4 Reasons to Start Class With a Poem Each Day

Make a daily habit of starting every ELA class with a poem—they’re short and intense, connect to other reading, and inspire student writing.

March 11, 2016
Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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 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.

4 Reasons to Start Class With a Poem

1. Poems are short: Time is a teacher’s most valuable currency, and though it sounds like a 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 warmup 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 students 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, 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’s 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 than 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 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 it 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 its 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.

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.

I could write for hours about the positive experiences 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. I suspect that you (and your students) will be hooked!

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