Brisk and Bright Approaches for National Poetry Month

Poetry is language at its most distilled and powerful. Show students its life and wonder by teasing poems apart with creative strategies for reciting and rewriting.

March 9, 2015

Last year for National Poetry Month, I wrote a blog post about integrating a poem into the opening routine of my English class at Holicong Middle School, in Pennsylvania. Now, a year later, not only do I consider it one of the best commitments to a classroom routine that I've ever made, but I also have a burgeoning collection of ideas about what flops and what flies when it comes to launching our class period each day by pairing a poem with quick, engaging, and challenging activities.

A Careful Approach

When I talk with my wife -- an avid reader just like I am -- about poetry, she often says that she wishes her teachers hadn't treated it as something mandatory, a unit to slog through before getting on with what they loved to teach: those sacred canonical novels. "Maybe," she'll sigh, "I would love poetry today if that were the case."

So how can we as teachers foster close reading, overcome fear of the genre, and cultivate a love for poetic language without getting bogged down in lessons that feel like dissection labs?

Here are a few top tips for keeping poetry-reading activities brisk and bright:

  1. Choose poems that are comprehensible on one read, but reveal greater depth on subsequent reads. A poem that completely loses the audience on the first read is best kept for less frequent, more time-consuming, in-depth study.
  2. Choose poems short enough for students to focus on the challenge you present. Epic poetry consumes more time than haiku, so plan accordingly.
  3. Choose poems with distinct tone: sarcasm, nostalgia, humor, despair. What chord will this poem strike in your students? If you want to use poetry daily, be sure to vary the tones they encounter.
  4. Choose poems that fascinate you. Share your questions and sense of wonder. Poetry invites this type of thinking. Do not feel that the only poems worth sharing are the ones you can slice open with a surgeon's dexterity. Pick the ones that you arm wrestle with. They are more naturally engaging.

12 Artful Strategies

Here are a few specific activities that can quickly engage your students with poetry, from its musical rhythms to its rich themes:

Sketch This Poem

Take three minutes to sketch what you see in the poem. Take five minutes to discuss how our sketches differ and what we chose to highlight from the poem. Recently, we created three-minute sketches based on "Little Citizen, Little Survivor" by Hayden Carruth, a poem about a rat in a woodpile. Such a simple topic spurred such varied visuals, leading to a discussion of which details were most important in the poem.

Wave This Poem

Read it like a wave in a baseball stadium, each person getting one word to read aloud. Read it this way in a circle, repeating the poem until the language becomes smooth and fluid, like a wave.

Shout Out This Poem

Find your favorite word or phrase. When I read the poem aloud a second time, read that part with me. Why do these certain lines stand out?

Build This Poem

Chop a short poem up into lines, or dice a really short poem into words, and put them in an envelope. Pass out the envelopes and have the kids construct a poem from the pieces. Then reveal the published original. Students think through the logical cohesion of the poem, and sometimes find surprising new combinations of ideas in their own versions.

Wordle This Poem

Use Wordle to create a wordsplash of all the nouns in the poem. Based on those nouns, have the students predict what the poem might be about. Afterward, discuss which nouns were used figuratively and why.

Update This Poem

Rewrite the poem in contemporary language. Alternately, you could make the poem more local by changing the setting to reflect the area around your school. We read the poem "Clay County" by John Hodgen and note how the names of places and descriptions tell us so much about the county. Then we rewrite it as "Bucks County" using local names from where we live to show the personality of our community.

Overdramatize This Poem

After reading the poem once in a normal tone of voice, challenge the kids to interpret it aloud in an overzealous, dramatic style. Not only are the results hilarious, but each one is different, and it will highlight shades of meaning and weaknesses in lines that might not otherwise stand out.

Wreck This Poem

Replace five words in the poem with five different words that will either destroy the quality or completely change the subject of the poem.

Gift This Poem

To whom would you like to give this poem and why? Write for three minutes in your journal, and then share with a partner.

Connect This Poem

How does this seemingly unrelated poem connect with something bigger that we are reading or have read in class? While studying To Kill a Mockingbird, we read a haiku about a falcon by poet An’Ya, who lives alone on a mountaintop in rural Oregon. I challenge students to relate it to the character of Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer living in fictional Maycomb, Alabama. The obvious connection: they both mention birds. A less obvious connection: Atticus is calling his children gently and gradually toward maturity, just like the falcon calls its fledglings in the poem.

Hear This Poem

Hearing a poet read his or her poem, or watching a slam poet perform, tends to give even a more cryptic poem an entirely new dimension. Thank you, internet -- we have no problem finding these now!

Email (or Tweet) This Poet

Read a contemporary poem, look up the poet's contact information, and share your interpretations with the poet via a class email. In my experience, poets seldom want to impose an interpretation on their work, but they are often willing to share inspirations for the poem and which of the class interpretations they feel are most consistent with their word choice in the poem. We've had some nice exchanges with Jason Tandon, Sean Hewitt, and former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, to name a few.

The Road Not Taken

Rita Dove says, "Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful." A year ago, I made the choice to begin each day in English class with powerful, distilled language, and I hope I never go back to any other opening routine. As powerful as poetry is, however, teachers are, too. We have the power to kill or amplify it, and what we have our students do with poetry can make all the difference. Be inviting, engaged, and intrigued with poetry, and your students will follow. Try some of these techniques, and they will look at that divergent road in the yellow woods with a whole new sense of wonder.

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  • English Language Arts

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