As a lover of both reading and writing poetry, I’ve made it my mission to help teachers and students enjoy accessing this ancient art form. I’ve worked with many colleagues who dislike teaching poetry, having had such poor experiences themselves at school. So often, students struggle with enjoyment of reading poems. They get frustrated searching for hidden meaning in poems and having to decode other mysteries, such as poetic meter and rhyming patterns. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” the former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins speaks to this: But all they want to do/ is tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it.
Famous poets are often asked how they define poetry. One of my favorite responses is from current U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón. In an interview in World Literature Today, she described poetry as being not an answer but an experience, a question, a curiosity. The idea of poetry being a two-way artistic experience—the sharing of the poet’s experience, thoughts, emotions, and ideas with the reader—is essential for remodeling how to teach the reading of poetry.
The reader’s own perspective, point of view, interpretation, questions, etc., are all essential. This is a very different approach from the one I learned when I was in middle and high school. Here’s how I arrived at it.
Learn from the Best
Some years ago, I took two online courses from Poetry in America in conjunction with Harvard University on the topic of how to teach poetry analysis in the classroom, from grade 2 to grade 12. We covered American poets from the last 200 years and focused on the natural and urban environments. In the teaching videos, I saw many great examples of classroom teachers breaking down the process so that students could better enjoy the process. I was inspired to evaluate my own teaching.
I combined what I had learned in the courses with the principles of Visible Thinking routines, which I had also learned in workshops when I worked in international schools. Visible Thinking is a set of routines that help students make connections across content areas. Guided by all of this learning, I created a recording template to be used during poetry lessons.
Read for Meaning and Pleasure
My recording template helps students construct a methodology of accessing poems. After reading the poem aloud at least twice, ask the students to consider the following four topics:
Imagery: What images do they see in their mind’s eye? Students record these in the “I see” box as words, phrases, or sentences. Then invite them to add ideas in the “I think” box, with the prompt ”What do the images make you think? Why might they be there, or why are they important?” The key here is the students’ individual responses. This is also an appropriate place to refer to the senses and notice metaphor and simile.
Word choice: Next, students identify the words that stand out to them. Again, this helps reinforce the idea that it’s desirable for different people to have different responses to poems. Students can also observe alliteration, onomatopoeia, adjectives, adverbs, etc., when considering this topic.
Structure: This tends to be the hardest part of the process, as it requires more prior knowledge, so teaching and observing students while they use the document the first few times is typical. Here, I ask students to see and think about what patterns they notice in the layout of the poem: verse numbers and lengths, line lengths and breaks, rhyming, and rhythmic syllable beats. Talking about patterns is a great way to access the complex vocabulary associated with this topic.
Meaning: In this section, students focus on thinking about what the poem means to them: what it reveals, shows, or teaches; what connections students can make to their lives or wider reading; what the poem makes them wonder. It’s still OK to discuss what the writer meant by the poem, and it’s OK for students to say that they don’t know what it means but to share what they think it means. The important goal is for the reader—you included—to discover their own meaning.
Free Resources for Teachers
Every teacher needs resources, especially ones that are free, easy to access and use, and applicable to the classroom. Here are some I’ve found in my wider reading over the years that help support and supplement the class content.
- Poetry Foundation is an amazing and free online collection of thousands of poems, poet biographies, lesson ideas, and other materials.
- Academy of American Poets is another good poetry source, and they offer a free poem-a-day service for your inbox, as does Poetry Foundation. The poems are often modern and usually worth keeping for use in class.
- Modern poets: Naomi Shihab Nye is a former Young Poet Laureate, and she used her work in schools. It is becoming increasingly common to see poetry published in both English and the author’s mother tongue, such as José Olivarez’s book Promises of Gold/Promesas de Oro. Olivarez uses a direct, conversational style and writes about topics that may resonate with older students. The aforementioned Billy Collins is very popular for his humorous and observant poems.
- Poetry in America offers free online classes (featuring video lectures, archival images, texts, and more) for teachers and students.
- Social media sites such as X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, and YouTube are useful poetry resources. Prince Ea is an especially inspiring content creator.
Discover the Path Less Traveled
Reading about the poem and author before or after the lesson isn’t necessary but can be fascinating. Robert Frost’s very famous “The Road Not Taken” was immediately and to this day is misinterpreted as encouragement to be an individual and take the less traveled path. In fact, it was an inside joke teasing his walking buddy and fellow poet Edward Thomas.
The true mystery in every poem isn’t about unlocking the toolbox that the writer used but the experience that each student will have when exploring the poem. If the poem doesn’t make much of an impact for a student, it doesn’t matter. By engaging in an act of discovery, students are more likely to try another poem. Given the thousands of poems that exist, there truly is a poem for everyone.