How do your students react when you announce that you’re starting a poetry unit? If they’re anything like mine, they moan and groan like you’re asking them to do something painful.
For many reasons, poetry gets a bad wrap with most students. But many English enthusiasts will continue to cry for students to be exposed to poetry, and not just one time a year! Poetry is a genre that can fit neatly into so many places throughout the year. It lends itself quite well to Social Emotional Learning by giving students an outlet to creatively share their thoughts and emotions. English Language Learners do well with poetry because it is more freeform and less structured. And kinesthetic learners often connect with it because of its rhythmic quality that is excellent for the body’s movement.
Getting students to enjoy poetry can be the most challenging part. One of the most important steps you can take to supercharge your poetry unit is to select meaningful and relevant middle school poems your students will most likely enjoy. I’ve shared 16 of my favorite poems for middle school, along with the most obvious teaching opportunities for each one to help guide your planning!
The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman
The poem “The Hill We Climb” was written and performed by Amanda Gorman to celebrate the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden, on January 20, 2021. This poem celebrates the U.S. as not the most “perfect union” but a country that has dealt with some serious issues and problems yet still manages to climb up the hill to strive for a better future. “The Hill We Climb” is an occasional poem written for the occasion of the inauguration.
Use “The Hill We Climb” to discuss the impact of imagery, alliteration, consonance, repetition, and metaphors with your students.
Adventures of Isabel by Ogden Nash
“Adventures of Isabel” is a poem about a young girl who faces many challenges that she needs to overcome. She stumbles across a bear and refuses to be afraid, she comes face to face with a witch, and she meets a horrible giant. Throughout all of these interactions, Isabel remains strong as she conquers her challenges, reminding us that we should not become overwhelmed by our challenges. Instead, we should face them and move forward in life.
Use “Adventures of Isabel” to analyze how repetition, rhyme, and alliteration create a sign-song quality in a poem. You might also use this poem to discuss the poet’s use of similes.
The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur
Not only was Tupac a fantastic rapper, but he could also spin words into inspiring poetry like a trained poet. “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” is an inspirational poem about overcoming hardships despite the odds and reaching for something greater.
Use Shakur’s poem to discuss the impact of personification, alliteration, and metaphors.
This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams
This poem was written in 1934, and it is about a person who sneaks into the icebox (refrigerator) and eats plums. “This is Just to Say” is written in a casual format, much like a note an older child would leave to their parent, or a husband to a wife. The poem can be used to understand the simple pleasures or little things in life, like a cold piece of fruit.
Use “This Is Just to Say” to discuss the power of enjambment and imagery.
Identity by Julio Noboa Polanco
“Identity” is a poem about daring to be different and taking risks to be something special. The poet compares himself to a weed, not the same as everyone else, whereas the flowers are stuck in the mud and not moving forward. Throughout the poem, there are many examples of the wild adventures weeds may go on, while the flowers are beautiful yet stuck in one place.
Use “Identity” to encourage your students to think about themselves and their identity. Can they create metaphors to describe themselves? What about hyperboles?
On Turning Ten by Billy Collins
Odd that when we are young children, all we want to be is a “grown-up,” but as we start to age, we soon realize that being an adult is complicated. “On Turning Ten” is a poem about a child turning ten who realizes that adulthood is full of challenges and heartbreak. The adult in the poem is trying to reassure the child who is going from single to double digits that they are still a child and should enjoy, but the child is taking this new age quite seriously.
Use “On Turning Ten” to discuss the power of similes and metaphors when expressing emotions. You might also use this poem to review personification.
Thumbprint by Eve Merriam
“Thumbprint” is a short poem about how unique we are as individuals, just like our thumbprints. Each person has their own set of unique fingerprints, and no two prints are the same. Like us as humans, we may have similar thoughts or features, but each of us is unique in our own way and will leave our own unique mark on the world.
Use “Thumbprint” to discuss alliteration, imagery, and metaphors. Or, pair “Thumbprint” with “Identity” as you ask students to consider who they are as individuals.
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
In “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop writes about the idea of nothing lasting forever. The act of losing things happens over and over to each one of us- our keys, our sunglasses, our pets, and even our loved ones. Eventually, everything is lost.
Use “One Art” to discuss the power of word choice, form, and structure when creating a mood or feeling in poetry. This is also an excellent poem to use when discussing similes, metaphors, irony, and themes in poetry.
Did I Miss Anything? By Tom Wayman
“Did I Miss Anything?” is the most commonly asked question to a teacher after a student has been absent from school. In this poem, Wayman leads the student to believe that the class was frozen in time while the student was out, and nothing was taught or learned in their absence.
Use “Did I Miss Anything?” to teach irony and show students how to use their sarcasm in poetry. This poem is a student favorite! The irony is apparent from the first stanza, and Wayman also uses a healthy dose of rhetorical language throughout the poem.
Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou
“Phenomenal Woman” is a powerful poem written by Maya Angelou in the mid-’90s. Ms. Angelou writes about stereotypes that are usually associated with women, and she redefines these stereotypes to portray women as the phenomenal humans they are.
Use “Phenomenal Woman” to examine Angelou’s use of hyperboles. Hyperboles are used throughout the poem to show exaggerations of the status of women over men. You might also use this poem to review irony and personification.
My Shadow by Robert Louis Stevenson
This poem was written in 1885, and it describes how a child is utterly fascinated with his own shadow. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this poem from a child’s perspective, highlighting how children have wonderful imaginations and are intrigued by the most ordinary things.
Use this poem to show students how a speaker can influence a poem. They will have a blast trying to write a poem from a similar perspective or one sparked by “My Shadow.” Stevenson’s poem is also a great resource for teaching personification, similes, and sensory language.
Harlem by Langston Hughes
Nothing is worse than having big aspirations and not having them come to fruition in your lifetime. That is what the poem “Harlem” is all about, longing for something that just isn’t happening when you think it should. Langston Hughes wrote this poem to speak about the oppression of African Americans and how many of their dreams have been deferred.
Use “Harlem” to teach poetry form and structure. You’ll see plenty of end-stopped lines, consonance, and assonance. Your students will also be exposed to a few powerful poetic devices such as metaphors, similes, and anaphora if they are ready to learn a new craft!
Who Has Seen the Wind by Christina Rossetti
Can you see the actual wind, or is it just the movement of objects that you see and assume it is the wind? This is the premise of the poem “Who Has Seen the Wind” by Christina Rossetti. The poem pushes you to think about nature and its many mysterious features. Isn’t it ironic that you can see items move because of the wind, but you can not see the wind?
Use “Who Has Seen the Wind” to teach students to create a poem based on a rhetorical question. Add in a dash of irony and sprinkle of personification, and a fabulous poem they’ll have!
The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens
Most people do not celebrate the thought of winter and the cold it brings us, but Wallace Stevens believes we’ve got that wrong. His poem “The Snow Man” reminds us to keep a positive mindset and appreciate the beauty around us. In the poem, Steves compares winter to life; there are challenges at times, but from these challenges, beauty can emerge.
Use “The Snow Man” to encourage students to use sensory language to form powerful images. If your students struggle with assonance, encourage them to read this one.
Fire and Ice by Robert Frost
“Fire and Ice” was written by Robert Frost in 1920. This poem shares an interesting thought: How will the world end, by fire or ice? Many people have different beliefs about how the world will end, and this short poem shares the idea of opposites taking out the world.
Use “Fire and Ice” for a predictable rhyme scheme and a powerful punch. This poem is dripping with symbolism and imagery that can prompt powerful conversations about hatred, desire, and the end of the world.
A Poison Tree by William Blake
“A Poison Tree” is a descriptive poem that uses an extended metaphor to describe the consequences of human emotions. This poem centers on the feeling of anger and the repercussions of hatred. The words deadly and devious describe what can happen if anger is not honestly expressed.
Use “A Poison Tree” to teach extended metaphors, rhyme scheme, and symbolism. This also makes an excellent poem for introducing allusion should your students be ready.
Eating Poetry by Mark Strand
“Eating Poetry” is an extended metaphor that shows the transformational power of poetry. The poem opens in a library where the speaker is devouring poems. The mood becomes increasingly dark as the speaker’s passion becomes more animalistic, transforming him into a “new man” due to eating all the poems.
Use “Eating Poetry” to showcase sound devices such as consonance, assonance, alliteration, and end-stopped lines. You can also use this poem to study an extended metaphor.
Poetry can be taught for all seasons, holidays, and celebrations. It is easy to pair alongside your favorite short story, novel, or nonfiction text. Unleash the power of poetry to help express difficult emotions surrounding tough topics, as well as bring together your classroom community.
If you need inspiration for getting your poetry lessons off the ground, be sure to stop by my store and check out my elements of poetry mini-lessons.