Writing to Learn: Using Poetry in Two Voices

By: Lesley Roessing


In his 1985 book Joyful Noises, Paul Fleischman compared the life of a queen bee and a worker bee, and poetry in two voices was born. Many teachers since then have taught students to read and write poems in two voices, but not necessarily as a strategy to learn and comprehend content material.

In poetry in two voices, poets write from two perspectives, comparing and contrasting. Things that are similar are written directly across from each other and are read simultaneously; the contrasting details are written

on separate lines and read one at a time, in whatever order the author determines is most effective. See Figure 1 for an example.

Figure 1
Poetry in Two Voices
The Apple The Orange
* I am a fruit, * I am a fruit,
* low in calories and low in calories and
* high in nutrients
* high in nutrients,
protien, lots of Vitamin C;
a good source of potassium,
Vitamin E,
* and fiber.
I am red or green;
* and fiber.
I am orange—like my name.
* A healthy snack! * A healthy snack!

* denotes similar items

When students compare and contrast, they use multiple reading and thinking strategies:

  • Processing information
  • Discriminating
  • Analyzing
  • Exploring higher-order thinking
  • Using a specific thinking structure
  • Making decisions
  • Making connections among multiple events, people, places, objects, ideas, and concepts.

They also are practicing and learning another reading strategy: text structures of informational text.

The Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Reading Literature and Reading Informational Texts require readers to be able to compare and contrast in multiple ways to demonstrate competence in the areas of Craft and Structure and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas.

After students read a text, it is crucial to bring them back to the text so they can learn. To learn, readers must interact with text and manipulate it and question it. When students compose poems in two voices based on the content they are learning, they are examining and analyzing similarities and differences and going back to the text and reformulating the text into another genre. They are interacting with the text.

Creating Two Voices

The first step in creating poems in two voices is to discern and list the similarities and differences between two entities. For example, when learning about the deer and the lion and their natural relationship, a student made notes about the deer and lion, then created a chart (Figure 2). She converted her information into a Venn-type diagram (Figure 3).

Figure 2
Students List of Similarities and Differences
Differences Differences Similarities
DEER LION  
    mammal
    wild
Grow antlers Have manes only males
Live in forests Roam the plains  
herd pride Travel in groups
herbivore carnivore  
Figure 3
Venn Diagram of Similarities and Differences
DEER CATEGORIES LION
mammal Type of animal mammal
wild   wild
antlers physical appearance manes
forests habitat plains
herd travel in groups pride
herbivore diet carnivore

Next, she created a poem in two voices—that of a deer and that of a lion (Figure 4).

Figure 4
Poem in Two Voices
THE LION   THE DEER
  I am a mammal, wild.  
Our males have manes.   Ours grow antlers.
I roam the plains,   I roam the forests,
  Seeking food and shelter.  
  I travel in a group called a  
Pride.   Herd.
A carnivore; I feast on animals I am A herbivore; I nibble on vegetation.
  I am  
The predator.   The prey.

(From Lesley Roessing's book, The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension.)

When she wrote the poem, she turned the facts into a narrative and added a possible conclusion to the natural order of the two mammals: the lion, as a carnivore, might just be a predator that kills and eats the deer. Of course, some additional facts, such as speed and body size and proximity of habitats, would strengthen this supposition, causing the author to conduct more research to supplement the few facts that the short article she read had provided.

Composing the poem allowed or even caused the author to think about the two points of view and their symbiotic relationship. The poem brought her back to the text multiple times to find details and, as she manipulated and synthesized the information, she learned it and expanded her personal understanding. In other words, the author made the concept her own.

Across the Curriculum

In a social studies and language arts class, students read Waiting for the Rain, Sheila Gordon’s novel about two boys growing up under apartheid in South Africa. Frikkie is white and his uncle owns the farm where Tengo’s uncle is the "boss-boy." At first Tengo accepts this order of roles, as do the adults around him, until he begins his education and realizes that this is not the way it has to be. The novel ends in1986, still years away from the official end of apartheid, when Frikkie, now a soldier, and Tengo, one of the students protesting for a better education, meet.

Students were asked to compare Tengo and Frikkie, an assignment to compel students to look at both sides of the issues, the conflicting points of view of two boys who were raised under this system of separateness. Rather than stereotyping their roles, the students needed to look at each as individuals and to understand that Frikkie and Tengo were both victims of apartheid.

Through the format of poetry in two voices, the students were prompted to truly examine the characters, their backgrounds, their experiences, their educations, their hopes and dreams; to ascertain how it might be possible for the two boys—and, with an end to apartheid, the two races—to work together.

In math, students can compare/contrast types of angles, geometric shapes, and algebraic formulae. In a poem in multiple voices about triangles, students compare a right triangle and an equilateral triangle, and then add the voices of isosceles, scalene, acute, and obtuse triangles as they are studied.

Students in a science class could read any of the articles on Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet status and analyze and determine whether Pluto is actually more like a dwarf planet or a "true" planet and, therefore, should or should not have been reclassified. The poem in two voices could compare Pluto and another dwarf planet such as Ceres or dwarf planets in general.

In comparing and contrasting through "voices," one deduction students make is that no two things are completely alike or different, and that conclusions can be formulated about these similarities and differences.

Just Add Writing

Poems are a means to add writing in all content areas. An added advantage is that the poetry is even more effective when read aloud, literally, by two voices, thus adding speaking and listening skills to reading and writing across the curriculum. These poems can be as simple as the "Deer and Lion" example or as complex as the poem about Tengo and Frikkie. In both cases, the writer is comparing and contrasting, returning to the text, reviewing content, deciding what facts to include, and making connections, as well as writing in a new genre. Teachers can also assess what students have noticed in their readings and what they may have missed and how content has been interpreted or misinterpreted.

Poetry in two voices is a creative, fun, and effective writing-to-learn strategy that leads to deeper comprehension across the curriculum.


Lesley Roessing, a middle school teacher for more than 20 years, is an instructor in the Adolescent Education Department of Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia, where she is also director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project. She is the author of several books, including The Write to Read: Response Journals that Increase Comprehension. Several ideas in this article were adapted from The Write to Read. E-mail: lesley.roessing@armstrong.edu
Published in Middle Ground, February 2013.

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