Teaching poetry is a challenging task no matter who your audience. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, professors of English and Education at the University of Pittsburgh, recommend establishing a thematic connection between the students and the subject matter of the poetry. This thematic connection can relate to the background of the poet or the content of the poem.
Poets with Special Needs
There are many anthologies, both print and online, featuring the work of poets with special needs. Sites such as Child Autism Parent Cafe and anthologies such as “Embracing the Sky: Poems Beyond Disability” provide countless examples of poems by poets with special needs, such as Meshell Baylor’s “To All the Mothers” and Craig Romkema’s “Nightmare.” Depending upon the subject matter and structure of the poems, these works can be used to help students with special needs discuss their disability, their interactions with other people or the ways in which the poetic form can be used to capture and articulate the voice of a person with special needs.
Poems for Persons with Special Needs
As with sites and anthologies dedicated to poems by poets with special needs, there also exist many such anthologies celebrating poetry about persons with special needs. Such poems are often inspiring and uplifting, encouraging persons with special needs to think of themselves as gifted and unique, rather than deficient. In addition to the aforementioned Child Autism Parent Cafe, anthologies such as “Love You to Pieces” provide poems such as Ellen Bihler’s “SMA Baby” and Kelly Graham’s “I am Ethan.” These sites offer a variety of poems focusing on people with autism (specifically Asperger's), learning disability, emotional disturbance, bipolar disorder and so on.
Poems Celebrating Education
As the primary function of a special education teacher is the education of persons with special needs, whether their specific disability is one of input, integration, memory or output, one theme in poetry that is beneficial to focus on is that of education. Poems such as Mary Korzan’s “When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking” and the anonymously authored “Whose Child is This?” are excellent for younger students because of their celebration of the special relationship that can exist between teachers and students, while poems such as Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” provides an accessible challenge for older students due to its more complicated structure. Poems celebrating education offer students with special needs a simple entry point, as the poems reference a readily accessible theme which such students are most assuredly familiar.
Poems Exploring Difference
Just as students with special needs are likely to have experience with teachers as a theme, so too might some students with input, integration, memory or output disabilities have experience with the theme of difference. For younger students, poems such as Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches” investigates the falseness of difference. A similar theme exists in more challenging poems for older students such as Langston Hughes’ “I, Too,” which investigates the potentially sinister reasons for focusing on difference. Poems exploring the theme of difference allow students with special needs to investigate their own role as “special” education students or “differently” abled persons.