about Colin’s work.

Elementary literacy teachers…Listen, Learn, Enjoy and Share this professional development opportunity.

It will be nineteen minutes of time well spent.


“What are the most important stories in my life?” Teaching Fourth Graders to Write Personal Narratives that Matter

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Above all, narrative writers must “show, not tell.”  – Donald Graves

Mid Autumn Festival is over in Hong Kong and it is time to teach the craft of narrative writing to my fourth grade students. This is a great time of year for I see steady growth in the writers’ stamina, independence and ability. The students learn to bounce ideas off each other. The writers learn to take risks with their stories. They learn that their writing matters and that an audience reads their pieces.

The 4th grade student writer is becoming more independent with each day’s writing session. Students will investigate mentor texts and published authors to make their own writing more meaningful. Writers will think about moments where they have felt strong emotions and list them. The writers will think of “turning points” in their own lives and list them. The fourth graders will think about and draw upon all that they have learned about writing in previous sessions.

This unit, I aim to improve my craft by habitually asking the students to write a personal SMART writing goal for each session. I will also have the students write their overall message of their current narrative piece. Writers will post both goal and message each day on a post it note adhered to their writing space. These will become quick and simple data points as I walk around and confer with the student writers.

The students will become aware of a shared jargon from our discussions. I plan to teach that internal thoughts run parallel with external actions. I will teach that writers primarily “show and not tell.”(Graves, 1994)  I will teach students that to ask themselves “What is this piece really about?”

One area of growth that I plan to develop will be conventions and mechanics. I will distribute an editor’s checklist for each student writer and model correct use of the checklist. I will have students discuss proper punctuation and paragraphing. I intend on playing a conventions game every 8 days or so. Overall, I hope to teach the students that grammar is a piece of the writing puzzle that not to overlook, yet keep in perspective.

I will use some of the anchor charts that I found on Pinterest:

Punctuation Anchor Chart Idea
Another Punctuation Chart Idea
Even MORE Anchor Charts

Also, I cannot express the need for talk in the writing classroom. I am a believer that the students need to talk about their own growth and new understandings as they write. This is a highly structured routine of every writing session. The students engage in talk and encourage each other.  For more information on talk, check out this site: Why Talk is Important.

Another teaching point that I hope to get across is that writers practice leads. This means that they write, write and rewrite lead sentences and try them out by reading out loud to their writing partner. I have taught the students to actively listen and to politely steer each other to the best sentences.  This develops community and an understanding that risks are appreciated and that choices matter.

Finally, I will continue our habit of celebrating the ending of the unit and sharing our pieces with poetry and parents.

“My mission today is to create a sense of occasion around the upcoming author celebration, and to be sure that editing takes on a special importance because it is a way of preparing one’s work to go out in the world.” (Calkins & Martinelli, 2006)

The students will assemble in small groups of six or seven and each will have the floor. All will share two personal narratives and will share their overall reflections from the unit. All will create a T-Chart observations and thoughts from their writers’ notebook.  They will then be expected to write their reflections to me for evaluation.

Fourth grade teachers, “How do you inspire writers in your classroom?”




Calkins, L. M., & Martinelli, M. (2006). Units of study for teaching writing, grades 3-5.

Graves, D. (1994). A fresh look at writing. Canada: Irwin Publishing.









So, You are About to Start Your Career in Teaching?

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So you are about to start a career in teaching?

First of all, let me offer an appreciation for what you are about to do. You are now of an exclusive breed of humanity.The decision to teach is still the most meaningful of my professional life. Teaching is a craft. I am still discovering its joys, perhaps more now than ever.

Alas, your first year will be a shock to your system. Below is a hybrid collection of thoughts from the Twitterverse and me for first-year teachers.

I am indebted to Serena Fan, Tracey Carvell, Becky Blair, Benjamin Hartman, Britt Pumphrey, and for their advice. Please follow them on Twitter. You will be glad you did.

1.Observe others. Ask lots of questions. Don’t be afraid to try.

2.Understand that teaching is mentally exhausting. When I got home from my first day of student teaching, I fell asleep immediately and did not wake up until the next morning. I was still in my work clothes. I worked as a railroad construction worker during the previous summer. Teaching is FAR more demanding. It gets easier as you learn the ropes.

3.Focus on one area you want to be really good at. You can’t do everything the first year.

4.As a public school teacher, there are an infinite number of obstacles keeping you from doing your job effectively. Ignore them all.

5. Save everything that works well. Next year will be here before you know it.

6.Keep a journal of each day. Force yourself to write ten minutes a day. Research the work of Donald Graves. He will make your life easier.

7.You will need lots of help. Seek assistance from anyone that appears competent. Everyone in a school can offer you advice. Listen, filter, and trust your instincts.

8.Be gentle with the custodians. They will save your hide somewhere along the line.

9.Remember you teach children, not test taking machines. Get to know each as an individual & honor each voice.

10.Plan, plan, and plan. Structure your lessons similarly each day.

11.Take responsibility for the climate of your class, focus on one area at a time to improve, seek wisdom from the best teachers.

12. Read the curriculum guides. Some pretty smart folks developed these, generally speaking. Let the guides be your mentors.

13.Be a learner & know you have more to do than you have time, so you’ll have to choose. Also attend happy hours.

14. Save your voice. I lost mine by for a week in October. Never shout. Never speak conventionally when a whisper will do.

15.Ask for help/find a mentor/partner/someone you trust.

16.Keep your political views to yourself. I told my students about my anti-war stance during the first Gulf War and got into a bit of hot water. (Does anyone use the term” hot water” anymore?)

17.Embrace technology as a tool, but choose wisely. Do not allow technology to interfere with the learning process.

18. Enjoy every moment. You will create memories for a lifetime.


Feel free to contact me if you need any advice. I have seen it all in the elementary education classroom. 

Take care, do well and best of luck to you.


Barry Mernin

How to Teach Literacy to Fourth Grade Students

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Fourth grade is now in session. The students know each other and each kid understands the rules. They are happy and they want to learn. Now, it is time to teach.  It is crucial that the effective fourth grade teacher offer an environment where all students can read and write. This takes investigation, knowledge of pedagogy, and confidence in delivering the curriculum. The master teacher is already developing short-range plans for each student entrusted in her care.

Teaching Reading: Humans are earth’s only cultural species. Our ability to read is perhaps our greatest achievement. The alphabet is an incredible invention that has shaped our lives. “Every teacher bears the burden of experimenting carefully and rigorously to identify the appropriate stimulation strategies that will provide students’ brains with an optimal daily enrichment.”(Dehaene, 2009)

As adults we forget how difficult it is to read. It is imperative to remember and provide connections with each child to their struggles. It is imperative to compliment, compliment and compliment each student’s accomplished goal. This means a teacher must provide daily, time-bound instruction, appropriate text, and time to read.

I am also of the belief that the master teacher should have at least some understanding of how the brain functions while reading.

Teaching Writing: Teach the kids to learn how to write from writers. This has been a game changer in my classroom. Each day, teach the craft of writing. Empathize with your student writers by writing each day yourself. Share your stories, struggles, pitfalls and achievements. The kids will appreciate you and offer you valuable insight.

The act of teaching children to appreciate and acknowledge superior writing is a gift. Give students the time to write each day. Allow them time to share their writing with writing partners. Celebrate with passion and allow for reflection after each unit. Provide ample opportunities for students to learn from mentor texts.

Read Aloud: Each day, after lunch recess, my students grab their water bottles, notebooks, and pencils and sit on the rug, waiting for me to begin my read aloud. My books are reserved for the year but I change titles depending on my mood.  I perhaps model reading with an overbearing sense of awe and drama. I figure that if books do not excite me, then I should not be teaching young ones. “Reading aloud is the single most important classroom structure there is.” (Ray, 1999)

This time is sacred to students and to me. I do not allow the students to lie down and rest during read aloud. I specifically teach them to be wide-awake and to notate during read aloud.

This year, my I have scheduled “accountable talk” time. This time is set aside for the students to talk about their connections, observations, predictions and wonderings about the current read aloud book. The circle discussion is student centered and a pleasure to conduct.

Word Study: Words study in fourth grade is essentially recognizing and developing control of spelling conventions. However, it is so much more in a master teacher’s classroom. When students understand that words are inventions and each word grew from different cultures and circumstances, they begin to appreciate the magic of language. Instruct students to analyze and sort words each week and reflect on their growth. Allow time for students to investigate idioms. This is always time well spent.

This is enough for today. Enjoy your students and have an amazing year of literacy.

Dehaene, S. (2012). Reading in the brain, the new science of how we read. Penguin Paperbacks.

Ray, K. W. (1999). Wondrous words, writers and writing in the elementary classroom. Natl Council of Teachers.