An Interview with Nile Stanley: Poetry, Poets, Poems and Promises

Nov 14, 2012 by

Dr. Nile Stanley is a visiting scholar, Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, China and Graduate Coordinator of the Department of Childhood Education.

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Nile, I understand you have just gotten a grant to integrate poetry and the arts into the schools. Tell us about this.

Yes, I am the creator and principal investigator of  The Poetry Science Stars after school program. It is supported by gifts from the Cummer Family Foundation and is a good example of a partnership developed because of community need. The program promotes literacy and science learning through the performing arts Jacksonville urban schools with a high percentage of at risk students and immigrant, English Language Learners (ELL’s). The Cummer family who are passionate about the arts, ecology, and literacy approached the University of North Florida (UNF) with a strong desire to make a positive impact on improving the lives of Jacksonville youth.  A conversation began:

Less than half of fifth graders in Florida score at grade level on the science portion of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT).

Only 12 percent of fifth grade children with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) scored at grade level in science.

A number of high profile reports underscore that the current and future health of our nation’s economy depend on our students developing 21st century skills including strong academic skills in math, science and technology.

The traditional elementary science approach has been primarily textbook-driven and test driven with little time for creative teaching and hands-on experiences.

This project is designed to teach science skills tied to the 3rd to 6th grade standards through integrating creative writing, digital storytelling, poetry performance and song writing. This project is all about children exploring our world and communicating their discoveries to others in a very creative and engaging way.

Private funding from the Cummer Family Foundation for two years running, allows UNF to provide this program in two schools.  A portion of the funding is earmarked for materials along with a stipend for the teacher that coordinates the poetry club for each school.  Poetry clubs meet after school, twice a week.  Funding also supports research to investigate the effectiveness of the performance literacy approach.

2) Now what exactly is a “poetry olio”?

Pronounced O’LE-O it is a performance medley of literary selections, primarily poetry, but can include songs and stories. Originally the olio was used in theatre as entertainment while the sets were changed in between scenes and acts. At the 1997 Annual Convention of the International Reading Association (IRA) in Atlanta, Georgia, I and poet Karen Alexander organized the first Poetry Olio, a celebration of children’s poetry. The olio ran for 15 consecutive years at IRA and continues to grow in popularity as does the national poetry scene of open-mike nights at coffee houses, bookstores, libraries, and schools.

Now a tradition, the olio continues to do what it started – provide an open forum for the celebration of poetry. Poetry is best received when it is heard and experienced as performance. I often chair poetry olio celebrations at schools, even senior citizen centers, especially during April, national poetry month. In my Poetry Science Stars Program we are planning an olio at UNF’s Modern Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) where elementary children and university students, prospective teachers will perform poems, stories and songs what they have learned about science for the parents and community.  In other words, the olio is not only a showcase of the performers’ dramatic abilities, and creative writing but a creative exhibition of science knowledge.  Technologically savvy poets may present their performance digitally using multimedia. Bottom line, the olio is not only a fun celebration of literacy but is an authentic assessment of learning.

3) How does poetry contribute to good diction and reading?

A love of poetry comes naturally to children.  They revel in its rhyme, rhythm, and repetition.  Its imagery amuses and captivates them. Reading, performing and singing poetry is a joyful experience that offers many advantages to all students, but especially to struggling readers. Reading poetry helps them fall in love with words and gives them the tools they need to become enthusiastic readers. By emphasizing the sound and rhythm of language, poetry builds children’s phonemic awareness, or sensitivity to the smallest sounds of speech, laying a foundation for beginning reading. Through poetry they literally learn that good diction and fluency comes with lots of practice playing with the sounds of language. Struggling readers often read slowly and with great effort, leaving them little mental energy for comprehension.

To read for enjoyment and understanding, students must read text fluently, with appropriate speed, accuracy and expression. Word recognition and comprehension increase as students’ need to re-read text decreases.  Because of its rhythm, length, and engaging content, poetry is the ideal reading material for developing fluency. Reading poetry out loud improves a readers’ ability to recognize words. The act of reading text aloud enables students to self monitor and correct various fluency problems, including reading rate, accuracy, phrasing and expression.  In time, fluent oral readers become fluent silent readers.

As I tell the children and teachers, “I learned the truth from Dr. Seuss, that reading is fun, and poetry, stories, and songs will help you get ‘er done.” Also, poets’ inventive, skillful use of language introduces children to new vocabulary words and even science concepts. When Seuss says “Think left, think right, think of all the thinks you can think” it sticks with you more than, “Reflect on the meanings of your science vocabulary and create a narrative demonstrating your knowledge.”

4) I understand you have done some presentations with Karen Alexander- tell us about them?

Karen Alexander writes poetry that kids love to read and perform. Her poetry for teachers has appeared in the Reading Teacher and reprinted in anthologies. She graciously gave me permission to include some of her best performance poetry in my book with audio CD, Creating Readers with Poetry (2004, Maupin House) Many of the poetry mini-lessons for teachers in that book grew out of my work with Karen.  In 1995, after we both had attended a life changing residency with Poetry Alive! we began as a duo performing her poetry at school assemblies and  conducting teacher workshops. Karen has a huge repertoire of poetry and has taught kindergarten through college.

As I mentioned, over the years Karen and I have been frequent hosts of national and state poetry olios from the glades of Miami to the glaciers of Alaska. We have performed with the greatest children’s poets over the years including John Archambault,  Brod Bagert , Bruce Lansky, Sara Holbrook, Lee Bennett Hopkins , Alan Wolf and Jane Yolen to name a few.  We even performed standup comedy using Karen’s very humorous adult poetry. It is uncommon to see a man and woman duo on the education conference circuit, so we have a unique, entertaining show.

Karen has also published a number of stories in the Chicken Soup of the Soul series and we are now including storytelling in our act.

5) I hear you are now on You tube- give us the link and tell us what to expect.

I have my own poetry channel, sort of an electric olio lounge where you will find poetry performances , digital storytelling and workshops by me and Ben Brenner, my student musician, partner in rhyme as well as performances by children. There is a wide variety of genres represented. You will experience silly poetry, raps, songs, even some heavy metal poetry with Spudbuster

Karen Alexander’s classic rap poem, Climbing-the Poet-Tree is very popular

Brett Dillingham, the internationally known storyteller from Juneau, who I write and perform with is also on my channel and does a hilarious version of the Gingerbread Man

Gary Dulabaum, a wild, crazy engaging educational singer songwriter from Vermont  who often performs with me and teaches songwriting to kids, will make you quiver with his song liver

6) Poetry can also help with social skills, self confidence and diction- are there any other reasons to read poetry?

Poetry connects to content-area reading. Poetry is more than just creative expression.  It can open the door to the academic world of content reading.  It may serve as a bridge to learning about science. If you google “science poems” you will find a wealth of poetry to read and perform about our world such as the environment, gases, animals, energy, and global warming. Students can learn to consolidate their learned knowledge in writing and performing found poems about the science textbooks they read in school.   For example, I and a third grade class wrote the poem Manatees after completing a reading, taking notes, and learning poetry writing.


Sea cows

Gentle giants-

Surface often,

Breathe air. Boaters beware:



Swimming below!

In another example, I was working with fourth grade children, many who were struggling with English, especially science vocabulary, learned to sing a song about their science lesson on alternative energy to the tune of When the Saints Go Marching in:

When the Oil Starts Running Out

Oh, there’s the sun, Oh there’s the wind

Oh there’s lots of sun and wind

Oh yeah there’s lots of other fuels

When the oil starts running out

To succeed on high stakes science tests, readers need a well-developed vocabulary. Research has found that the size and depth of one’s vocabulary are prime determinants of reading comprehension.  Since most words are learned from context, wide reading and real world experiences provide the best means for developing students’ vocabularies. Poetry exposes students to new words in in an enticing and meaningful context, and is therefore invaluable as a teaching tool.

 7) How will Common Core affect reading and the Arts?

The arts are currently not valued or used as they could be. I fear that the common core standards will reduce even more the use of the arts in teaching of reading and learning in the content areas. I believe as so eloquently expressed by Grant Wiggens in his article, A Diploma Worth Having

the common core and standards movement will continue to do more harm to education  and push aside, even erase poetry performance, storytelling, dance, and the arts.  As he states “[The Common Core]  We are on the verge of requiring every student in the United States to learn two years of algebra that they will likely never use, but no one is required to learn wellness or parenting”.

Bottom line, teachers teach what is tested, if it is not tested it is not taught.  The 9 states that require assessment of the arts on their high stakes tests have more arts based learning taking place in their classrooms. Sure, arts educators are scrambling to write detailed guides to explicitly show teachers how the arts address the common core standards.  It’s a no brainer that the common core standards address extensively the skills of reading, writing, listening, speaking, and thinking – the same skills learners use when they read, write and perform poetry.  If teachers are teaching kids reading, writing and performing poetry they are addressing the common core standards.

Unfortunately, as with most standards inflicted on teachers, there will be an over emphasis on compliance, not creativity.  I recently wrote how the art of storytelling accomplishes common core standards

 8) How is your latest book doing?

My latest writing to be published  in 2013 that I am working on with storyteller Brett Dillingham  is  tentatively titled, Classroom and Family Storytelling- How Storytelling Can Be Used to Teach Morals, Character and Emotional Intelligence

“A powerful teaching/parenting strategy for developing intellect, language, literacy and values”

Here is a short excerpt:

As fathers we wanted to be there for our children. Parenthood for us

would be a priority. Our home lives would be top flight. We wanted to be in the Ivey league of dads. As educators we wanted to create an intellectually rich home environment so that are children would be successful and moral.. We wanted for our children what most parents want –happy, healthy-self-sufficient children who give back to society. However, we did not want our children to achieve success at the price of giving up their health, integrity, childhood and emotional stability. As child psychiatrists have observed , today’s children because of extreme parental pressure to succeed are more stressed, sleep-deprived and  at high risk for emotional and  psychological problems. We believe that our children can achieve success without the accompanying high levels of distress.

Family storytelling offers a rich powerful strategy of possibilities for parenting, learning, and teaching that is portable, easy to learn, and fun. Parents and educators often are unaware of the privileged status of storytelling, the breadth and depth of the genre of folklore, and it’s instructional potential for intellectual, language ,literacy, and moral development. The purpose of this book is to explore the benefits of family storytelling and address the following issues:

What is family storytelling and how does it promote effective parenting and nurture language development?

How do parents and children learn to listen and tell stories?

What are the various types of stories and their purposes for teaching and learning?

9) Any final thoughts?

As Karen Alexander wrote in her poem, The Poet’s 3 R’s (rhyme, rhythm and repetition)

These 3 R’s are the poets’ heart

Predictably they were there from the start

They are the poet’s music constant and right

They are the poet’s promise, poetry is life.

Poetry can set you free. The first poem you hear is your mother’s heartbeat.  Did you ever contemplate the book of Psalms in the Bible or other poetic sacred texts such as Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Gita or the Quran?

Why do all sacred texts across the globe contain the greatest collections of songs, prayers and poetry ever put together? Because poetry expresses the deepest passions of humanity.

In the pages of the poetry we can hear the poet’s desperate cry in the midst of despair, but also bubbling over with joy! Poetry leads us through the valleys and peaks of human experiences and in the end guide us to understand that life is poetry. However, be forewarned:  While you may develop a passion for poetry, others will not.

At times, you’ll feel that you’ve strayed from the common core to the uncommon core and chosen the road less travelled. You may find yourself preferring Confucius to the Common Core. It’s ok, I believe we can have both rigor of the standards and the inspiration and the joy of poetry.  Just like the recent presidential election outcome -the promise- of poetry – some are optimistic and others pessimistic.

I gain solace in these challenging times from the poet A. A. Milne, most known for Winnie the Pooh. He describes two kinds of people –the Tiggers of the world who have boundless energy and enthusiasm, and say “poetry really gets the kids engaged about reading and learning!” and the Eeyores who are forever morose saying “poetry will never work and the kids will get too wild performing poetry and fail all the tests.”

Walk around the curmudgeons in your hundred-acre woods and connect with the people who share your optimism and enthusiasm. Meet at your school, library, bookstore, or coffee shop, and discuss and read poetry and share teaching ideas .  Plan a poetry olio for your school. Have a school wide Seuss birthday celebration Sprinkle some poetry and songs into your science lesson. Learn to play the ukulele.  Invite a storyteller to teach a lesson. You really can put the art back into language arts!

Dr. Nile Stanley is a visiting scholar, Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, China  and Graduate Coordinator of the Department of Childhood Education. Literacy and TESOL at the University of North Florida. He can be reached at

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