This past school year, during National Poetry Month, I posted a different poem in my classroom every day and would read it aloud to each group of students who entered. Several times, at the start of class, I would forget, and each time a student would call out, “Wait, Mrs. C! You forgot to read the poem!”
On one of those days, I read aloud “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, and at the end of it, I heard one of my seventh grade boys whisper under his breath, “Wow, that was really beautiful!”
These are some of the moments teachers dream about. The students not only wanted to experience poetry, but also enjoyed and appreciated the poems that they heard. Young teenagers are capable of both reading and writing outstanding poetry, which is why middle school is a crucial time to begin nurturing a true love for poetry. If students can build an appreciation for poetry early, it can negate the fear so many feel when they get to high school and begin analyzing and performing poetry.
There are many ways that teachers at all levels can foster not only an understanding of, but also a love of poetry. While my students may label me as the teacher who is nutty about poetry, they also frequently tell me that studying poetry was their favorite part of the school year. On the first day of school this year, a new 7th grader told me the thing she is most excited about for the new year is studying poetry. Generating a culture of poetry is not difficult, but it does take deliberate effort. Here are some guidelines I have found helpful to reach kids through poetry:
1. Introduce Poetry During the First Week of School and Make It a Routine
In my language arts classes, I make every Friday poetry day in students’ writing journals. We start the routine during the first week of school, and every year I hear the same complaints: they don’t think they’re good at poetry, they don’t know how to write poetry, they don’t like poetry. It’s good to immediately get these fears out in the open, and to let them share where these fears come from. Let them know that these journals are safe spaces by not forcing any student to share aloud during the first few weeks – there will always be a few who are willing to share. Leave personal, positive comments in the journals themselves, and then make it a point to verbally reach out to those kids who initially expressed fear. When those kids are finally ready to share, it’s incredible to see the pride they take in their poems.
By introducing the idea that poetry is accessible (and helping them generate new ideas each week), as well as providing positive feedback to kids who are apprehensive about writing their own poems, I have been astounded at the depth and emotion students are capable of achieveing through the written word.
2. Be EXCITED About Poetry!
As obvious as this sounds, students pick up on their teachers’ genuine interests. Make it a point throughout the year to read poetry on your own, and share your favorites with your students. When students share their poems with you, take the time to read them closely and discuss what you enjoy with the authors. Create a culture of appreciation for poetry in your classroom (never underestimate how much young people enjoy snapping their fingers after poetry is read aloud). Also, when your students are writing poetry, write poems yourself! Students love to hear original poems that you write – it shows them that you will allow yourself to be vulnerable and emotional, just as you ask them to be. Having a love of poetry yourself is one of the best ways you will help your students to see poetry’s value.
3. Teach Them to Love a Poem as a Whole
Many students treat poetry just as Billy Collins suggests in “Introduction to Poetry.” While we want to show them how to love a poem, they feel they must “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.” Teaching the techniques and elements are important, but can often be the very thing that leads students to fear poetry. Think about integrating the study of poetic techniques into the study of the poem as a whole – always read a poem first in its entirety and allow students to share ideas or questions before analyzing the various elements within. This will help them learn to see a poem first as a complete work of art, which can then be better understood through a closer examination of its parts.
4. Whenever Possible, Display Students’ Original Poems Throughout the School
It is always heartwarming to see a student point at a poem on the wall and say to someone, “I wrote this!” When your students have worked hard writing and revising original poems, and have allowed themselves to express emotions, fears, and triumphs through poetry, try to share them with as many people as possible! During National Poetry Month, create a Poem Walkway in a hallway in your school, and encourage other classes and parents to walk through it. Put up a bulletin board outside your room that features original poetry written by your students. I also gather poems together and bind them into a 7th Grade Poetry Book at the end of each year to show the students that their poems can continue to live on and inspire others when they move up. This helps to create an environment of creativity and love for poetry, as well as encouraging students to take pride in their work.
There are tons of ways to help students understand poetry, but it takes passion and care to help foster a love of poetry. Our young students have lots to say, and poetry can give them a voice to speak it.
What are some of the ways you inspire students to love poetry?
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.