As a teacher and a poet, it’s my passion to teach poetry—to inspire students to enjoy poems and show teachers how poetry can connect to the wider curriculum. I want to combat the fear and sound of groaning that poetry triggers in the heart, mind, and mouth of many a student (and teacher).
I teach performing arts at a private school in Oregon and just created and completed my first-ever unit of poetry recitals with grades six through eight. I was initially skeptical about the benefits of teaching recitals, though I know it has swung back in fashion in my home country (England), and there is a prestigious tradition in the United States of nationwide high school recital competitions with organizations like Poetry Out Loud. Having dyslexia, I’ve never felt comfortable memorizing poems; it causes me anxiety, as it does for many students. However, with my school wanting to develop communication skills, I decided to try something new.
When I announced the new unit, I was greeted with predictable sighs. I immediately quizzed my students, and it turned out that most of them held three common concerns:
- They don’t understand the poems they have to read.
- They grow bored with overanalyzing poems.
- They feel that the poems don’t connect to their lives.
So I crafted the new unit to directly tackle these concerns, while at the same time upholding a high literary standard and introducing students to new work.
How to Source Poems
I read poetry every day and constantly collect poems to use in the classroom that have two key features: (1) accessible language with rich but not overly complicated imagery, and (2) subject matter that middle school or high school students can relate to. You don’t need to be a poet to do this. The Poetry Foundation is an amazing free online resource with thousands of accessible poems, lesson ideas, poet biographies, and more.
To help students make personal connections, I took a colleague’s suggestion to include work from Oregon’s famous poet William Stafford. I also added Polish Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska. Both poets are known for their accessibility, depth of issues, and directness. I threw into the mix a few poems about basketball to pique the interest of some especially reticent eighth-grade boys.
For sixth grade, I connected to a forthcoming Greek literature unit but using Pablo Neruda’s famous odes, all about everyday objects—which my students found very appealing. I added Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…,” as some students loved the challenge. Amanda Gorman’s latest book of poetry inspired other students, and I showed a film of her Inauguration Day poem to every class.
10 Rules for Creating the Unit
1. Have students choose the poems. Let the students choose from your collection; they can also choose a poem that you haven’t found. The more choice, the better.
2. Show examples of teenagers reciting. Poetry Out Loud has many wonderful examples of high school finalists and winners reciting short poems using all the key skills.
3. Let students figure out how to recite. It’s perfectly OK to have the poem on a piece of paper in front of the student as long as they work on the recital skills (see below) and don’t just read it. Confident students can memorize the poem and turn it into a more physical performance.
4. Avoid literary analysis. This already occurs in literature class, so don’t overemphasize an existing element of teaching that is one of the core reasons why students disengage from poetry. Instead, have discussion circles and encourage students to talk about the issues raised in the poem.
5. Find out what it means to them. Ask the students what a poem means to them, how they connect with it, and what it makes them think about. Poetry is an art form, an experience, not a puzzle to unlock. As former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins wrote in his poem “Introduction to Poetry”: “But all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.”
Collins was referring to how tortuous the process of appreciating poetry can feel for students when we ask them to cross-examine poems for their secret meaning (what the poet meant). Poets will often say: What the poem means to you the reader is the most important aspect. If you find no connection, don’t worry—read another poem.
6. Be a role model. Frequently model poetry recitals yourself, including what you find hard and how you will improve.
7. Create a skills checklist. Base the list on comprehending the poem (essential), finding emotional tone changes, emphasis of key words, varying of pace, clear articulation, and eye contact with the audience. These are all transferable skills to other core subjects, with the added benefit of rebuilding speaking and listening competence disrupted by the pandemic.
8. Give practice time. Practice makes… better. Allow time in lessons for students to work in pairs, in groups, or alone.
9. Have a dress rehearsal. Let students try reciting to the whole class; have student-led feedback that is positive and sets one goal.
10. Give them a final recital choice. Give students the choice between a live recital to peers in class or a filmed one, done at home with no mask. Our recital was an assessment, but students were allowed to start again if they made a mistake. I showed my students the example of renowned actor Sir Patrick Stewart having to start again when reading (from a book) a Shakespearean sonnet. I shared it with my students so that they wouldn’t be fazed by mistakes.
By the end of the unit, I was delighted with the rapid skill and confidence progression; some students discovered skills they never thought they had. Some of my shyest students found their voice, and many students realized that poetry can be enjoyable and relevant. I’m now a recital convert, and I plan to have a middle school recital competition event next year.