My first year of teaching I learned that my students thought poetry was a convoluted, confusing, incomprehensible jumble of words. They believed the more muddled the language, the better the poem. Students would write poetry in their writer’s notebooks and then ask me to translate it for them: “what do you think this means?” or “what do you think I’m saying here?” They’d ask, and I knew it was a dangerous game. I felt like a psychic, asking vague enough questions to pull out some story I could piece together. The students who weren’t writing in garbled tongues were crossing their arms in protest of the poetry unit.
I quickly learned that my students needed to hear contemporary poetry, poetry that pulled them in as readers and allowed them to feel something, anything. Over the years I have sculpted my poetry unit to meet the needs and wants of my students. It has become my favorite unit because it is the one that fits flawlessly into the workshop model; it provides the greatest opportunities for differentiated instruction and unique output. While I integrate poetry into my lessons throughout the year, I eagerly ramp up student exposure during the few weeks that surround our school wide Poetry Out Loud (POL) competition, a national oratory competition in which students perform a poem from the POL website (http://www.poetryoutloud.org/). I have found that four main components within my poetry unit have proven successful in educating students on what poetry has to offer.
1. Flood students with contemporary poetry
The easiest way to help students connect with poetry is to provide them with examples that speak to them. I begin my poetry unit by playing two songs. They could honestly be any songs that have a story, but my choice this year was “The A Team” by Ed Sheeran and “Wings” by Macklemore. I explain to my students that poetry is all around them. In fact, poetry is the most accessible form of writing they come in contact with on a daily basis because it is used in music, and how many students walk around with ear buds jammed in, listening to the words of poet-musicians.
Students warm up to this thought quickly, but it’s the spoken word poetry that tends to catch them off guard. I lead poem talks instead of book talks during this unit and I expose students to a variety of spoken word performances, my favorites being from Taylor Mali, Sarah Kay, and Shane Koyczan. I also find that spoken word poetry tends to pop up throughout the year. Oftentimes students send me their favorite pieces and I collect these for this unit. This year’s popular video, which was performed by a trio of teenage girls from a program called Get Lit, is called “Somewhere in America.” (http://queenlatifah.com/lifestyle/heroes/get-lit-power-of-poetry/). Last year’s viral video “Look Up” by Gary Turk served as a call to students to put down their technology and start living in the moment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7dLU6fk9QY).
Students complete quick writes based on these poems to help them explore the meaning and depth of the poem. I ask them to write about their reaction to the performance, to pick a line from the poem that speaks to them, or to write about memories the poem might stir up; the goal is to get them responding to and talking about poetry in some way while recognizing that their reaction as a reader is valuable.
2. Put Poetry on Display
Part of exposing students to contemporary poetry also involves helping them to recognize poetry within their surroundings. During the poetry unit I make a point to both display and discuss books that include poetry. I like to discuss Ellen Hopkins’ books and use Brian Turner’s war poem anthology Here, Bullet as well Jay-Z’s book Decoded, which includes annotations of his rap lyrics, as mentor texts. I also integrate classic poetry to make sure students are exposed to a wide variety of poets and pieces.
Inspired by a Pinterest pin, I started a Poet-Tree this year. I asked students to take a week to find poetry surrounding them. They could bring in a poem they enjoyed, favorite lyrics from a song, excerpts from a book, or anything they deemed to be poetry. The goal was to reinforce that poetry exists all around us, and judging by the final product, students were able to recognize the larger implications of the poetry unit.
3. Have students Participate in Poetry Out Loud or a poetry reading
Ownership is central to the poetry unit. Students oftentimes give into poetry because they have a say in what poem they would like to memorize, analyze, and perform. Furthermore, they are invested because their peers
hold them accountable.
I give students ample class time to explore the available poem choices on the Poetry Out Loud website. Once they choose their poem, I lead them through a variety of activities intended to help them fully analyze and understand their poem. We explore the meaning behind the poem, creating a word dictionary to understand the significance of word choice. They research the poet’s background and historical events/facts that might have played a role in the writing of the poem. They learn about the appearance of the poem and how author’s choice plays a role in line lengths and stanza breaks. Finally, we discuss sounds within poetry and how poetic elements affect how a piece is read. This intimate look at the structure and development of the poem prepares students to perform their poetry at our final poetry café.
4. Create a poetry and post cards match between schools
Every year our freshmen classes pair up with a group of fifth graders from one of our local elementary schools to participate in a program we call “poetry and postcards.” Fifth graders paint or draw a post card in their art class to send to a high school buddy. In return, our students write a poem to match the post card while also sending a letter to the student with some information about themselves as well as advice for the fifth graders as they move up to middle school. My students are invested in the project and oftentimes receive notes back from their fifth-grade buddy.
While my poetry unit is packed, students move on with an understanding that the process of comprehending and connecting with poetry isn’t so different from the process of reading a novel. They see the relevance and beauty of language and tend to leave with a greater appreciation of an art they otherwise despised.