Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Poetry in the Classroom - The World's Greatest Poems

The World's Greatest Poems, written by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Keith Graves, is a book that highlights in verse and illustration some of the strangest world records, such as the talkingest bird, longest traffic jam, and stone skipping record. Before each poem, the record is briefly described. Here is an example.
The Tallest Roller Coaster
Superman the Escape
Six Flags Magic Mountain
Valencia, California
415-foot steel support structure

You're swerving north,
You're swerving south,
Your stomach sits
Inside your month.

You hold your breath,
You lose your nerve,
Your scared to death
At every curve.

You're feeling very
Sick, but then
You tell your Dad,
"Let's go again!"
The poems in this book come in a variety of forms, including acrostic, limerick, sonnet and more. Accompanied by whimsical illustrations, Lewis' verse really shines.

The vast majority of the poems are based on records that include numbers. Before reading the poems, consider asking students to estimate the answers to questions like these:
  • How long was the longest traffic jam (in miles)?
  • How many people did one man kiss in eight hours to set a world record?
  • What is the longest time someone was stuck in an elevator?
  • How tall was the tallest scarecrow?
  • What was the weight of the biggest potato?
After reading the poems, share the actual measurements and find some ways to make these numbers concrete. For example, plot out the traffic jam on a map (1093 miles from Lyons towards Paris), compare the weight of that potato (7 lbs 13 ozs) to something kids can understand, like the weight of a newborn baby, or compare the height of that scarecrow (103 feet and 6.25 inches tall) to the number of cars parked end to end.
Kids love record-breaking numbers and comparisons of this sort. I recommend pairing this book of poetry with Steven Jenkins' book Hottest, Coldest, Highest, Deepest, in which he identifies and describes places such as the hottest, coldest, wettest, driest, and windiest places on Earth, as well as the longest river, highest waterfall, deepest lake, highest mountain and more. Once you've read this book and shared some of these records of the natural world, look again at Lewis' poems and encourage students to write some of their own "World's Greatest" poems.


  1. Tricia,

    Happy First Day of National Poetry Month! Thanks for this review. I own at least thirty of Lewis's books--but not this one...not yet.

    Have you read his poetry book A BURST OF FIRSTS: DOERS, SHAKERS, AND RECORD BREAKERS? It has poems about the biggest bubble-gum bubble ever blown, the first recorded 6,000-year-old tree in America, and the first man to run a four-minute mile.

  2. Hi Elaine!
    I have a number of Lewis' books, but not that one. It will make a wonderful addition to this "teaching set." Thanks so much for mentioning it.

  3. Happy NPM to you. Your post made me think of Judi Barrett's Things That Are Most in the World, too, which is a not-quite-as-literal version of the same idea. Might be fun as a third book to toss in the mix.