With all the emphasis on novels and non-fiction text, ELA teachers probably don’t teach enough poetry. However, there are compelling reasons why poetry should be included in the ELA curriculum, even if students struggle with it.
I’ve worked hard over the past year to include more poetry in my curriculum. I do both stand-alone poetry units, but also use poetry as a supplement to whatever we happen to be reading at the time. Here are some easy ways to incorporate more poetry into your existing lessons. These activities that are both challenging and fun.
After poems are inspired by another poem. There are a couple of different ways to write one.
One method is to write a poem in response to another poem. One classic example is “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir Walter Raleigh, a poem written in response to “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe.
In a similar fashion, I have my students write a poem in response to Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” from Lucasta’s point of view. I have them do their best to match the rhyme scheme and meter of the original poem just like Raleigh did and ask them to think about tone. How might Lucasta respond? Is she angry? Dismissive? Upset?
Of course, you can do this with contemporary poems as well. “To A Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pastan Is a great choice. Have students write an after poem from the daughter’s point of view.
Another way to write after poems is to write a poem that has the same feel and shape of the original but addresses a different topic. Clint Smith does this with “There Is a Lake Here” a poem written after “There Are Birds Here” by Jamaal May. My students have written incredible poetry in imitation of Clint Smith’s “Counting Descent” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself #6.”
Writing after poems is a terrific way to get students to pay attention to the structure of poetry. It also giving them a model to follow while writing their own. While my students don’t think they are very good at writing poetry, they always turn out better than they expect. And they are learning how poetry works in the process.
I first discovered sijo poetry in Jason Reynolds’ novel “Miles Morales: Spider-Man” in which Miles has to write one every day for his English class. It’s a poetry format similar to a haiku. Here’s the setup:
- A sijo is 3 lines in length, averaging 14-16 syllables per line (for a poem total of 44-46 syllables).
- The first line introduces the situation or theme of the poem.
- Line 2 develops the theme with more detail.
- Line 3 presents a “twist” and conclusion.
I have students write the events of a chapter of a novel they are reading independently as a sijo poem. This forces them to think about the chapter while creatively finding ways to meet the syllable and line requirements. It’s a quick, easy way to have them respond to something they’re reading.
I have also done this with a whole class novel as well once students are pretty far along. I have them write a sijo poem that captures a particular event in what we’ve read so far. Once they have composed their poems, we construct a reading order for the sijo poems by putting the poems in chronological order. We then read the sequence out loud as a class.
There are plenty of other Japanese poetry forms that are short and structured that would be good for a similar activity.
Tangled poems are two poems that are “tangled” together. You take two poems that are similar in style and structure and blend them together by inserting lines from one into the other. The students then work to untangle the poems into two separate poems. I’ve done this with Whitman’s patriotic poems.
I like to have students do this in groups, and I allow them to ask any questions before they begin that might make their job easier.
After they complete this activity ask them what skills and strategies they used to figure it out. Inevitably students focus on structural elements, especially if the poems address the same topic. In a weird way, this gets them thinking about structure and syntax before they think about what the poem means. Once they untangle the poems, we discuss them, and because of the activity, they should already know them fairly well.
A couple of tips if you’re going to do this. First, it’s helpful to choose two poems that are somewhat similar in topic and structure. Rhyming poems tend to be too easy. When you tangle the two poems, keep the lines in order. Also, keep groups of lines together in random intervals (two lines here, three lines there, a single line at the end.) It makes them think harder if there’s no pattern.
Reassembled poetry works well with any poem of a decent length. However, I like to do it with structured poems like sonnets and other forms with stanzas and end rhymes.
Cut up a poem into strips and have the students reassemble the poem. You can splint in into stanzas or into lines — it depends on how hard you want to make the task. If you do this in groups I like to take the strips and mix them up so they can’t just follow the cut marks.
Depending on the poem, they may not get it right. I’ve never had a class get “Ozymandias” in the right order because the rhyme scheme is a little tricky. They might need help along the way, so I tell them which lines have been properly placed if they struggle. But success is not the goal. Like the tangled poems, the point is to think about what order makes sense given the information that they have in the lines. And once you discuss it they’ll have read it a few times.
Here are a couple of other ideas. I like doing impostor poems, where students create a fake stance of poetry and insert it into a poem. We then do a gallery walk are students guess which stanzas are fake. I’ve also had really good luck using silent discussion with poetry as well.
And I also have a bunch of great resources to help you teach poetry. Check out my popular Poetry Comics Bundle, which features comics that introduce well-known poems to students with activities for analysis. Check out those comics — as well as other great resources — in my store. You can even get a free lesson on “The Road Not Taken” below – just click on Robert Frost in the image at the bottom!
I know you’re the kind of teacher that makes their classroom a fun, engaging learning environment. I have a series of lessons done as comics that address various ELA topics like grammar, poetry, editing, and Shakespeare, all of which will make your students glad they came to class that day. All the fun is there for you, and your kids will love studying any of these topics because they’ll get a new comic every day! Please check out my resources and let the learning begin!