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Reading & Literacy Opinion

Six Ways to Teach Poetry

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 22, 2020 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your favorite ways to teach poetry?

April is National Poetry Month.

Poetry lessons can be great learning opportunities and big hits with students—whether they are with us in a physical classroom or if we are teaching them remotely. They can also be duds. This three-part series will explore ways to ensure that they are the former and not the latter.

You might also be interested in The Best World Poetry Day Resources.

Today’s ideas come from Donna L. Shrum, Kelly Love, Gretchen Bernabei, Jennifer Casa-Todd, and Ashley McCall. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Donna, Kelly, Gretchen, and Jennifer on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Introducing poetry

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

The first time I taught poetry, a student adamantly informed me, “A poem means whatever I think it means.” When I demurred, she insisted that a teacher with much more experience than I had told her so. In a different class, I told them I’d read Robert Frost and said his poem “The Road Less Traveled” was written as a private joke between him and a friend. A student wailed, “You’ve ruined this poem for me forever, and I loved it before!”

Now, before teaching poetry, I draw a Venn diagram and label one side “the reader” and the other “the poet.” I explain the poem means something to the poet that can’t be expressed to anyone else. The poem also means something to the reader that is determined only by the reader. Those are closed, very personal areas. In the middle, I explain, is where we try to discover the poet’s intention as we follow his clues. We use our feelings and experiences to arrive there, but if we don’t base our conclusions on evidence from the poem, we’ve missed the meaning.

Starting this way has lessened the hackles that come up when I say we’re going to read poetry, but I still hear, “I’m not good at understanding poetry.” My favorite way to teach it was shamelessly stolen from a National Writing Project session, so thank you to whomever first created it. I break the poem into complete sentences based on its punctuation, then print them and cut the sentences apart. Each student gets a sentence (multiple copies of the same sentence for larger classes), and I then ask them to write about whatever that sentence brings to mind.

After writing, I ask for sharing in small groups, then with the class. It’s only after that they receive a copy of the poem. My practice is to read it three times before we start discussing it. When breaking down the meaning, they’re surprised and pleased to discover that they already uncovered most of it during their writing and sharing and now they have the momentous pleasure of putting it all together to discover the connections the poet meant for them to find.

To save time, I sometimes skip the whole-class read. Another variation is to hand out the sentences to small groups, allow brief discussion, followed by a quickwrite, then another discussion, followed by distributing the poem. They read it aloud three times, then they can discuss it within that group or whole class, followed by a quickwrite summary of the main ideas.

I’ve also given mentor poems that we rewrite as a whole class or that students work on individually and then share. Students are always surprised at how much they enjoy it and how well they do. They created a memorable piece about arising and going to a shootin’ shack in the woods from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and “Shall I compare thee to a. . .” produced a playful comparison to an M&M that I still remember from 20 years ago. I either choose short poems or stanzas from longer ones that lend themselves to student rewrites. These creations give students a taste of the poetic writing process and strengthen their comprehension when reading poetry.

Finding the words: using poetry as artistic expression

Kelly Love came to teaching as a second career, has taught middle school for 13 years, and is moving to an alternative high school for her 14th year. She is an artist, writer, and teacher. Usually all three at the same time. She and her thoughts on education can be found at her blog, where she is a curious curator of creative content:

Poetry snuck up on me. For a long time, I shunned poetry as being too obtuse and enigmatic, a puzzle proving impossible to solve. For secondary students, accessing poetry is challenging when teaching and analyzing to a particular poem, and these skills often get mired in that process. When students can come to poetry through their own experiences, they gain the confidence to take more risks as well as enjoying the precision of great poetry. Often all it takes is to slow down the process and the mind and use another medium to inspire writing.

Thanks to Holly Stein and Kim Norton, directors of the Puget Sound Writing Coalition (and two educators to whom I owe so much). Their Photo Poetry work is my first go-to, and they allowed me to share the framing of this process. “Interviewing a Picture” works with multiple content areas, as well as personal writing success. The process is deceptively simple. This can be done via whole class with a single image or each student/writer chooses a postcard/image print that speaks to them (random), or they can use a selfie or other image that means something to them personally. Adjust the questions as needed.

Once students have observed the image, there are a few guidelines, and of the dozens of times I’ve done this, it works like a charm. This is truly one of those magical lessons: A spell goes over the room, and most students succeed in creating powerful poetry. Pace the questions, tell them no talking, please, and say they have permission not to answer every question. You will repeat the questions at a slow pace, but they are not to get bogged down or rushed. If the image is provocative, preteach the importance of keeping their ideas to themselves (looking at you, Fuseli’s Nightmare). They must not blurt out, or the spell is broken.


What physical things do you see in the image?

What feelings does the picture evoke? (You will have to define the word “evoke” for many students.)

What colors dominate or seem to represent feeling?

(If you could be in the picture), what sounds would you hear around you? What might you hear farther away?

If you could be in this picture, what textures could you touch?

What would you smell?

Do you personally have memories that connect with those sights, sounds, textures, or smells?

If there are people in the picture, select one of the persons as a focus for this next section. If there is not a person, put a person into the picture. Decide on the person’s gender and age.

What does the person do during the day?

What does the person do in the evening?

Who might be the people significant in this person’s life?

What does this person fear?

What does this person enjoy?

What makes the person laugh and cry?

Who and what does she* love?

What words describe this person’s voice?

With what sort of things does the person surround herself or himself?

What is the person looking at?

What just happened? (Some students will blurt out, “I don’t know!” and if you need to preteach this is what writers do, they answer the questions for the reader before they’re asked!)

What is going on in the person’s mind at the time of the picture?

What is the person feeling as the picture is being taken?

What is one question you would like to ask the person or that the person would like to ask?

If you’re doing a historical or scientific focus, you may want to add these:

What might have been different about the land 10 (100) years ago?

How might the land be different in the future?

Who or what has the power to change the face of the land?

*Feel free to use they/them as gender-neutral pronouns.

Once students have finished the “interview,” have them go line by line and choose the most important words or phrases, the ones they can’t “live without.” They decide if they are the narrator or the observer (point of view). A critical component is to make sure students understand they are the writer and get in a “writer’s stance:" This is what writers do: We “interview” our stories—the characters, the plot, the beginnings, the endings. The prose we create grows from our ability to make noise in our minds: Ask the questions and write down the answers. Once they have chosen their best phrases, rewrite as a poem.

I have seen the most reluctant writers bloom with this strategy. When I read some lines and help them notice their own wordsmith prowess, their confidence grows. Use the pieces in a writing workshop. Consider creating suites of poetry—a collection of their writing they share with others. If you’d like to learn more about this strategy or see it in action, please email me at karen.kelly.love@gmail.com

“Do no harm”

A popular workshop presenter and winner of NCTE’s James Moffett Award in 2010, Gretchen Bernabei has been teaching kids to write in middle school and high school classrooms for more than 30 years. Most recently, Gretchen has co-authored a series of “Text Structures” books by Corwin including Text Structures from the Masters (Feb 2016), Text Structures from Nursery Rhymes (Oct 2017), Text Structures from Fairy Tales (Jan 2019), and the soon to be published Text Structures from Poetry:

First, how NOT to teach poetry:

For the first 31 years of my teaching career, I had never felt competent teaching poetry. Sure, I tried all of the worst practices before I knew they were worst practices: worksheets, dissections, groan-filled packets of figurative-language overkill. Trying to see how others teach poetry, I’ve too often watched eye-rolling adolescents holding their breath against enraptured adults performing some verse or other, unaware that their invitation to the pleasure will never convince any but the two front-row teacher-pleasers about whom later the teachers will purr, "...and they loved it.” These approaches have made me recoil from poetry. Billy Collins clarified it for me in his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” describing what happens to poems at the hands of teachers: We tie them to chairs and torture them until they’re dead.

I don’t want to damage poems or children; I want to first do no harm. And so my own Hippocratic teaching oath leads me to avoid fake-teaching poetry. I’d rather teach no poetry than do damage.

And as for teaching students to write poetry? By the time they reach middle school where I teach, students are already burned out on writing diamantes, acrostic poems, and haikus. I didn’t know how to begin teaching them to write poetry.

Help with teaching poetry:

Then one day I met Laura Van Prooyen, a professional poet, who tamed my poetry-teaching apprehension as she shared with me the process she uses with students. I sat in with a class, and here is what she had the students do:

  1. Write about a question, for just three or four minutes. The students don’t know that the question is one the poet addresses in the poem we’re about to read. For instance, “What’s one thing you’ve seen in your life, one view that was so beautiful, so staggering that you still can picture it in your mind? Write about that for three minutes.” Put the freewriting aside for now.

  2. Read a poem as someone reads it aloud. In this case, the poem is “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by Wordsworth.

  3. Read the poem again, this time marking any striking phrases or words. Compare notes and take note of poetic devices and meanings.

  4. Look at the chunked-up text structure and mark up our own copies of the poem in the same way.

  5. Read the poem one more time, this time noticing how the words follow the structure.

  6. Write your own poem. The students have their own thoughts from the freewriting, the poem full of devices the poet used, and the text structure. They may use those or any part of those, and in about 10 minutes, see what they create.

I’ve used this method now many times, and it’s a wonderful way to read even dense poetry and as effective at helping students write their own unique, higher-quality poems. And remarkably, it’s almost exactly the way I’ve learned to lead students to write other kinds of writing. Who could’ve known?

Poetry Cafe” & “Poetry Mash-up”

Jennifer Casa-Todd is currently a teacher-librarian, a former literacy consultant and English teacher, and the author of Social LEADia: Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership. She uses technology and social media to learn and share learning, empower and celebrate others, and make a positive impact on others. She is deeply passionate about shining a light on kids and their adult mentors who are making a difference on and offline:

Once upon a time in my teaching career, my poetry unit consisted of analysing poems of my choosing. Then, one year, I remember asking students to create their own poems which I graded!! I remember reading a student’s paper and being so touched by how vulnerable he had been but gave him a terrible mark because his poem didn’t match the criteria I had set out. I never did that again. Instead, I brought in some of my favourite poems to analyse and then invited my students to choose their favourites. I added songs as a viable poetry option. I also experimented with other ideas such as the Poetry Cafe and the Poetry Mash-up.

Poetry cafe. Students analysed poems they chose and selected one to recite in an Open-Mic environment. We brought in food and coffee and spent the period listening to each other. I did assess students for their oral presentation, but students did well generally because it was an informal atmosphere.

Poetry Mash-Up. This became my favourite way to teach poetry. In partners (or on their own), students selected two poems from our class anthology or an anthology of of their choosing and their favourite song in order to create their own “found poem” to be presented orally. Students analyse their creation for poetic elements. They could then present their poems orally or create a mash-up using Garageband (you could use Soundtrap as well). The difference this made was incredible! Not only did students do a better job analysing, but their mash-ups were beautiful and unique poems. Here is a copy of the assignment and a few examples. We asked students what they thought of the assignment and most of them shared that they enjoyed it because it was unique. Students engaged in the poetry mash-up had a greater appreciation for the elements that make poetry such a powerful genre.

“Liberation lyrics”

Ashley McCall is a 3rd grade English/language arts educator at Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Back of the Yards, in Chicago, where she serves as a teacher representative on the local school council. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna and a member of the Teach Plus Board:

Thanks to my colleague Ms. Sara Strasser, I was introduced to a routine called “Poem of the Week.” Last summer, Ms. Strasser attended a weeklong professional-development session hosted by The Poetry Foundation in Chicago. She came back to Chavez with a breadth of knowledge and resources (and awesome books!), but one of my favorites was Poem of the Week.

Poem of the week is a simple, consistent way to expose students to a variety of poetry structures, figurative language, and poets all year long. Every Thursday, students glue the poem of the week into their writing journals during the Do Now, and we complete a 5-10 minute activity with the text. These activities range from drawing images based on visualizations, searching for onomatopoeia, annotating for theme, noticing and interpreting repetition, and so on.

This year we’ve read Shel Silverstein, Maya Angelou, D.H. Lawrence, Walter De La Mare, Langston Hughes, and more! When students begin the poetry unit in spring, they’re already actively using the correct terminology and strategies for reading and understanding poems. During the unit, they’re prepared to dig into the usage of figurative language in the art and music spaces they engage with daily (i.e., listening for similes in “Shine Bright Like a Diamond” by Rihanna and Katy Perry’s “Firework” for metaphors). When students author their own poems, they’re more in tune with the infinite number of ways figurative language and other poetic devices can be used creatively to make meaning for themselves and for the reader.

By the end of the year, when students engage in social-justice book clubs, they have the language and analytical skills to discuss the use of poetry in historic cultural movements as cries for liberation and anthems for justice. They can recognize and write their own liberation lyrics as generations before them have done.

Poetry can be incredibly hard to break down, but the more we expose our students to the genre, in all of its diversity and cultural significance, the better!

Thanks to Donna, Kelly, Gretchen, Jennifer, and Ashley for their contributions!

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