The ode is one of the oldest poetic forms, dating back to ancient Greece, where they were used to celebrate athletic achievements, gods, emotions, or worthy people. The 19th-century British Romantic poets widened the focus, celebrating subjects as diverse as songbirds and autumn. In the 20th century, Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda famously wrote odes about everyday objects and concepts: socks, tomatoes, sadness, french fries, etc.
Students Can Write About Almost Anything, and So Can You
For my grade 6 performing arts class, I wanted to make interdisciplinary connections to the literature and language studies of Homer’s The Odyssey. As my other middle school grades were all doing poetry recitals and writing, the ode seemed to be the obvious choice. I abandoned any idea of using classical or 19th-century odes; their strict forms and archaic language would be too intimidating. Neruda was our role model.
I started the unit by having the students select a Neruda ode to learn how to recite. The absurd, emotional, entertaining, and imaginative odes captivated the students. You can write a poem about a lemon? You can celebrate “broken things”?
For the second part of the unit, the students had to write their own ode. This was the first year I’ve ever had students worry that they didn’t know how to write poems. It’s worth noting that the pandemic may have limited middle school students’ exposure to poetry, as schools have had to make choices about what to teach online.
So it’s now doubly important to model the process yourself. Teacher participation in the process will inspire your students and help you appreciate the challenges of what you are requiring. I wrote “Ode to My Water Bottle” as an example and then used the poetry-writing sequence below (which can be applied to any poetic form).
8 Steps for Writing and Sharing Poems
1. Pick a subject for your poem based on something you love. My students chose to celebrate the following subjects: high heels, bonsai trees, pork buns, pencils, books, chipmunks, cars, their bed, toasters, and the Marvel antihero Deadpool. The students loved the random, eclectic variety of each other’s choices.
2. Use an ideas-planning frame to brainstorm language and phrases. Having time to accumulate ideas is essential. As I work in an international baccalaureate school, I used the conceptual language of form (what is it?), function (how does it work?), change (how does it change you?), and perspective (think from the object’s point of view). The goal is to collect as many ideas as possible. I use the analogy of panning for gold: You have to sift through a lot of mud.
3. Build poetic sentences in a notebook. I don’t jump right into the poem. Instead, I have the students take ideas and craft rich sentences about their subject, focusing on figurative language. Students often come to the poetic writing process without an appreciation of the craft that goes into it. I teach them that the thesaurus is their new best friend. Breaking down the poetic process into manageable chunks reinforces transferable literacy skills. Once well practiced, these steps can be sped up.
It’s important to make time for your students to share their sentences, celebrate great imagery, and give each other feedback. Making this a regular event also slowly acclimates the students to the idea of sharing their own writing in a safe space for literary feedback.
4. Shape sentences into an ode form. I select my favorite poetic sentences, and I show the students how to assemble them into verses. This is where I teach the students what a line break is and why they exist. With Neruda as our ongoing model, there is no requirement for a strict form, rhyme, or particular rhythm or meter—elements that are part of the wider literature curriculum. Instead, the only requirement is that the ode truly celebrates the subject with enthusiastic statements.
5. Edit for additional inclusion of figurative language and phrases. The final writing stage is editing, which is when a poem’s potential can be truly realized. After all, poets spend a long time deliberating over word choices. So this is when I give specific feedback to every student, using the comment feature on Google Docs.
6. Practice reciting to friends, groups, or the class. Sharing the odes in pairs and small groups and finally the whole class was a great way to utilize those newly gained recital skills. Reading a poem aloud always catches little errors or changes, so it’s worth some last-minute time to make final edits.
7. Address students’ nervousness about sharing their work. While the students were confident reciting Neruda’s odes, there was a noticeable decline in recital skill when it came to their own work. The students said they were nervous because this was their work, their words, their ideas. With this in mind, we had a lesson to practice in our performance space and learn how to use the microphone properly while still wearing masks.
8. Celebrate success! We shared our work with the school community, and the parents were delighted by the range of odes, the creative use of language, and the students’ enthusiasm. Writing odes is certainly an approach I will use again and also with different grades, as odes can easily be used with much younger or older students. If you still need convincing, read “Ode to Teachers,” by Pat Mora.