I have a confession to make.
When I began my teaching journey, I DREADED teaching poetry to my middle schoolers. It wasn’t that I didn’t love poetry or thought it was boring – But they sure did.
And if you’ve ever spent any time around 6th graders at all, you know they aren’t shy about telling you how they feel about basically anything.
In all honesty, it took time for me to get comfortable teaching poetry to my 6th graders. There were still moments when we all struggled with how to best approach the complexities of different types of poetry. However, once I convinced the skeptics in the class that not all poetry was written about unrequited love in Shakespearean times, things went more smoothly.
Out of all the poetry lessons I’ve taught over the years, one of the most successful classes occurred when I introduced my students to reverse poems. Once we went over examples of reverse poetry and the writing process, they were eager to create their own versions.
If you’re looking for engaging activities for teaching the elements of poetry, I strongly recommend reverse poetry. If you’re not familiar with it, I’ve got you!
I’ve covered everything you need to know about reverse poetry to get started, along with nine reverse poems your middle schoolers will love reading. Let’s jump in.
What is a Reverse Poem?
As the name suggests, a reverse poem means one thing when you read it forwards (top to bottom) but has a different meaning when you read it the opposite way (bottom to top).
Reverse poems are excellent for teaching point of view, mood, and tone because they typically read positively one way and negatively in reverse. Every other line of the poem is usually a general statement, such as “I believe that” or “It is not true that.”
Enjambment is also an essential tool for writing reverse poetry. Enjambment is when the sentence continues onto the next line, forcing the reader to keep reading to get the complete statement. Students can create enjambment by ending their lines with words like “that” or “and.” I suggest printing copies of one of the following reverse poems and marking where the author uses this technique so students can visualize the concept more easily.
Teaching Reverse Poetry
Here are some tips for how to structure your reverse poetry lesson:
Introduce your students to the concept of reverse poetry by showing them the video of “Lost Generation” by Jonathon Reed. Talk with them about the definition and elements of reverse poetry and what sets it apart from more “traditional” poetry.
Model the Process
Print out copies of “Lost Generation” for each student and give them a few minutes to read it from top to bottom and then in reverse. Then, have them discuss in pairs or as a whole class how the tone and point of view change with each reading.
Display the poem on a projector or SmartBoard and ask students to find examples of enjambment and general statements that make the poem make sense when read both ways. It’s important to have them do part of the poem independently so that you can check for understanding.
Reverse poems will always be a little tricky at first, but they become easier as students play around with the language and structure.
Get Started Writing
Here are a few tips from poet Marilyn Singer on how to start your students off with their first reverse poem:
- Ask students to choose a subject, character, or story with two opposing viewpoints
- Have them write a few different lines on separate index cards so they can manipulate the order to make sense in reverse
- Choose phrases that can be turned into questions or interjections
- Use single-word sentences, infinitives, and participles
- Play around with punctuation and capitalization
You may find that some students struggle with the reverse poem writing process at first, and that’s okay. Encourage them to have fun manipulating the order of their lines and remind them that perfection isn’t the goal!
“Lost Generation” by Jonathon Reed
At first read, “Lost Generation” is filled with apathy and despair as the narrator describes a life full of materialism and selfishness. Reed uses enjambment to emphasize certain words and phrases for maximum effect, and the reverse reading is one of hope for a brighter future.
This poem works well for teaching poetic techniques, structure, vocabulary, and voice.
“A Spiral Has Two Ends” by Ashley Marie Egan
Egan’s poem is one of determination and perseverance, which many middle schoolers can relate to and empathize with. From top to bottom, she describes herself as someone consumed by fear and insecurity, ready to give up. In reverse, she faces her fears and emerges triumphant.
This poem is excellent for teaching figurative language, imagery, voice, structure, and theme.
“Loneliness” by Shadow-Poet
I love how this poet differentiates between the concepts of “loneliness” versus “being alone.” Read top to bottom, several lines hint at teen issues like suicide, mental health, and body image. In reverse, the poem takes on a tone of self-assuredness and acceptance.
This is a great poem to use if you want to focus on themes, main idea, point of view, structure, punctuation, and voice.
“Anorexia” by thehermitlifestylee
Although I find this poem particularly relevant for many young people who struggle with body image issues, approach with caution if you have concerns regarding any students in your class. That being said, there’s so much emotion packed into such a short poem, and it opens up room for valuable and authentic discussion.
This poem works well for teaching enjambment and other poetic structure, tone, point of view, and repetition.
“I Am Me” by The Quiet Poet
So many teens and pre-teens struggle with social anxiety today, and the numbers have only increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I Am Me” vividly illustrates one person’s internal battle and their desire to live a life free of anxiety and fear.
Use this poem for teaching conflict, structure, figurative language, tone, and voice.
“In The Hood” by Marilyn Singer
This is one of my favorite poems from Marilyn Singer’s book, Mirror Mirror, one of several reverse poetry books she’s written. Singer retells classic fairy tales and myths using reverse poems, and this one is short, sweet, and humorous. I think your students will enjoy the spin on Little Red Riding Hood.
This poem works well for teaching point of view, punctuation, rhyme, mood, and tone.
“Refugees” by Brian Bilston
“Refugees” is a powerful poem that’s particularly relevant in our day and age, and it tackles many tough cultural issues like racism, prejudice, and the need to belong. Frequently referred to as the “Poet Laureate of Twitter,” Bilson’s intention is evident with every word and line he writes.
This is a great poem to use for teaching voice, point of view, figurative language, assonance, poem structure, and rhyming schemes.
“Worst Day Ever” by Chanie Gorkin
Gorkin immediately hooks the reader and has them guessing by using a question mark in her title. This poem is perfect for the middle school age group, full of dramatic flair and intentional exaggeration. The author also gives an excellent example of enjambment and would work well as an introduction to reverse poems.
This poem works well for teaching tone, voice, poem structure, punctuation, and point of view.
“Pretty Ugly” by Abdullah Shoaib
This is one of my favorite reverse poems, which is why I’m saving it for last! I love how the author chooses to end the poem with a question, which further enhances the difference in tone and point of view for the reader. I think many students can also relate to Shoaib’s struggle with equating her self-worth with what she sees in the mirror.
This poem works well for teaching point of view, tone, voice, poem structure, and punctuation.
Introducing reverse poems to your students may seem like a challenge at first, but they’re well worth the effort. While they may grumble at first, I think your students will have fun letting their voices shine through in their writing.
If you’re searching for engaging, low-prep poetry activities and lessons to teach alongside writing your reverse poems, check out my Elements of Poetry Unit! It’s full of mini-lessons that you can customize for your classroom.
Ready to give reverse poems a try with your students? I’d love to know how it goes! Post your comments below or find me on FB or IG.