“Poetry is boring.”
“What does poetry have to do with anything?”
“What does poetry even mean!?”
“I hate poetry.”
Poetry is a timeless form of writing, yet students struggle to see its relevance to their lives. Further, they struggle to understand the themes and messages poetry attempts to communicate. After weeks of asking them to read like writers, my students did begin to find some value in poetry, but they still didn’t like it.
Thus began my endeavor to present poetry as exciting, interesting, and most of all–fun. What follows are three poetry activities my students were engaged and challenged by.
Creating book spine poetry is not a new concept–it can be found all over the internet. I first got the idea to do this activity in last year’s UNH Literacy class with Penny Kittle. Not only does creating spine poetry get students playing with language, it also exposes them to a wide variety of titles.
I modeled the creation of a spine poem for my students, stacking and re-stacking titles by John Green, Max Brooks, Jon Krakauer, Malcolm Gladwell, and more. I modeled, with their input, until we had a poem that satisfied us. I also showed examples of a variety of spine poems on the projector. Then, students worked in groups to create their own spine poems, eventually writing their finished products in their writer’s notebooks after adding punctuation and a creative title. I noticed many of them adding new titles to their what-to-read lists, too.
Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology is a wonderful collection of poems inspired by graveyard epitaphs. Lives and legacies are explored in Masters’ work in a variety of styles.
I wanted to have students practice imitating this poet’s craft, as he is a master (pun intended!) of showing, not telling. We have a beautiful old cemetery quite close to our school, and it was a gorgeous September day for a walk. My students toted their writer’s notebooks to the graveyard and we read three of Masters’ poems together. I asked students to wander the cemetery and find a gravestone that appealed to them, then imitate one of the poems we’d read, using that headstone as a subject. My boy students especially loved this assignment–they were drawn in by the quiet atmosphere of the cemetery and its prevalence of Civil War graves.
Shane Koyczan, Taylor Mali, and Saul Williams have soared to YouTube fame with their spoken word and slam poetry performances. They are forceful presences on stage, and their-in-your-face styles often hook my students.
Sarah Kay provides a lovely contrast with her soft-spoken performances, her clear voice spinning tales of love, motherhood, and femininity. We read “Point B”, pulled out its richest lines, and hung them around the room. There were eight in total, and students responded freely to these beautiful words on post-it notes in a silent discussion. They wandered the room, sticking their responses onto their favorite lines, and then responded to one another. Their close readings gave way to analysis as they challenged each other, left questions, and cheered classmates on. Weeks later, a student quoted a line from “Point B” in a discussion–this activity had seared “this life will hit you hard in the face” into her memory.
Stacking books into spine poetry, imitating poems about gravestones in a cemetery, and silently discussing spoken word poems transformed my students’ perceptions of poetry. Words that were once lifeless on the page came alive. This week, they reshape their own identities and wear new hats as poets and writers–hats that, thanks to our poetry fun, are not as unappealing as they once seemed.