Pictures inspire poetry. In this post, you’ll find 13 ideas to use in middle and high school classrooms.
What do you call fiction writers who try to write poetry? Prosers.
What does the reluctant poet write? Averse.
I came across these puns on a list from Buzzfeed, and I couldn’t help but notice their applicability to teaching poetry in the classroom. Sometimes when I ask my students to write a poem or even just to write about a poem they read, I get moaning and complaining and whining, and if I’m lucky, I’ll get “a verse” from every student. Many students do feel like “prosers” when they are asked to respond to anything related to poetry — mainly the kids who strongly dislike poetry to begin with but also the students who realize writing poetry is not usually second nature.
Despite the divide between poetry and student interest, verse has wide applicability to all kinds of lesson plans…not just in ELA classes, but in any content area. There’s no questioning the validity of poetry. In a recent post, I wrote about six simple ways to make poetry engaging. In this post, I’m expanding on those ideas by focusing specifically on how teachers can captivate reluctant writers through images. By using something almost everyone enjoys (pictures / illustrations…and let’s not count out moving pictures), we can make poetry more attractive to reluctant writers.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at thirteen creative ways teachers can use images to inspire students to write poetry.
1. Wordless picture books
Many students have heard of The Book with No Pictures, but not all of them are aware of books with no words. This type of children’s book has a powerful potential for use in English classrooms (from elementary school through secondary school). How can wordless picture books be used for poetry purposes? Teachers can “read” one of these books to their class. Actually, in one of my Reading masters’ classes, a professor read Flotsam (one of my favorites) to a group of adults. He paused on each page, and the class made observations about what was happening. These books can be used to make inferences, to make predictions, and to develop comprehension, reasoning, and sequencing skills. After reading the wordless picture book with the class, a teacher can then ask students to write a poem (any style!) inspired by the book the class just read together. Perhaps students write a couplet or a quatrain to accompany each page.
2. Texting couplets
This is a fun idea I dreamed up as I was thinking about how to make poetry applicable to twenty-first century students. What does almost every student love? Easy: cell phones and texting. Let’s harness that passion! Text messages are usually short, and so are couplets. Have students use an image (let them get creative…they can take a selfie, take pictures of nature or with their friends, record a video, cut out a picture from a magazine, print a picture from the Internet, or even draw a picture) as inspiration for a series of rhyming couplet text messages (texting couplets). You can see the assignment I created here.
3. Concrete poetry or illustrated poetry
There are a couple different ways to approach concrete poetry. In its true form, the words create the picture. However, in my experience teaching various grade levels, students who have an artistic side enjoy drawing an image first and then filling in the illustration or outlining it with their poetry. I say….why fight that battle? If students understand the difference between concrete poetry and the artistic angle they are choosing to take, what harm is done? Google and Pinterest both showcase some incredible examples of how students can either use words to make a picture or how they can draw a picture and fill it in with verse.
4. Old family photographs (or just any old photo)
Not all students have access to old family photographs (this wouldn’t be practical to demand from all students, so it would make for an excellent choice assignment); however, the idea can apply to photographs of any kind. Most parents would probably appreciate their children taking an interest in nostalgic family relics. You can ask students to bring in one or several photographs that students find inspiring and interesting. Help students brainstorm by asking them to write down words that describe the photograph as well as having them think about how the picture makes them feel. Students can then write sentimental poems or humorous ones based on these images. They could also complete this assignment after taking their own pictures…new ones.
Here’s an example I wrote (which proves you don’t have to be “good” at writing poetry to benefit from the learning experience):
Brainstorming List (Observations):
- Dog and cat
- Blue, white, brown
The dog peers into my eyes.
Will you pet my sides?
The cat creeps up from behind.
Just trying to unwind.
No working today;
Today we play.
Friends for life.
5. Cartoon strips
We all know the student who loves to draw or truly enjoys a good graphic novel. Try offering students the opportunity to use the graphic novel or comic strip format for poetry writing inspiration. This assignment could work a couple different ways. 1) Students could choose an existing comic strip or several pages from a graphic novel. They could white out the text and fill in the blanks with verse. 2) Students who enjoy drawing could illustrate their own comic strip or graphic novel pages from scrap and also write poetry to accompany the images.
6. Six-room poems
Six-room poems are effective for many of my students because it structures their brainstorming into specific categories and makes drafting the actual poem easier. How can a six-room poem relate to a picture? Quite easily. Just have students choose a photograph or even a video (short films work wonderfully) for inspiration. They can look at the picture as they brainstorm ideas for each of their rooms. If you’ve never heard of a six-room poem or if you’re not sure how to go about teaching students to write one, this resource can get you started.
7. Instagram photo with caption
Instagram appeals to a wide age-range. Why? The pictures! People love scrolling through pictures on social media and reading the captions. Students can get creative with their Instagram images by captioning them with a short poem (a haiku, tanka, limerick, or cinquain, for example). This option is also a perfect avenue for artistic students to practice their photography skills.
8. Hashtag poems
Hashtags are another popular element related to social media, and often, they are used in picture captions. They’re so catchy. Teachers can ask students to think outside of the box about hashtags. Why not use them to write poems? They could be the only element of a poem (100% pure hashtag), they could be an important element in the poem, or they could just be used at the end of the poem for effect. Think of the hashtag as the new form of figurative language. Students can use them in the same way they use metaphors, personification, hyperboles, foreshadowing, repetition, symbolism, sound devices, puns, and etcetera. This website has some examples (some school-appropriate, some not); my favorite is the one titled “#hashtag” by Dara Brown.
9. Inspirational found poem using quotes
I’m sure you’ve seen quotes that are crafted into images. They’re pretty pervasive in our society. There’s something about a beautiful visual quote that is cathartic for the soul. Ask students to compile a list of their favorite quotes for homework or as an in-class research assignment. Then, have them create a found poem using only words from these quotes. They can produce the final draft of their found poem on their very own original quote image (hand-drawn or computer-generated). Use them to decorate your classroom!
10. Political cartoons
Every year, I have students who want to run for president, and if they don’t want to, they should. They LOVE politics. These students might enjoy an assignment where they are asked to create their own political cartoon or use an existing one and write a poem to accompany it. Harness your students’ interests when it comes to poetry, and their investment and attitudes will improve. The New York Time’s Upfront magazine is a wonderful place to start because their cartoons also have corresponding questions for analysis.
11. Satirical illustrations
Someone shared this article on Facebook, and when I saw it, I began brainstorming the PLETHORA of ways teachers could use these satirical visuals in the classroom. Without a doubt, they could be inspiration for poetry. These particular images specifically focus on technology issues in our society. Teachers can ask students to find a satirical visual text they appreciate and then write a poem based off of the picture they discover.
12. Famous paintings
When considering what types of visual texts are worthy of classroom analysis, we shouldn’t leave out well-known artwork, like Salvidor Dali’s Persistence of Memory, Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. To prepare students to write this type of poetry, you can show them how throughout time, poetry has actually inspired paintings. Need somewhere to start? This website has good examples. Once kids can see how a painting has been inspired by a poem, it might be easier for them to do the reverse by analyzing artwork to develop original poetry.
13. Read poems about pictures and then write an original
And while we’re at it, students might as well read poems about pictures and then write an original!
Regardless of which type of image students are using to inspire their poetry, teachers can guide students during the brainstorming stage by prompting them with questions, helping them think through the options for how to create their poetry, and even allowing them to create their own rubric based on self-determined criteria. You can view the brainstorming assignment I use with my students here.
To take it one step further, teachers can scaffold the poetry writing assignment by brainstorming possible topics, themes, and even words to include in the poems. Do you have students who still need more support? Write the first few lines of the poem together as a class, and let them finish it on their own.
The main observation I’ve noticed about teaching poetry is that the more requirements I give and the more “perfect” I expect the final product to be, the more resistance I get from students. Poetry doesn’t have to be perfect. For the purpose of poetry in the classroom, just encouraging students to write and learn about the structure of a poem is a success.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to poetry, we only need a few. Pictures, illustrations, images (of any kind) can inspire thoughts and ideas students might not otherwise have discovered. Try using pictures to inspire poetry with your students, and let their creativity lead the way.
Whether students are writing poetry or writing about poetry, it helps to offer choices. This resource features 20 journal prompts with a variety of angles for responding to poetry. They are included in both digital and print versions. Click on the image to view more details.