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Reading & Literacy Opinion

Spreading ‘Poetry Love’ in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 24, 2020 16 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your favorite ways to teach poetry?

Today’s post continues a series begun last month with commentaries 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.

Georgia Heard, Leah B. Michaels, Michael Silverstone, and Keisha Rembert shared their idea’s in Part Two.

Cindi Rigsbee, Michele L. Haiken, Ed.D., Sharon Discorfano, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Gaby Comprés, Aeriale Johnson, Steve Peterson, Connie Pertuz-Meza, and Brett Vogelsinger “wrap up” this three-part series.

You can find the next question-of-the-week at the bottom of this post. Feel free to contribute responses!

“The sound of poetry is as important as the meaning”

Cindi Rigsbee is a national-board-certified ELA/reading teacher currently serving as a K-12 literacy coach in North Carolina. With over 30 years in education, Cindi was named the 2009 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

I’ve loved poetry since I was in the 1st grade and Mrs. Warnecke congratulated me on writing a poem about stars. And I may have been the only senior English student who was excited about a 40- page term paper on Robert Frost. The Romantic Writers of my English Lit class in college are my favorites to this day.

But middle school students always let a collective groan resound around my classroom at the mere mention of the word “poem.” So how can teachers engage students when it comes to material they think is “boring?”

First, like any other part of the curriculum, poetry can be exciting when the teacher is engaging. Animated poetry read-alouds can motivate even the most disengaged students. Make it magical!

One instructional strategy I like to use is sharing my personal poetry with students. What better way to teach interpretation than by facilitating discussions that include the author of the poem? Don’t have one on hand? On many occasions, I have stood in front of students and crafted a poem right there and then. They especially like personal poems that include their names and information about the class. And they enjoy watching the process of poetry writing since many of them aren’t comfortable when it comes to writing poems themselves.

Other teaching strategies include Choral Reading and Poems for Two Voices. Providing the opportunity for students to read poetry in a fun, entertaining way can help warm students up to poetry.

It’s important also to allow students to read poetry (and write it, for that matter) without insisting that they analyze the meaning and identify the poetic elements. Sometimes poetry is to be enjoyed for the sake of enjoying poetry. I tell my students we don’t need to take every poem apart line by line. Sometimes we just need to read a poem and hear the words, either in our heads or coming out of our mouths. The sound of poetry is as important as the meaning.

Make sure to include a variety of experiences in poetry. The more opportunities students have to read and listen to poems, the more comfortable they’ll be with this sometimes misunderstood genre.

And encourage students to write poetry in any way that is comfortable for them. Rhyming is fine, but so is free verse. I tell my students: “Just write and see what ends up on the paper. Say what you think and say what you feel. There’s no judgment in poetry. You are a poet, and the world is waiting...”

“When one hears a poem, words come to life”

Michele L. Haiken, Ed.D., is a middle school English teacher and adjunct professor of literacy in Westchester, N.Y. She is the author of Personalized Reading: Digital Strategies and Tools To Support All Learners (ISTE, 2018) and New Realms in Writing: Inspire Student Expression with Digital Age Formats (ISTE 2019). Find out more about her classroom strategies at her blog http://theteachingfactor.com and connect with her on Twitter @teachingfactor:

The poet Robert Frost once wrote, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (1973). Poetry is a multifaceted tool that can provide students opportunities to reflect on literature, content-area subjects, and their own feelings, while increasing their understanding of the material being covered within classroom instruction. Poetry and creative writing tend to get the short end of the stick in secondary school unless you are teaching an English or creative-writing class. But before you toss out the idea of incorporating poetry in your content-area classroom, know that poetry supports language and reading development because poetry brings aesthetic connections and provides a personal relationship with content material. Sharing poetry with our students offers both delight and insight through the power of words.

Poetry seems easy because it is less words and can be an entry into writing for struggling or reluctant writers (and readers) because of its brevity. At the same time, the brevity is where poetry can be deceiving. Less is more, and a poet is capable of using words to emphasize arguments, information, and autobiography. Before diving into poetry writing with your students, immersing them in poetry of different formats, genres, and topics allows them to see the depth poetry offers and expand their understanding of poetry. Poetry does not just have to be taught, read, and written in English and reading classes. Poetry works across the disciplines. What if a math teacher started the school year by asking students to write an ode to math or their favorite number? An ode, originally a Greek form of dramatic poetry, is a poem in praise of the ordinary things in life. Think about having your students write an ode for a specific time or event in history, a scientific concept, or an ode to celebrate their favorite activity outside of school. You would learn a lot about your students from the latter. Once students write their own unique ode, they can share them on Flipgrid, a free video-discussion platform. In actuality, poems were meant to be heard as much as read. Listening to poems brings meaning to the forefront with rhythm, rhyme, pause, and emphasis. When one hears a poem, words come to life.

Listening to poetry read aloud helps readers and writers understand the complexity of compact words. By reading and writing poetry, students build comprehension, learn grammar, and understand the power of words. For the reluctant writer and reader, the brevity of the text can draw them in and possibly lead to accessing longer texts. There is a lot of emphasis on reading and writing, and yet, we often forget that great stories and poems were meant to be heard. When students read aloud poetry, they gain a deeper meaning and are able to use tone, pause, and vocal variation to suggest meaning.

Students need to read poetry if they are writing their own poems. Poetry can be a tool for literary analysis and close-reading exercises. In my book, Personalized Reading (ISTE, 2018), I introduce the 5 Frame Story activity from The Jacob Burns Film Center. For this project, students work in small groups to present a story visually with only five photographs. This activity is so versatile because students can also create a five-frame visual story of a poem. Poetry uses vivid language that paints a picture in the reader’s mind. When my students are introduced to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, we read many in class together to understand Shakespeare’s language, meaning, and tone. Students are then assigned a sonnet in small groups to create a five-frame visual story about the sonnet. Students read, interpret, and summarize the sonnet in five original photographs. Using only images, students must showcase the main idea presented in the sonnet. When language is complex, visuals are helpful to support comprehension, thinking, and meaning making.

Education should be a place where the need for diverse teaching methods and styles are valued, encouraged, and seen as essential to learning. In my own classroom, my aim is to build on students’ learning and schooling and provide them with exciting and meaningful learning experiences that stir their curiosity and creative spirit. Poetry can do this and more.

“Two simple, fun activities”

Sharon Discorfano has been a writer and educator for more than 20 years, with an M.A. in literature from Georgetown University and years spent teaching in prestigious schools in Austin, Texas; Houston; and New York. She continues to engage with students ranging from elementary school to university level in the context of humane education and animal advocacy. Her book, Teaching Poetry, Embracing Perspectives, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017:

While I enjoy teaching poetry for poetry’s sake, I also believe it can be a powerful vehicle for teaching the art of respectful discourse and a deeper appreciation for multiple perspectives. Here are two simple, fun activities I’ve used toward these objectives that also help students better appreciate and tune into details of poems they are learning to read critically.

Candle Flame Observation

Teacher provides each student with a single tea-light candle. (If school rules or logistics prohibit this, a larger single candle that the entire class can gather around will suffice.)

  1. Students stack books on their desks to get the candle closer to eye level. Students should be sitting up straight, feet on the floor, hands resting on their desks or on their laps.

  2. The teacher goes around the classroom, lights candles, then sets a timer for two minutes; for this time, the sole task of each student is to observe the flame.

  3. After two minutes, teacher instructs students to blow out the flame.

  4. Timer set for five minutes, during which time students must continuously write (not letting the pen stop moving!) about the flame. Students’ writing may employ some free association (i.e., it reminds them of their last birthday party and the candles on the cake), but the writing should try to stick closely with what they observed about the candle on their desk during those two minutes.

  5. In classroom discussion to follow, students share their observations so that everyone hears the range of reactions to this two-minute experience. (A teacher can choose to highlight noteworthy descriptive words or phrases by writing them on the board.)

Writing about the flame of a candle for five minutes is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Students will be pushed to note the less than obvious observations, perhaps getting into the different hues of the flame or specifics about its flickering; they will be pushed to come up with some descriptive language that may not have occurred to them immediately. This activity not only will encourage a student to make discoveries, but it also will give each student the opportunity to revel in discoveries made by their classmates.

“Mad-Lib” Collective Sestina

Complementary to the individual observation practiced in the activity above is the following collaborative activity. The sestina form is six stanzas consisting of six lines each. The trick is all about the end words: Each stanza utilizes the same six end words, but they appear in a rotating order. The poem concludes with a tercet (three lines), in which each line contains two of the six end words.

To begin, the class must collectively decide on the end words. I’ve found it effective to offer some guidance during this initial brainstorming:

  1. action verb
  2. noun
  3. adjective
  4. action verb
  5. a place
  6. noun

Students will want to choose words that do not seem completely at odds with each other while, at the same time, offering some flexibility for creativity and fun.

Once end words have been agreed upon, a teacher divides the class into six groups—each group responsible for one stanza. Each group is given its respective order for the six end words and writes its stanza without knowing what the other groups are writing.

When the groups have finished, each hands in its stanza to the teacher. Coming together again as a class, the teacher reads aloud the stanzas in their correct order. After reading a second time through, she should write the six end words on the board in three lines, illustrating the pair of end words as they are required for each line of the tercet.

The final piece of this activity, then, is for the class to write the tercet together, which also provides a way for the class to tie together the preceding stanzas and give the poem some kind of resolution. With some minor editing as an option, the class can iron out any consistency problems. This activity underscores the benefits of teamwork and how allowing for different voices and a range of ideas often takes us in exciting, often unexpected, directions.

Spreading “poetry love”

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater writes for children and teachers from her home in Holland, N.Y:

We can spread “poetry love” in many ways. From reading daily poems to studying mentors, from sharing their own writing to hosting poetry events, these thoughtful teachers keep poems on the front burner all year. Poems feed reader, writer, and human souls. Please partake!

Shared Sensory Poems

Gaby Comprés teaches kindergarten at Carol Morgan School in Santo Domingo, Domincican Republic:

When writing poetry with my students, I often prompt them to use their senses. Kindergartners are quite poetic on their own, but I find that this strategy works particularly well because it makes poetry more tangible to them. After choosing a topic, we go down a mental list: What does it look/smell/taste/sound/feel like? It makes them think about their experiences with that topic and it involves lots of imagery, making the poem and our writing experience rich.

Photo by Gaby Comprés

Lifting Our Lives Through Poems

Aeriale Johnson teaches 2nd grade at Washington Elementary in San Jose, Calif.:

Daily poetry has proven to be central to my students’ ability to process emotions. Struck by Mary Oliver’s passing, I shared her poem “Wild Geese” with my students. One child responded, “If someone isn’t being kind, maybe we need to ask them what’s going on. They might say, ‘I’m struggling right now.’ My sister tried to commit suicide because something bad happened in her life. I wish she knew that it’s OK. She didn’t have to do that to say sorry.” After this, poets became our literacy and life mentors. After reading Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete, one child said, “Every single time I read a poem, it makes my life better.”

Exploring Emotion Through Odes

Steve Peterson teaches 5th grade at Decorah Middle School in Decorah, Iowa:

Poetry allows writers the sublime joy of using language to help readers feel strong emotions. Poems can be quick to write and lend themselves to revision. Early in the year, we write Over-the-top Odes, which are silly tributes to everyday objects. We study the ode form, identify poetic tools ode writers use, we write together and alone, then we share our odes with each other and our parents. I love to start the year with poetry!

Beginning the Year With Poetry

Connie Pertuz-Meza teaches 5th grade at P.S. 130 in Brooklyn, N.Y.:

On those early September days, I ask my students to contemplate Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ words, “We are all born poets,” words which hang in my classroom. Some say they don’t get poetry or it’s boring, while some say it’s pretty but don’t consider themselves poets. I point out that poetry is how they learned language: nursery rhymes, fairy tales, sing-along songs, and word families. Chins tilt, and eyes squint in concentration as students consider those early days of learning when the world was just one long poem. And for a brief moment, I watch them rediscover the world as one beautiful series of couplets, rhyme schemes, and alliteration.

Writing From Objects and Notes

Brett Vogelsinger teaches 9th grade at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, Pa.:

In October, students bring a leaf to class that is “eye-catching,” which may or may not mean “beautiful.” Then each of us uses our leaves to create a list of responses to 10 quick prompts in our Writer’s Notebooks; the list easily adapts to help see any object poetically. We scour our lists for connections and juxtapositions as we begin to string ideas into a poem that never uses the word “leaf.”

A Life Well Lived

You are an abandoned boat
Cut, bruised, and rigid,
But still afloat.
The image you portray is troublesome and depressing.
How old you are, no one will be guessing.
Though you are kind and helpful, You are no longer in your prime.
Though you are half what you used to be,
You still flutter through the water, graceful as ever.
Unsteady, but light as a feather.
You are rigid as the mountains,
As awe-inspiring as the sun,
Bystanders stare, their mouths faling agape in unison
Everyone wants to know your story,
And you are not shy to tell.
You will tell of the pain and misfortune,
But you will speak of riches and beauty as well.

-- Diana I.

Next “Question-of-the-Week”

The next question-of-the-week is:

What are ways to make lessons more “relevant” to students’ lives?

Thanks to Cindi, Michele, Sharon, Amy, Gaby, Aeriale, Steve, Connie, and Brett for their contributions!

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