As I searched through poetry lesson plans to share, I realized that the most important thing I think helps students write good poetry is reading good poetry.  Often poetry is taught in a “poetry unit” – a few weeks in which we cover figurative language, rhyme, rhythm, types of poems, etc.  However, I believe students need ongoing exposure to a variety of poems in order to really internalize the importance of both reading and writing good poetry.

At least two to three times a week, I put aside the first ten minutes of class to read a poem.  Usually, the reading follows this format:

•    Students are given a poem to first read silently on their own.  As they read, they annotate the poem by –

–Underlining words and phrases that they find particularly interesting, moving, humorous, or poetic

–Circling words and phrases that they find confusing

–Writing notes in the margins about their reactions, connections, inferences, or questions

–Writing notes about things they notice – the author’s use of the five senses, figurative language, line and stanza breaks, rhythm, or flow

•    I then read the poem aloud to the class.  Hearing a poem read fluently assists students’ understanding; reading it aloud also makes the poem a shared experience.

•    Students share some of their annotated notes.  When discussing poetry, it’s helpful for students to have something written down that they can refer to during the discussion.

•    We then discuss what the poem is “about” – what the author is trying to communicate to us.  This leads into further examination of style and form – it’s not just what the author is communicating, but also how it’s being communicated.  At first students need encouragement to participate, but as the year progresses they are able to carry out very spirited discussions about theme, style, and use of language.

•    Students glue the poems and annotations into their writing notebooks so they can go back and reference a poem at any time during the year.  This is especially helpful when students are writing their own poetry.  They can turn to their collections of poems if they need a reminder about what an ode is or if they want to re-read an e.e. cummings poem because they are searching for an example of someone who experiments with punctuation in poetry.

•    At least once a week, I ask students to select a handful of words from the week’s poems to add to our word lists.  We have ever-expanding lists of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that are posted up on the wall.  These lists quickly become a resource for students during the writing process.  Stuck trying to come up with a strong verb for your poem or narrative?  Check out the “vivid verbs” poster on the wall!

•    FREQUENT FOLLOW-UP ACTIVITIES – I don’t do a poetry follow up every time we read a poem in class.  However, if it’s a writing workshop day, we will often do a freewrite or poem imitation after the poetry reading:

–I’ll pick a topic or two related to the poem we just read and ask students to freewrite for five minutes.  This helps them to draw connections between poetry and their own lives, and helps them to understand that poetry can be about absolutely anything.
–Sometimes we’ll pick several words from our word posters and try to integrate those words into the freewrite.  It adds a layer of challenge and students enjoy sharing their freewrites and seeing the different ways classmates mixed together similar ideas and words.
–Usually once per quarter I’ll ask students to go back into their freewrites, pick one, revise it, and turn it into a published poem of their own.

Poem imitations
–Students must mimic an author’s style, form, or use of figurative language.  We all get inspiration from other writers, and this exercise gives them permission to “copy” and also gives them a structure within to write.  At the same time, having to think of their own similes when imitating Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” helps them become more complex thinkers and writers.  This exercise gives students a sense of what it’s like to write like an accomplished author – and eventually gives them the tools to start composing more complex poetry of their own.

I truly believe that exposure to great poetry throughout the year is critical if we want students to love poetry and come to view it as an effective way to communicate thoughts and ideas.  At the beginning of the school year, there is always a great deal of discomfort among students when we start reading and writing poetry.  By the end of the year, students have no problem picking up a poem on their own, analyzing it, discussing it, and writing something inspired by it.  They discover that poetry is a meaningful way to share about themselves and their lives, and that poems can be funny, sad, silly, or important – just like life itself.

Meredith’s Top Ten Poems for Students:

“The Death of Santa Claus” by Charles Webb

“Defining the Magic” by Charles Bukowski

“On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins

“The Dream Keeper” by Langston Hughes

“Ode to Subway” by Hayley Bright

“First Love” by Carl Linder

“Maybe Dats Youwr Pwoblem Too” by Jim Hall

“Medicine” by Alice Walker

“Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni

“Falling in love is like owning a dog” by Taylor Mali

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Meredith Ing teaches seventh and eighth grade English at Hilo Intermediate School – her alma mater!  She attended Grinnell College in Iowa where she received a Bachelor’s in English and Gender Studies, and then went on to get her Master’s in Education from UH Manoa.  She loves teaching, ultimate frisbee, reading, knitting, and playing with her two puppies.