Struggling with how to teach poetry without overwhelming your students? This step-by-step guide geared for middle school classrooms will help simplify the process!
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 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 (and arguably most important) tip is to ditch the answer key and stop making kids think 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.
Tip #2: Teach the Elements of Poetry Strategically
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.
Showing students poetry through a single lens at a time is a simple approach that can provide the necessary scaffolding many students need. Plus, it drastically reduces how much students try to take in at once. Getting simple and easy wins with each mini-lesson will help your students feel more successful – like they finally “get” poetry. Don’t put it all together for a full-on analysis until they understand each individual layer.
Here’s an overview of how to teach poetry following a step-by-step sequence from my classroom:
- Day 1: Poetry Unit Element Overview
- Day 2: The Form & Structure of a Poem
- Day 3-4: Poetic Devices #1: Imagery
- Day 5-6: Poetic Devices #2: Sound Devices
- Day 7-8: Poetic Devices #3: Figurative Language
- Day 9: Poetic Voice
- Day 10: Themes
- Day 11-12: Putting it all together using TPCASTT
- Day 13-14: Wrap Up
Day 1: Introducing Your 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 have a more clear 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.
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. Start with a mini-lesson introducing 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 Art of Poetic Devices
As you embark on 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.
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.
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.
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 Behind Poetry
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.
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. It’s challenging but also very fun!
Day 10: Journey into the Soul of Poetry: 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. Encourage your students to “blackout” everything in a poem except the words and phrases that directly connect with the theme of the poem. Then, have them add visuals around the poem that represent the theme 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 set of my posters that correspond to the elements listed above, you can download them for free below!
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.
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!).
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 blackout the theme. 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 poetry? I would love to hear your thoughts on it, good and bad. Tell me about it in the comments.