teach poetry

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!. If I can’t analyze a poem myself, how am I going to lead a group of kids through it?”

If you are in Camp B (like me) and need a way out, I’m going to share with you how I overcame the feelings of inadequacy when teaching poetry, and how I created a simple but intentional (and effective) approach to my unit.

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. Can we please stop making kids think there is one right answer? 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’ interpretations.

Tip #2: Teach the Elements Strategically

Leading students through three different readings of a poem and analyzing everything under the sun is a surefire way of making 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. I like to layout the elements one at a time. Getting simple wins upfront will help more students be successful by the end because success breeds success.

Here’s a breakdown of my approach:

If you’d like a free set of my posters that correspond to the elements listed above, you can download them for free below!

teaching the elements of poetry

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 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 an added 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. By mixing the essential understandings in with an enjoyable experience, you’re recruiting more neurons and increasing student buy-in.

Do you still teach poetry? I would love to hear your thoughts on it, good and bad. Tell me about it in the comments.

All the best, Natayle

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