So you have to teach poetry, and it’s not your favorite. Or maybe you love it, but your students just don’t share that same passion. In either scenario, you’re in good company. For some reason, poetry is just one of those things that people tend to love or hate. There’s not much middle ground.
I used to dread poetry. Everything I can remember about poetry from high school was so boring. Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate it…probably because as an English teacher, I’ve had to study it more intensely and find ways to make it applicable and relevant to students. I’m not that great at feigning interest, so I’ve had to get creative with my poetry instruction in order to find ways that I can truly be excited about teaching it.
Whether it’s National Poetry Month or just a part of your regular curriculum, hopefully these ideas will give you some inspiration and direction if you’re just not excited about the prospect of spending some of your precious classroom instruction on verse. These approaches have worked in my classroom in terms of engaging students with reading, analyzing, and writing about poetry and related skills.
Entice them with music.
No matter what grade I’m teaching, I always begin my poetry units with music for obvious reasons: students love it, music is poetry, it sets a positive atmosphere, it’s relevant. Any school-appropriate song can be studied as poetry. I usually select a piece after determining my goal. For example, students can use poetry to analyze the author’s voice, to study grammar rules, to determine vocabulary from context clues, to read through a critical lens, or to study rhythm and rhyme. Beginning by determining the learning goal naturally narrows down the music selection. Analyzing music as poetry can be a powerful and memorable learning experience. You can access my free analyzing poetry assignment here.
Write poems that are fun and nonthreatening.
When students who dislike poetry are asked to write a sonnet or a villanelle, they are often scared away before even putting their pencil to paper. It’s a lot to ask a student who feels they can’t relate to a genre to understand it well enough to write an example. While standards do require that students read complex texts and write for a wide variety of purposes, they don’t specifically state that students must demonstrate the ability to write a complex poem. If your students happen to enjoy that type of assignment, you’re blessed! For the rest of us, why not make poetry less stress?
We can offer choice assignments. In the past, after studying various types of poems, I’ve let my students choose what type of poem they want to write. Fun and nontraditional poems can inspire students to produce original pieces beyond our imaginations. Concrete poems, crots, nonsense poems, bio poems, six-room poems, blackout poetry, and acrostics are just a handful of examples that prove allowing a different style of creativity to creep into poetry instruction can revolutionize the entire unit. If you’re not a non-traditional poem expert, don’t let that scare you away! Make it a research assignment where students study the type of poem they want to write, become the masters, and teach the class about those styles.
In reflecting about allowing choice as it relates to writing poems, I’m reminded of a time one of my students surprised me with his work. He wrote twenty limericks, and he connected all of them into one larger poem about the relationships between cats and dogs. That was impressive. I was blown away. Never in my wildest dreams would I have asked students to write twenty connected limericks, but because I had given students the freedom to express their imaginative side through their own means, I was truly rewarded with some amazing work.
Focus on reading comprehension.
Sometimes students just need to know that we aren’t going to ask them to read a poem, discuss it, write about it, complete a project on it, and then memorize it. It’s possible that once in a while, we kill a poem by coming at it from too many angles, and it’s overwhelming for students. I’ve had success with making poetry less stressful when I only ask students to complete one task, like read it and comprehend it. The comprehension part might come through class discussion, through writing, or both. Because I have my reading specialist certification, I like using simple comprehension journal topics when I ask students to respond to poetry.
Use picture books.
Children’s picture books are gold mines for poetry, even at the secondary level. So many of them have aspects of verse we can analyze, like rhyme scheme, sound devices, structure, and voice, for instance. You can read a book to the entire class and discuss it, or you can pass out different books to small groups and have them analyze an aspect of the poetry. I’ve used Skippyjon Jones to teach assonance and alliteration in the past, and students can’t get enough of it. Dr. Seuss books are another excellent resource. The Pout-Pout Fish is one of my favorites. An alternate way you can use picture books to teach poetry is to use a wordless book, like Flotsam, and have students write a stanza of poetry to accompany each page.
Use poetry to teach a writing skill.
Heading into a poetry unit, sometimes I’m thinking, How am I going to get through this unit so we have enough time to work on our research papers? It’s true that ELA teachers have a lot on their plates. Reading, writing, grammar, poetry, vocabulary… the list goes on. Teaching English works best for me when I blend the concepts taught in each unit. When we study poetry, for instance, I might ask the students to focus specifically on analyzing the concept of diction. We can talk about how each of the words the poet selected carries power: Through figurative language, denotation, connotation, symbolism, imagery, and more, authors paint pictures with their words. When I transition into my writing unit, my students are already familiar with the importance of word choice as it relates to message and voice.
I’m all about the games in my classroom. They have a way of allowing students to interact with the material in a way that fosters laughter and learning simultaneously. With poetry, the opportunities for games are numerous, especially if you focus specifically on types of poetry or figurative language. My two favorite figurative language games are Truth or Dare and Get Schooled! My kids enjoy these activities, and (perhaps even more important) I get a stitch out of watching them review the terms, learning from one another as they discuss definitions and examples with a unique approach.
With a little bit of ingenuity, poetry units can be the highlight of your school year, even if it’s not your favorite part of teaching ELA. Hopefully these simple takeaways have inspired you to try something new with your next poetry unit. If you have successful poetry lessons or activities, we’d love to hear about them. Please share your success stories in the comments. Let’s learn together!