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(Re)Creating Poets: How to Teach Poetry in the Classroom

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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The wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye first introduced me to William Stafford's idea that no one becomes a poet. She says that we are all born poets, and it's just that some of us choose to keep up the habit.

At times, all of us inevitably get stuck viewing ourselves in static and limiting ways. When I tell students that we will be studying poetry there are always some students who mutter, "I can't write poems."

A poetry unit and Poetry Month are opportunities for encouraging students to write in new, creative and different ways. Bill Moyers reminds us, "Fooling with words is the play of poetry." Studying poetry should be fun and challenging for all students, regardless of the personal narrative they have about themselves as poets and writers.

When studying poetry, the first thing I ask students to do is define poetry. They must come up with their own definition (no dictionaries or devices allowed), and then they work with a group to agree upon a common definition. After we share different group definitions, I project a piece of visual art and ask whether it should be considered poetry. I then play a song that is certain to provoke different responses and ask students to reexamine and clarify their definitions (my most recent choice was "Ice Ice Baby").

As we discuss and debate what should be considered poetry, my goal is to challenge students to think broadly about poetry and creativity. I want them to be ready to create work that has meaning to them and not be preoccupied with rules or conventions.

As the unit continues, here are four strategies and a number of resources that I've found helpful.

1. Establish a Culture of Individual and Communal Observation and Exploration

I intentionally use poems about poetry early in the unit. Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry" can get a class thinking and talking about the acts of reading, experiencing and analyzing a poem. This first poem is an opportunity to introduce students to the idea of marking up poems. They use colored pencils and work with others to color code a poem using a key they've created that refers to form and content. They can mark shifts in tone, repetition, perspective, figurative language, or any other features they've designated important. We then share our findings in a way that's inclusive of the varied experiences of different readers. My goals are for students to be active readers who notice details and engage with the work on their own terms.

2. Read Poems Aloud and Encourage Students to Respond Creatively

The experience of a poem is much different when hearing it read rather than reading it silently. Each time we look at a new poem as a class, we hear it read out loud twice by students before we start to look at it more closely. After the first or second reading, students give an initial response in the form of a one-minute sketch or sharing of a word or a phrase that stands out. As the unit progresses, I encourage students to bring in poems that resonate with them to share at the beginning of class. Last year a student introduced the class to "Tamara's Opus," this powerful poem by Joshua Bennett:

3. Use a Range of Model Poems to Introduce New Forms

During the unit students read and then write poems in these forms, among others:

In order to push them toward fresh, new writing, my rules are simple: no rhyming, use sensory imagery, and cut and condense. Murphy's Style Sheet from Bill Moyers' website is a helpful guide for student revisions. Poem a Day from the Library of Congress, the Dodge Poetry Festival video on Bill Moyers' site, Poetry Out Loud, and Ten Poems I Love to Teach from the Poetry Foundation are all great resources.

4. Poetry Portfolios and a Celebration of Poetry

Poetry portfolios are an excellent way for students to collect their work, complete detailed studies of poets, and focus on revising for a polished final product. I have used wikis for portfolios because they allow students to easily see and peer-edit each others' work, and they can be shared with an outside audience. (Here is an example.) I write along with the students to share the challenge and excitement of the work. Closing the unit with a Celebration of Poetry, where everyone recites a memorized poem he or she has written, is an affirming way to use the power of performance to recognize student accomplishments.

Helping students to (re)discover their poetic voices is powerful, vital and invigorating. Equally powerful is the opportunity for students to deeply connect with the experiences and words of others. In her speech "The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action," Audre Lorde reminds us of the inherent human need for expression:

[T]he transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, "Tell them about how you're never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there's always one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don't speak out, one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside."

How do you explore poetry with your students?

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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Jen's picture
11th and 12th Grade English Teacher in Oceanside, CA

I loved your post regarding poetry and making it much more accessible to students. I agree that whenever I introduce poetry to my high school students, a collective groan can be heard down the halls. However, by introducing it in the manner in which you describe and emphasizing the idea that poetry should be heard and be "action" based is so true. I'm wondering if you have ever tried "Poetry Alive" with your students and have them perform it as a "show" stringing together different poetry as they take the "stage." It's a lot of fun. Thank you for sharing the idea of a portfolio system via Wiki's. I can't wait to try this strategy as well.

Bruce Morrow's picture

A great resource for teaching poetry writing in the classroom is Teachers & Writers Collaborative, . Please see their books and magazine on teaching imaginative writing.

Norah's picture
Early childhood teacher, writer, life-long learner

This is a great post. I have always enjoyed reading and writing poetry with my early childhood students. What you do at the other end of schooling is fascinating. I like that you said we are all born poets, it's just that only some keep up the habit. Perhaps more would if more value was placed upon poetry, not only in schools, but in society as a whole. We need to take away the groan and replace it with awe.

Katie E's picture
Katie E
passionate about cross-curricular integration

I love your call to students to engage with poetry both in wider terms than they may expect. And on their terms. I've tried to do the same. At the risk of seeming pushy, I'll shortcut my 'soap box speech' about teaching poetry and invite you to consider some of the materials I offer to help students learn, enjoy, & apply lyrical literacy. These materials are at

Courtney's picture

This was a great post. Poetry is something that it is so enjoyable, yet many students have a difficult time understanding or appreciating it. I believe that it is often the way that it is presented to them. Poetry can often times be very complex and abstract, and through my experience working with students with learning difficulties, it can be very hard to teach. I thought the model you presented would work well for them. It encouraged read alouds, which not only would help those who struggled with reading comprehension, but could give them an idea of tone, and inflection on important phrases in the poem. I think being able to hear the poem in the way the author meant it to be read, would be helpful in guiding the students to the meaning of the poetry. I also thought sharing different forms of poetry was important. Most students go in with the mindset that poems must rhyme, and are very "Mother Goose" like. Introducing them to the different types and style of poetry offers them a window to a world of artistic expression that they may have not known existed. There are so many styles and forms of poetry, it is important that students are able to experience them all.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

This is fantastic.

Sometimes it's just the word "poetry" that scares kids. When I ask students to write song lyrics or raps, they end up with informal poems. It's a great place to start. After that, they're more open towards poetry itself.

amailuk's picture

Being a literature teacher myself, I found your suggestions to be super cool. Truth is we are all born poets. Challenge has been what we have been led to believe poetry is over the ages. It has been made so serious and complex. When students appreciate the ease with which they can and do poetry the loosen up and flow. Thanks for the tips. I am sure going to incorporate them. The beauty of them is they are not the copy paste kind, but stuff you practice, do and live by.

Thanks again,

Manjula Reddy's picture

I chanced upon your article while looking for new ways to teach poetry.
Your methods helped me evolve as a reader of poetry. I hope to, now, grow as a poetry teacher.
Your methods are innovative and engaging. They encourage original thought.
I particularly loved the poems you referred to in your article.

I live in Secunderabad, India, and have recently been invited to be part of a Literary Festival at a local school. I am not a traditional "teacher". I read, write and teach poetry simply for the love of it.

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thank you all for such kind comments. It is wonderful to hear from so many teacher-poets!

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