Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

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9 thoughts on “Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

  1. Tonya January 9, 2020 at 9:45 pm Reply

    My classes had a Book Tasting today where I had set out 124 (usually more) novels in verse for them to peruse. Over the last ten years with two different campuses and grade levels, I use these beautiful books to help students gain insight into an author’s craft: the use of fonts, white space, diction, etc. They were so excited! We will take this adventure into our study of poetry using these unique texts. I love it!

    October Mourning is an incredible book. Makes my heart hurt to read it.

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  2. louissisneros January 9, 2020 at 1:01 pm Reply

    If you’re interested in using October Mourning in your classroom, Lesléa Newman created excellent instructional materials some years ago, in partnership with the Matthew Shepard Foundation and GLSEN. At MSF, we also have an extensive collection of digitized materials to supplement your study. I’m a retired HS English teacher, now with the Foundation to provide support for Lesléa’s book, along with The Laramie Project and other works that keep Matt’s legacy alive: louis@matthewshepard.org

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  3. Colleen January 9, 2020 at 7:07 am Reply

    I love using Novels in Verse in the class…what are the specific ways in which you use them? Also, I would politely, but strongly, disagree that these titles should only be used with seniors. Kids can handle a lot, because kids see and experience a lot well before senior year.

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    • Pam McMartin January 9, 2020 at 8:11 am Reply

      Of course! I use novels in verse with all levels. I just wanted to give a warning with some of the content of some of these books (not really the first two, but October Mourning largely) as the content is heavy for some students. Like any recommended read, you know your students best and what would work for them. These are just three that I have used successfully with my senior students.

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    • Pam McMartin January 9, 2020 at 8:33 am Reply

      I have largely used them in literature circles either as all of the books being novels in verse or as one option. Most recently, I have used the above three titles in conjunction with our spoken word poetry unit. It has been really interesting to look at the similarities and the differences between oral poetry and written poetry.

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  4. Ashley January 9, 2020 at 7:05 am Reply

    I could have written this! For me, the novel in verse that hooked me was Crank by Ellen Hopkins. Our choices for the NiV unit include: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, Burned by Ellen Hopkins, 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger, Solo by Kwame Alexander, and The Sky Between You and Me by Kathrine Alene. I highly recommend all of them!

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    • Pam McMartin January 9, 2020 at 8:12 am Reply

      Yes, that are awesome recommendations too!

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  5. Ruth January 9, 2020 at 6:32 am Reply

    Come visit us the last week of June at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH for The Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Here you will meet, probably connect with life-long friends who use poetry in their various age/grade/life situations. Come Listen, Learn, Laugh, and Share.

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    • Pam McMartin January 9, 2020 at 8:12 am Reply

      Oh, I would love too it it weren’t so far away!

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