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4 Reasons to Start Class With a Poem Each Day

Brett Vogelsinger

Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA
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For each school day of the past three years, I've started my ninth-grade English class with a poem. When I first made this commitment, I feared that I might not have the stamina (or enough engaging poems) to sustain us for the full 184 days of class. And I wasn't the only skeptic. Each year, I get a few sideways glances and furrowed brows when I explain our daily opening routine for class. But before long, students are starting English class with Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and Robert Pinsky, Rumi and Basho and Shakespeare. These voices, contemporary and classic, have helped define my classroom culture to such an extent that on the rare occasion when I postpone the “Poem of the Day” until later in the class period, my students interrogate me about it. I confess that it makes me smile.

So if this year's National Poetry Month inspires you to give daily poetry a go in your classroom, maybe even just for the month, consider these four reasons why starting class with a poem each day will rock your world. Just for good measure, I've included a few poem suggestions as well.

1. Poems Are Short

Time is a teacher's most valuable currency, and though it sounds cliché, there is never enough. In fact, a teacher's first reaction to the idea of beginning each day's class with a poem might even be, "Where will I find the time?"

But remember, poems are short. Not all poems, but I never committed to starting class with pages of Milton's Paradise Lost. Even the shortest poems can lead to potent discoveries.

After we read a short poem twice, I invite the students to engage in what I call microanalysis through an interpretive sentence frame. They fill in the blanks in my sentence: "When the poem says _______, it suggests that _______." Students can find plentiful interpretations in just a few lines of verse. And the best part is that a short poem can be read, dissected, and discussed in just a few minutes, providing an excellent warm-up in a lesson on close reading.

Other times, I lead a lesson on word choice with a poem that is less than 15 lines long, like Carl Sandburg's "Fog" or Anne Porter's "Wild Geese Alighting on a Lake". We identify and discuss the mood created by the poem, and then I challenge them to change the mood dramatically by changing just five words and the title. The results are hilarious, focused on the lesson's objective, and quick.

The short poems "Keeping Quiet" by Robert Bly, "The Balloon of the Mind" by William Butler Yeats, and "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar have all generated particularly rich discussions in my classroom. Their brevity makes them sharp, but their themes are provocative and appealing to adolescent readers.

I also encourage you to get your hands on some of the phenomenal books of haiku that are out there right now, from the scholarly anthology Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years to the more whimsical and illustrated Guyku -- A Year of Haiku for Boys and the hilarious Suburban Haiku: Dispatches From Behind the Picket Fence, which brings satire to the form.

2. Poems Are Intense

A novel may take chapters and hours to establish an emotional connection through the characters and plot -- poetry can do so in seconds. Even reluctant readers can be captured quickly by the right combination of words arranged into a powerful rhythm.

Each year, I incorporate "Shock Week" into our poetry routine. I advertise it as "more intense than Shark Week,” which piques the curiosity of my Discovery Channel crowd. We read "Tariff" by Michelle Boisseau, a short, blistering poem about guilt. We read Wislawa Szymborska's "The Terrorist, He Watches", a poem chilling in both subject and tone, giving us pause about the dark ramifications of being a bystander when others suffer.

Even funny poems can be intense. Students always enjoy this kinetic typography rendition of Taylor Mali's spoken-word poem "Speak With Conviction". While it makes us laugh at ourselves, it also urges us to scratch at the underlying issues that may cause our lackadaisical patterns of speech.

3. Poems Connect (to Other Reading)

Poetry can open a door to discussing those meatier, longer works of fiction and nonfiction that often define our curriculum.

Try using Gwendolyn Brooks' classic poem "We Real Cool" to introduce an underlying conflict in S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.

Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, has written some poetry that beautifully echoes specific lines in Romeo and Juliet, that standard freshman introduction to Shakespeare. Incorporating writing from a completely different culture that speaks to the same aspect of the human condition sends a powerful message about inclusion and diversity.

I once used a haiku about a falcon by An'ya, a reclusive naturalist poet from the Pacific Northwest, to draw a comparison to Atticus Finch's treatment of his children in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The discussion was brief, but the haiku gave us a lens through which to evaluate Atticus and his actions, leading to more specific close-reading that we would have achieved without the poem. (The fact that both texts allude to a bird was just a happy accident, by the way, but the kids loved pointing that out, too!)

4. Poems Inspire (Writing)

Poems make such excellent inspirations for writing. When we share poems with students and invite them to respond with their own ideas and musings while imitating the writer's form or style, we empower them to develop a voice, to work at something that will eventually become their own. A colleague in my school district, Elizabeth Jones, introduced me to Elizabeth Coatsworth's poem "Swift Things Are Beautiful", and I challenge you to read this poem without immediately wanting to write about finding the beauty in other opposites and inversions. Our students have chosen things to write about that are small and large, rough and smooth, foreseen and surprising, and they always uncover beauty as they write.

Penny Kittle, of Book Love Foundation fame, first introduced me to Anis Mojgani's notable spoken word poem "Shake the Dust". Its message of kindness and welcoming cadence provide an invitation to write about the people in our world who are not given a voice. In so doing, your students can find their own.

Even a simple-at-first-glance list poem like "Words That Make My Stomach Plummet" by Mira McEwan or "What I Like and Don’t Like" by Phillip Schultz can get students thinking and writing about the quirky lists that define their own personalities.

In truth, I could write for hours about the positive experiences that I've enjoyed with students over the past three years of using a poem to start class each day. If this is a strategy that you ever wanted to try, I encourage you take a test drive during National Poetry Month 2016. I suspect that you (and your students) will be hooked!

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Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA

For those who have asked about poetry suggestions, I have good news! Check out my event blog www.30gopoems.blogspot.com where I have collaborated with 15 other teachers to bring some ideas for mini lessons to start your class each day of the month this April. I hope you find it helpful!

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

How strange that no one suggested letting the students choose their own poems. Have we really convinced ourselves that learning requires teaching and that only the teacher can know what is worth doing? Great idea, but could be so much more...

Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA

Thanks for your insights Judy. It's an interesting idea you bring up. When the students choose poetry they so easily fall into the trap of some really bad poetry, found by googling "poems about x" and landing on some weak poetry. It's important for us to show them better ways to enter the genre. Some teacher curation can provide variety and a good stretch, and it's especially fun when you find poems you as a teacher don't know well. I like to see my curated poems I choose to share w kids each day as something similar to book talks we use for the classroom library. I hope to introduce a variety of voices , styles, and topics they may never discover without a guide. One thing I struggle with were I to move to more student selection is this...how would you find the balance between the google approach I describe above on one end and giving them a specific website like poets.org that can quickly overwhelm without some direction on the other end? I do think the Favorite Poems Project and Poem in Your Pocket Day resources are a good place to start. What role do you see teachers playing in exposing their students to poems?

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

Absolutely--model, encourage, and get out of the way. After you've done this for awhile, don't your students catch on to the "type" of thing you are reading? Maybe encourage them to think about something that intrigues/interest them and see if they can find a poem that "speaks to them" about the topic. I'm not suggesting turning the whole thing over to them, but if you have a few students who "get it" and want to do it, give them a shot. I assume you spend some time discussing the poems? Maybe once the whole group sees how cool those discussions can be with their peer's poems, they'll be more eager to give it a shot. And if they do come up with junk...that's another teachable moment...is this really how you feel? What part of this poem speaks to you and why? Etc. etc. Maybe try to get them to admit that they really didn't care much about the poem...and that can lead to even deeper discussion.
I've found that, when I tried something different, kids would first try to figure out what "I" wanted. I might give them some ideas, but I'd also tell them that I'd be a lot happier with something that THEY wanted to do that I would never have thought of. And it didn't take long for me to get some GREAT stuff. Just a thought...

Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA

Thanks Judy -- great ideas! I especially like inviting a few to get the ball rolling and then watch what happens when they are given more of that freedom. You've got the gears in my head turning :)

Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA

Thanks, Anna! Yes, my students and I LOVE spoken word poetry and it's part of our daily poetry routine. I will check out your post.

Lynda's picture

Two years ago I made a suggestions that teachers and students be allowed to read a poem a day during morning announcements for the month of April. It's been a big hit. I love nothing more than watching my third graders pouring through my anthologies, and discovering words that they enjoy. We've been copying poems in our spare time the entire month, in preparation for Poem in Your Pocket day the 27th. This week, one of my little guys read me a poem by Ogden Nash that I'd never heard called, "Song Of The Open Road". (" I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree/Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,/I'll never see a tree at all."). Of course, I laughed out loud and told him that Joyce Kilmer had a poem that Nash was referring to. Next week I'll give him a copy. We were in charge of the front display case of our school this month, and students learned haiku writing and wrote original pieces which they copied on a template of a tree outline. We called them "Poet Trees". :)

nmendi07's picture

This idea sounds great! You mentioned that this strategy also helps because you are able to connect the poems with other fiction and non-fiction anchor texts. Do you have each poem relate to a specific anchor text? For example, if you were working with a content-rich non-fiction text for one week (let's say a series of articles on the use of child soldiers in Sudan), do you have a poem relating to the content for each day of the week? How do you ensure that each day's activities following the poetry reads is aligned with the CCSS and your overall theme? I'm really interesting in trying this out!

Dr. Kendra Strange's picture
Dr. Kendra Strange
Principal | Achievement Consultant | Curriculum Specialist

I appreciate the point of poetry connecting to other texts. In Texas learning standards, or TEKS, our students are expected to not only understand a genre in isolation, but also identify how pieces from various genres related and connect thematically. Poems provides a great opportunity to connect concepts across texts.
Kendra Strange

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