Espresso Shot: Tips for Teaching Poetry

ideas for teaching poetry

It's National Poetry Month, and the Coffee Shop gang has gathered to share their best tips for teaching poetry. We'd love to hear your ideas too, so join the conversation and share your tried-and-true strategies in the comments. 

Poetry can be a daunting subject for both teachers and student alike!  Students fear that they “won’t get it” and teachers often do not have access to poetry resources that are engaging for students.  One of the things I love about teaching poetry is teaching students to write their own—to give them the confidence to play with language and words to create funny, moving, evocative or entertaining poems. We practice using figurative language and then work up to full poems with lots of opportunity to share and have fun along the way.  Check out my Poetry Activity Pack for seven different poetry writing activities!

When students read a poem for the first time, they shouldn’t have a pencil in their hands.  The first, second, or even third read  should be done purely for enjoyment, making first impressions, and forming personal connections.  When the time comes to dig deeper into the poet’s words, set students up for success by providing them with a step-by-step framework for annotating the poem.  I have students reflect on the title, clarify vocabulary or unclear phrases, summarize 4-5 line sections of the poem, identify and reflect on the use of literary devices, examine the poetic form, and consider the theme or purpose of the piece.   If you’d like to try out this method, you can check out my Poetry Annotation: A How-To Guide For Students.
Reading and analyzing poetry is challenging enough, but teaching the poetry writing process is a whole other ball game! Because poetry is so personal, I'm a firm believer that giving students choice is the best route to take.  Instead of assigning a specific topic or type of poem, give students a variety of options while still providing guidelines.  For example, ask students to write a poem about an exhilarating time in their life.  They can use any type of poem (free verse, limerick, haiku, etc.), but they must include one instance of personification and one metaphor.  Using this strategy allows students to express themselves freely, while still meeting the standards! If you'd like to try something like this, check out my Types of Poetry Interactive Notebook: Exploring Poetic Devices.

Our students listen to music every day. So many of the songs they listen to have a natural rhythm, and yet students don’t know why. Teaching students about blank verse helps bridge the gap between music in which our students enjoy and complicated poetry in which many students shy away from. When I teach blank verse, I have my class stand up and stomp and clap to the beat. Once I add a couple sonnets into the mix, my classroom becomes center stage for a poetry show down, and the students really get into the lesson. It’s usually one of those days that just flies by. If this is a lesson that interests you, you'll want to check out My Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter Made Easy.

In addition to celebrating National Poetry Month in April, I seek to weave poetry throughout the school year. One of my students' favorite activities is Found Poetry, which can be done with ANY fiction or nonfiction text. Students use select words and phrases from the original text, but use them to "distill" ideas about a central theme or character. Transforming words from the original text takes a lot of pressure off students to write their own poetry, but it also shows them that poetry can be found anywhere. I use this assignment two or three times per school year, and the results just keep getting better! 

I think it's important for students to know that we don't always find poetry easy. Just because we're English teachers doesn't mean we can look at a poem and instantly understand the poet's message -- we usually follow a process to try to figure it out. I like to start with a poem I've never seen before. I project it on the Smart Board and show the students the steps I go through when I read it the first time --and the second. When they see us struggle through analysis, I think it gives them a little more confidence to try too. Then, when I give them a complex poem, I help them go through these steps one at a time, so they don't get overwhlemed. If you'd like to break the process down for your students, check out my Poetry Learning Stations.

Many genres of poetry were meant to be read aloud, and not just with silent eyes on a page. In our classroom, poetry comes to life when I either read aloud OR play a video of a celebrity or expert doing a dramatic reading. (Students love getting voices other than mine!) Plus, once students have "heard" more poems as mentor texts, they're more willing to read out loud themselves and tiptoe into writing. To help with these mentor texts, I've used my Poem of the Week program stretched across the year AND in a condensed timeframe when necessary. 

When introducing poetry to my high school students, I typically utilize the first two or three classes to share and practice a few types of poetry they may have been exposed to at an earlier grade, such as haiku, limerick, sonnet, etc. This gives the students a bit of time to settle into the new poetry unit and gain some confidence towards their poetry writing ability. In addition, there are usually a few giggles and a lot of smiles! A great reference for these types of introductory poems can be found in my POETRY MINI BOOK. It is a helpful how-to reminder for each type of poem and the mini-lessons are already crested for the teacher!

One surefire way that often "kills" poetry for students is when we make them go through a poem and analyze it word-by-word, line-by-line for all possible poetic elements. Therefore, I always pick just one element to focus on per poem (metaphor, rhyme scheme, narrative perspective etc.) and look at the poem through that lens... then move on to another poem and focus on another element in that one, and so on. This way you don't analyze everything for every poem; you manage to expose students to a wonderful variety of poems; you still hit all of the relevant learning areas; and, best of all, you don't study any one poem to the point of boredom! Check out my Poetry Lesson Bundles for a variety of great, engaging lessons!
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