Each year, when I tell my students that we are going to write poetry, a few are excited, but the majority let out an audible sigh. They often have the misconception that poetry is about following a lot of rules and using words that they don’t understand. They’re more open and excited when the focus shifts toward sharing their ideas and feelings with others in a creative format.
With each new type of poetry I teach, I work through writing a poem with them and talk through my thinking. Showing students that their teacher’s writing is far from perfect and sometimes comes out a lot different than envisioned empowers them to create their own work. I also model the risk-taking of starting a poem and the beauty of improvement through revision.
The poetry-writing process can become more inclusive and engaging when you offer a variety of poetry-writing exercises.
Start with a page from any text and ask students to choose words from that text to create a poem. They black out any words they don’t want in their poem with a marker. They then rewrite all the remaining words into a poem.
Ask students to plan what they want to black out by lightly underlining in pencil before they begin marking through words. The only rule is that they must use these words in the order that they appear.
Students enjoy using texts that seem uninteresting at first glance, such as pages out of discarded grammar books. They love turning something boring into a fun poem.
Blackout poetry is a good starting point for new poets because the words are already on the page and students only need to determine which words to use. This strategy can also be used as an interdisciplinary assignment in which students use text from specific content to create a poem about that content, such as using the Bill of Rights to create a poem about the Revolutionary War.
This strategy begins with a pile of words cut out on individual pieces of paper. They can be specific words chosen by the teacher or words collected from students. Students organize the words to create any poem they would like without adding new words. This strategy allows students to see that there is not a right way to write a poem, and everyone leaves class with a completed poem. When I model this for students, they love to see me moving words around, changing my mind and wishing so much for words that I don’t have.
There are several variations of the word-scamble poetry method. One involves giving all students the same group of words and discovering how many different ideas are formulated using those same words. Another involves giving students different groups of words and allowing them to trade words. A last variation involves a bit of stealing by the teacher: Periodically walk around the classroom and distribute new words or take some words away.
My Life in ___ Words
Students are given the task of writing the story of their life using only the same number of words as their age. This helps students practice word choice and takes a little of the pressure off because it is, by default, a short piece.
A variation of this method is to use a different cap on the number of words that students may use. I’ve asked students to write about a specific topic using fewer than five or 10 words.
Prose to Poetry
Students write out their ideas for a poem without worrying about format. They are encouraged to write freely about whatever emotion or topic they would like to convey in their poem. Then students follow four steps to turn the prose into poetry:
- Decide what emotion or idea is most important for you to convey in your poem, and keep that in mind as you make revisions.
- Cut the word count by at least half by eliminating unneeded words and phrases. Highlight the most important words and phrases that you want to keep and delete the rest.
- Highlight what you think is the most important phrase, and make it your title.
- Rearrange the remaining words and phrases in a way that helps you convey your idea. Consider starting and ending all lines with a noun, adjective, or verb.
My Worst Poem
Ask students to write the worst poem ever about something they feel strongly about. Then have them go through a few revisions, making edits to turn it into something they are proud to share. This takes the pressure off of getting something on paper. Once they get over the stress of what to write and just start writing, they almost always realize that their “worst poem” isn’t that bad at all.
After working through a few of these activities, students often comment on how surprised they are about how many poems they wrote and how much fun they had. I end the unit celebrating their writing with a poetry café, where students share their poems with their classmates and enjoy a few snacks. Creating easy and accessible exercises for poetry writing can turn skeptical students into poets.