6 Tips for Teaching Poetry Writing to Teens
Writing poetry is a way for middle and high school students to explore hard-to-describe aspects of their lives.
In some ways, what you need to teach poetry well is a lot like what you need to write poetry well: You have to care a lot about your subject matter, and it’s important to foster conditions that inspire creativity. When these conditions are in place, teaching students to write poetry becomes much more fun, imaginative, and productive.
When introducing a poetry unit, I’ve found that it’s helpful to first share with students that most people, both kids and adults, already enjoy poetry—in the form of song lyrics. Then I tell them that part of what makes poetry so amazing is that it has the ability to create its own kind of music when read aloud, which is the ideal way to experience it. This helps frame poetry as its own unique genre while also connecting it to something most students already care about.
When students learn to write poetry, they gain the ability to illuminate those parts of the human experience that are otherwise difficult to define or describe. The following tips are centered around the fact that poetry is a revelatory form of self-expression. Your job becomes showing them how and why that is.
6 Strategies to Get Students Started Writing Poetry
1. Write your own poems. You can do this before or during the unit—or both. Share your process—drafts, failures, and successes—with your students. Even if you haven’t written poetry before, you may surprise yourself with what you come up with.
Also, when you share your words and your process with your students, they see that poetry is something that genuinely matters to you, and you’ll be better equipped to address their questions about the writing process because you’ve gone through it yourself. It’s a win-win.
2. Teach diverse poets and poems you love. When you’re passionate about the poetry you teach, your passion becomes contagious. It’s crucial, though, to make sure that, on the whole, the poets you teach are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and background. All students should be able to see some part of who they are reflected in the poems they read.
The types of poems you teach should be diverse, too—and I would argue there should be a bias toward contemporary poems. Teaching old, classic forms can be fun and worthwhile, but most poetry today doesn’t look or sound like poems written hundreds of years ago. This has to be a factor if we want students to appreciate poetry as a relevant genre.
3. Help students identify specific characteristics of poems they like. When you give them the vocabulary for certain techniques—such as slant rhyme, repetition, and consonance—they begin to read poems like poets, rather than examining them as if they were extraterrestrial artifacts.
Even after learning these techniques, students still need reminders to include them in their own poems. You might require that each student use a certain number of techniques when drafting a poem, while the actual techniques they use can be up to them. This gives them some control while still challenging them. Some of these techniques will eventually stick, helping students develop their unique voice on the page.
4. Encourage students—constantly—to be specific. Many students tend to want to write broadly, and we have to communicate to them that readers and listeners need very specific descriptions and commentary in order to feel connected to a poem. It’s worth taking the extra time to help students revise for specificity in each poem they write.
5. Encourage students to put themselves into their poems. In her now-classic book In The Middle, Nancie Atwell stresses the importance of having students share their thoughts and feelings in their writing. This advice has proven invaluable to my teaching over the years.
When students communicate their emotions, unique ideas, and radical opinions in their poems, their writing suddenly becomes more unique and compelling. Their poems become representative of who they really are, and as a result, readers and listeners understandably will be much more interested in what they have to say.
6. Help students learn how to understand the “thing behind the thing.” This is a concept I borrow from writer and podcaster Rob Bell. Bell uses it to talk about spirituality, but the idea applies to writing as well. Students should be able to articulate the answers to these questions:
- Why are they interested in the subject or topic they’re writing about?
- What does this say about who they are and the way they see the world?
When students start to do a little digging—which takes time and authentic reflection—they find there’s a lot more happening just beneath the surface of their thoughts than they may have realized. And with a little encouragement, what they discover beneath the surface often becomes the heart of the poem they’re trying to write.