One of my favorite things about teaching is helping my students through a difficult text or a challenging writing task and seeing that moment when their light bulbs turn on and they get it. Poetry can be a particular struggle for teachers and students alike, but it can also build students’ stamina for difficult texts and lead to some gratifying “aha” moments.
Just recently, my ninth-grade English classes read Margaret Atwood’s “Elegy for the Giant Tortoises,” and at first they found the poem confusing. We paraphrased it and drew pictures of its imagery to see if we could decipher Atwood’s purpose. A hand would shoot up from a student eager to share a message they’d found in the poem, and I’d hear exclamations of “Oh!” from groups of students as they pieced together bits of the puzzle.
This experience led to an “aha” moment of my own. Not only can poetry be fun and engaging if we are willing to try something new with our students to help them find the purpose in poems, but in April the timing is perfect to bring both National Poetry Month and Earth Day to ELA instruction. The two make such a natural pairing that I tied them together to create new lessons that made poetry’s purpose—both reading and writing it—clearer to my students.
1. Create a Haiku Chalk Walk
This Earth Day, try infusing environmental advocacy with poetry, which can be a surprisingly effective tool to introduce advocacy into the classroom because it can convey big ideas with few words.
I always turn to Aaron Naparstek’s “Honku” poetry as a prime example of advocating for a cause through poetry. My students start by listening to his humorous and inspiring story from The Moth Radio Hour and reading some of his poems. Then we discuss Earth Day and the changes we could all make for a better planet. Next, we tackle writing haiku (a traditional poetic form with a five-seven-five syllable pattern) of our own, advocating for a healthier, happier planet. Finally, we take inspiration from Naparstek and post our poems outside, where everyone can read them, by writing them in chalk on the sidewalks at different entrances to the building.
A class can even come up with its own five-syllable hashtag for the first line of every poem, such as #IThankTheEarthFor or #ThankYouPlanetEarth. This is a great way to get the kids working together on a simple advocacy project while also enjoying the nice spring weather that Earth Day often brings.
2. Couplets on Canva
Sticking with the purpose of advocacy for Earth Day, I challenge my students to come up with the catchiest couplet advocating for a simple action we can all take to improve the planet. I ask my students to research conservation actions, and then we start drafting.
Because couplets are only two lines, this is a great way to discuss powerful, succinct writing. Additionally, I like to tie this into social media, where writing is also brief. Once my students write their couplets, we use Canva to create Instagram posts that showcase what they know and share it with the world. For those without devices or permission to use social media, catchy couplets could easily be the centerpiece of posters or other art to hang in the classroom or around the school.
While my students may not continue writing couplets after this assignment, I love that they discover that anyone can be an advocate—and that there are tools they can use to make their writing look neat and professional so that they can share their ideas with a larger audience.
3. Show What You Know
I once had a teacher for a class on scientific inquiry who, while studying scorpions in the field, wrote a poem about their mating habits; poetry wasn’t really her thing, but she could recite her poem by heart (years after she had written it) and retained what she had learned about scorpions because of her poem. Students can do the same thing: write poetry to demonstrate their understanding (and ideally retain it).
For National Poetry Month and Earth Day, try tackling poetry by going cross-curricular so that you infuse ELA with science. I have partnered with my ninth-grade students’ biology teacher to have them write poetry about a topic from science class. For Earth Day, poems about the importance of biodiversity or humanity’s impact on the environment would be a good fit that would let students give a voice to our natural world. Having them write a poem demonstrating what they’re learning in science class is a great way to support their learning in other content areas.
4. Connect With Nature
Studies show that spending time outdoors can enhance student writing. When the weather warms up, I like to take a day outside with my students so they can just write, free from distractions.
I encourage them to use the poetic devices we have been learning about in class, but the overall goal is to get them to flex their creative muscles in an outdoor setting. Students can make written observations of the natural world around them and come up with creative ways to describe the different sights, smells, and sounds. If your school doesn’t have any sort of outdoor classroom space, don’t fret. Something as simple as a plant growing through a crack in the concrete can inspire great poetry.