Last time on Next Time Teaching, we were talking about poems that work really well for teaching literary analysis skills for the AP Lit exam. But you may teach younger kids, or kids who aren’t ready for that level of close reading. So today I want to talk about poems that work well in the ELA classroom to get kids interested in poetry.
Do you have kids who dislike (even–gasp–hate) poetry? Again, I wouldn’t shy away from teaching literary devices. I know a lot of times with struggling readers we focus on their reactions and opinions. But if I don’t like poetry, and don’t feel like I understand poetry, and then get asked “how does this poem make you feel?” I’m not going to have much to say. Especially if there’s a right answer buried in the question (like the poem is supposed to make you feel sad, not angry, even though you have every right to feel angry for being asked that!).
But there are plenty of things we can ask reluctant readers to do with a poem other than respond emotionally to it. Mark where the sentences end is a great one. The tension between the line break and the sentence structure is a great source of meaning in poetry. And everyone can be successful at marking where the sentences end, so they’re on their way.
Choosing good, intriguing poems is also key. Here are a dozen that work well in the classroom.
“Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” by Amiri Baraka. I’ve had some great discussions with students about this poem. They ask questions like “Is it a mom or dad?” and “Is the little girl praying?” which can eventually lead to conversations about how much freedom is there for interpretation in poetry.
“A Work of Artifice” by Marge Piercy. This poem has nice, accessible imagery that students will get. Works well to set up more difficult poems and themes.
“Ex-basketball Player” by John Updike. Students may be intimidated by the length of this poem at first. But as they read along, they gain confidence and find they can relate to it.
“Not Waving but Drowning” by Stevie Smith. Kids get really into this poem. Maybe a little too much, because it’s rather heart-wrenching.
“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. A short poem that’s more complicated than it looks. Good for talking about how poets use language and what words can do. This video about a young man who chose “We Real Cool” for the Favorite Poem Project also works well.
“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. A good way to get kids thinking and talking about how they think about poetry. Also good for strong figurative language.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. A classic for good reason. A lot of students will know this poem, but its familiarity makes it a comfortable springboard to introduce new concepts like meter.
“Knock Knock” by Daniel Beaty. A long poem that can help students learn about multiple speakers and stanzas.
“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. A nice introduction to dialect. Also good for mentor text variations or writing a response from another perspective.
“Hanging Fire” by Audre Lord. Many poems are written about children from a parent’s point of view, but it’s harder to find ones that are from the child’s point of view.
“How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” by Sherman Alexie. A good companion to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Also good for discussing stereotypes, and for using as a mentor text.
“Desert Places” by Robert Frost. In my experience, Frost may be the traditional canonical poet that students like best. “Desert Places” is easy to relate to.
And, if all else fails, there’s this hysterical (but surprisingly well-written) student poem about how awful poetry is.