Struggling with how to teach poetry without overwhelming your students? This step-by-step guide will help you simplify the process of teaching the elements of poetry in the middle school classroom!

How to Teach the Elements of Poetry Without Overcomplicating It

There are two camps of teachers in the world of poetry: those who love teaching poetry and those who hate it. I’m going to tell you a secret. I’ve always been in the second camp. If I wasn’t finding excuses for why we shouldn’t teach poetry anymore, I was finding ways to condense the unit and get it over as quickly as possible.

Ya’ll, poetry is hard. It’s especially hard when you look at someone else’s answer key and think, Wow, I was way off!‘ Then our old friend Self-Doubt comes creeping in, and before we know it, we start dangerously thinking we’re incapable of effectively leading a group of students through it.

I get it.

Fortunately, it’s all a lie. Poetry is an interpretive (and individual) journey, and I’m going to show you how I reframed my thinking – and my approach – to teaching poetry and ended up enjoying it more than I thought possible.

So if you’re in Camp B (like me) and need to squash similar feelings, or even if you enjoy poetry but aren’t sure how to structure your unit, you’re in the right place. Let’s look at simple but intentional (and highly effective) tips for teaching the elements of poetry in the middle school classroom!

Tip #1: Ditch The Answer Key

Poetry is intended to be an interpretive and emotional experience on an individual level. It’s a dance between the poet and the reader. My first tip is to ditch the answer key and stop feeding into the belief that there is one right answer.

When you start with the answer key in hand, you run the risk of putting your thinking in a box.

If you need more convincing, pop over and read poet Sara Holbrook’s reaction to her poems’ appearance on a state test, “When I realized I couldn’t answer the questions posed about two of my own poems on the Texas state assessment tests (STAAR Test), I had a flash of panic – oh, no! Not smart enough.”

In poetry, there is rarely one right answer. Enter your unit with an open mind and be willing to listen to your students’ (and your own!) interpretations. I promise it will be a more enjoyable experience for everyone!

Tip #2: Teach the Elements of Poetry Strategically

how to teach poetry in middle school

Showing students a poem through a single lens at a time is a simple approach that can provide the necessary scaffolding many students need to understand poetry. Plus, it drastically reduces how much students try to take in at once. I like to get simple and easy wins by teaching the elements of poetry a single mini-lesson at a time to help my students feel successful. I don’t put it all together and ask for a full-on analysis until they understand each individual component.

Here’s an overview of how to teach the elements of poetry following a step-by-step sequence from my classroom:

Leading students through three different readings of a poem and analyzing everything under the sun is a surefire way of making their eyes glaze over on day one. While there is a time and place for multiple readings, it doesn’t belong at the beginning of the unit. When you think about how to teach poetry, consider laying out each element of poetry one at a time.

Day 1: Introducing Your Elements of Poetry Unit

When planning the first day of your poetry unit, consider providing students with an introductory lesson or an overview of the elements of poetry. By showing them the roadmap, they’ll have a clearer idea of where they are going throughout the unit and can see how each mini-lesson fits into the bigger picture.

I introduce the genre of poetry in the same way I introduce my students to other genres – with a doodle-note one-pager of key content. I think introducing reading units in this way is extremely powerful, and in this case, the introductory overview lesson helps students understand the basics of poetry.

Why you should give students an overview before teaching the elements of poetry

I walk through a quick lesson briefly covering each element, and we fill out our poetry notetakers together. It takes an entire period, but I like to think it lays that initial foundational knowledge layer that later information can stick to.

Day 2: Teach the Forms & Structure of a Poem

On the second day, frame the house. That is to say – talk about the forms and structure of poetry. In your mini-lesson, introduce students to key concepts like lines, stanzas, rhyme, end-stop, and enjambment. Then encourage students to look more closely at these elements and consider how they contribute to the overall poem. You could do this a few different ways! Display a variety of poems around the room (limerick, ballad, haiku, couplet, triplet, free verse, etc.) and have students do a gallery walk. Invite them to note observations in form and structure and then discuss their findings in groups.

Afterward, consider adding in a fun poetry game like this form & structure scavenger hunt. It’s 100x more engaging than an exit ticket, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what students do/don’t understand about the form and structure of poetry!

Day 3-8: Explore the Different Poetry Devices

As you head into the next several days of your poetry unit, introduce students to the ins and outs of different poetry devices. Many devices will be refreshers – however, add some depth to your instruction by inviting students to work with the devices in different ways.

How to Teach the Elements of Poetry Without Overcomplicating It
IMAGERY

Imagery is, at its core, a result of sensory language. I like to encourage students to tap into sensory language & imagery with sensory stations. By inviting them to interact with objects that invoke their sense of touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing, they can better tune into and connect with a poet’s use of imagery.

SOUND DEVICES

Take a day (or three) to celebrate – and enjoy – one of the most unique aspects of poetry: sound devices. I’ve found that slam poetry lends itself well to teaching sound devices – mostly because students can hear them before reading them. By exploring things like rhythm, meter, rhyme, assonance, consonance, and more, your students will gain an appreciation for the musicality of poetry – and they will better understand how it plays a role in the meaning and experience of a poem.

FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE

Last but certainly not least, teach students how figurative language can convey more than just literal meanings. Try starting with songs or music lyrics to make the concepts of similes, metaphors, hyperboles, etc., more relatable to students! By examining how figurative language is used in popular songs, your students will better understand the power and purpose of it in a more concrete way.

Day 9: Uncover the Voice of a Poem

Teaching students about the speaker in a poem is a crucial part of helping them understand the meaning and message of a poem. The speaker is the voice behind the poem and can be the poet or a fictional character created by the poet. Understanding the speaker’s tone and point of view can give students insight into the emotions, motivations, and experiences being expressed in the poem.

teaching the elements of poetry: speaker and tone

Once students know what to look for when analyzing the speaker and the tone, I like to have them do a fun roll-a-poem activity in which they roll a die to determine who their speaker is, their tone, and the point of view. Then they must try to write a poem with those characteristics. It’s challenging and often results in throw-away poems, but it’s also incredibly fun!

Day 10: Journey into the Soul of a Poem: Theme

Wrapping up your poetry elements mini-lesson series should end with the soul of poetry: themes. It brings students into the deepest depths of poetry and helps them uncover the underlying ideas and messages a poet wants to convey in their work. By examining themes such as love, loss, hope, and courage, students can explore and connect with the human experience in a unique way.

Blackout poetry is a teaching tool that has swept classrooms across the nation for several years now. I like to take that same concept and apply it in the context of the theme of a poem. Instead of students blacking everything out to create a new poem, I encourage them to add a colorful visual overtop the poem using the imagery and sensory details from the poem. They must circle words and phrases that directly connect with the theme of the poem and finish with a theme statement somewhere on their paper.

When students learn to identify and analyze themes in poetry, they can see how poems can provide powerful insights into the human condition and *hopefully* become lifelong lovers of poetry.

If you’d like a free planning guide to teaching the elements of poetry (and a bonus poetry stations activity), you can download them for free in exchange for signing up for my email biweekly newsletter.

free elements of poetry planning guide and station rotations activities

Tip #3: Incorporate Choice When Possible

Try to strike a balance between reading timeless poems like Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”, and modern poems like Julio Noboa Polanco’s poem “Identity” when teaching the different elements.

teaching the elements of poetry: incorporating choice as much as possible

Exposing students to a wide variety of poems while teaching is beneficial in so many ways. It gets their feet wet with meatier poems – but not with too strong of a dose that they shut down. When it comes time to apply concepts independently, give them a choice in the poem(s) they practice with. Want to read the late rapper Tupac Shakur’s poem, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” while practicing figurative language? Go for it. Prefer something a bit more humorous and approachable? Grab a Shel Silverstein poem. Providing a small bank of choices will keep kids engaged throughout the unit (and a bonus is that it frequently self-differentiates!).

You can see a list of some of my favorite poems to teach in middle school here and here.

Tip #4: Add a Dash of Fun Every Day

How can you add movement into poetry form and structure? Practice with a scavenger hunt or question trail. How can you make imagery hands-on? Practice with sensory stations. Can you do anything different to teach theme – again? Absolutely, put a twist on blackout poetry and have students create colorful visuals. Mixing the essential understandings with an enjoyable experience will recruit more neurons and increase student buy-in. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Do you still teach the elements of poetry? I would love to hear your thoughts on it in the comments below. Happy teaching!

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