Enjoy the Art of Poetry with Your Students

Shannon outlines her initial fears and struggles with teaching poetry and how she showed her students that poetry can be fun. She shares her tips for how to make poetry lessons exciting.

The art of teaching poetry

Poetry Isn't My Favorite Subject To Teach 

I have to admit that I have a bit of poetry phobia. In fact, the most disastrous lesson in my first year of teaching was a poetry lesson.

I can remember it like it was yesterday. Actually, I can’t remember the lesson at all, but I do remember how I felt when my thirty ninth-graders left the room.

I immediately broke down sobbing at my desk because I felt like the world’s biggest failure. My heart wasn’t in the lesson, and my students could sense that.

I was supposed to be teaching a two-week poetry lesson. How could I pick up the pieces tomorrow and get through nine more days?

Thankfully, my prep period was next, and somehow one of the school’s counselors miraculously appeared at my door when I desperately needed someone to help restore my confidence.

The next day, I confessed to my students that poetry wasn’t my favorite subject to teach and that I needed their help. I asked them to bring in their favorite poem (if they had one) to share with the class as a starting point before we wrote poetry ourselves. Several students jumped at the opportunity, and together we formulated a poetry unit.

So, what did I learn from my failed poetry lesson?

Don't Fake It 'Till You Make It

First, don’t veer too far from your comfort zone, and never try to fake it with your students. Way back when I was a new teacher, poetry in pretty much any form, was out of my comfort zone. If your curriculum has some flexibility, start where you feel comfortable and allow your students some flexibility, too. For example, sometimes we forget that songs are really poetry set to music. Playing a couple of your favorite songs for your students can be a natural starting point. 

Lower The Stakes

Point out the things that make poetry fun and different than other writing genres. First, standard grammar rules do not apply. It’s not often that fragments and run-on sentences are acceptable. This will give some relief to your grammatically challenged students. Also, there are no wrong answers when it comes to poetry. Poetry is creative expression; it is an opportunity to go crazy with description or try something unique. No one has the right to say that a poem is incorrect, unless, of course, you are teaching a specific technique. And if you are teaching a particular rhyme scheme, allow students time to brainstorm rhyming words in small groups. 

Think Outside The Box

If you do have a prescribed curriculum, have fun and get creative with it. At one point, I was required to teach sonnets to eighth graders. Since sonnets typically examine an emotion, allow students to choose not-so-typical emotions like confusion or disgust. Some students will love the patterns, while others will cringe at their restrictiveness.  Encourage them to take on the challenge; perhaps allow students to pair up to write a sonnet. Also, be sure to expose your students to the various types of sonnets. Many of us automatically think of Shakespeare when we hear the word sonnet, but Petrarchan and Spenserian sonnets have different rhyme schemes within the fourteen-line structure. 

Share Your Writing

If you are willing, share your writing with your students. Students will almost always respect and appreciate those moments when you share an aspect of your life with them. As I progressed in my career and gained confidence, my poetry phobia diminished. Several years into my career, I wrote an “I Am From” poem and shared it with my students. You can use this template with students from upper elementary through high school. Try it yourself, first. Then you’ll see just how easy it can be.

There Are No Right Or Wrong Answers

Students will often respond to poetry with, “I don’t get it.” Help them to understand that just like any work of art, poetry will resound differently with each individual, and that’s okay. There may be multiple interpretations of a work of poetry based on the listeners’ experiences. Poetry units are an opportunity to point out that we all share things in common, but we are unique individuals, too. At the same time, we need to respect the work of every poet, whether a published author or a classmate. 

Read Poetry Aloud

Finally, be sure to provide at least one opportunity for your students to share their poetry by reading aloud. Rather than having each student read for the entire class, set up more intimate small groups to lessen student anxiety. You can also give students options such as allowing them to read each other’s poetry in the small groups.

Here are some additional resources for teaching poetry: Well-Versed: A Guide To Teaching Poetry, Harry Potter Haiku, and A Collection Of Poetry Activities

How do you teach poetry to your students? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Shannon Krzyzewski is a veteran educator with over twenty-five years of experience teaching Spanish, English/Language Arts, and Social Studies at both the middle and high school levels in the Seattle area. She is now a freelance writer, editor, and educational consultant residing in Montana’s Flathead Valley.

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