Helping Students Fill Their Poetry Toolbox

poetry tools for studentsLately on Next Time Teaching, we’ve been talking about poems that work well in the classroom (here and here).  But what do you do with those poems?

You’ve probably noticed that I’m not a big fan of having students just react to them.  Some students will have opinions right away and it’s okay for them.  But a lot of students come to high school already feeling alienated from poetry and unable to get anything from it.

So I like to show them that they are capable of doing things with poems.  I often refer to it as having a toolbox.  And my goal is for students to feel like they have a lot of tools they can use with any new poem they encounter.  

Here are some of the more accessible tools students can easily learn how to use with any poem:

Mark where the sentences end–The tension between where the line ends and where the sentence ends is a powerful way that poets create meaning.  The simplest way to move students towards understanding that is just to have them pay attention to where the sentences end.

Find antecedents to pronouns–Students can do this even if they don’t have the grammar vocabulary, because they’ll still understand questions like “who is the ‘you’?”  

Label the rhyme scheme–In my experience, students love knowing how to label the rhyme scheme of a poem with letters.  Here’s a refresher

Describe the speaker–It helps to start with narrative poems that have a clear speaker, but after they get used to the idea, students should be able to describe the voice that speaks any poem.

Count the syllables–Another entryway.  Meter can get quite complicated, but all students can learn to count out the syllables on their fingers.  Then some basic questions like “is every line the same?” or “is it a small number or a big number?” can help them begin to tackle rhythm and line length.

Notice the title–Students often skip the title, even when it’s enormously helpful.

Circle colors or light/dark words--Often an entryway to the mood of a poem.  Also a good way to build vocabulary.

Mark time words–It’s easy to skip words like “before,” “after” or “next,” but they often help the chronology of the poem make more sense.

Look for sensory words–Does the poem smell?  Looking for any words that imply a smell, taste, or sound can help with understanding and mood.

Watch for negatives–In my experience, students often read poems line by line.  Problem is, there might have been a “not” or a “never” 3 lines ago that changes the meaning.  Together with reading to sentence breaks, watching for negatives can really improve their comprehension.

Use the poem as a mentor text–Choose a sentence or two with an interesting construction and have students practice writing similar sentences.  Or take a whole poem with an accessible premise (such as William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”) and have students write their own version.

Write a response--Is the speaker addressing someone?  Could students write back?  Or tell the poet that they agree or disagree or that he or she missed something?  Responses could be poems, but they could also be letters or reviews, which helps students understand the connection between genre and purpose.

Paraphrase--Putting a poem into their own words is no easy task and often helps students clarify what they do and don’t understand.

Describe the structure--Once they know the word “stanza,” students can count and describe how the poem is broken up and looks on the page.

Choose the most important words–A more subjective activity than something like looking for rhyme, but great for discussion.  After students have used some of the other techniques to get to know the poem, ask them to choose what they think are the 3 most important words in it and then discuss.  

Spoil that line–Do your students write bad poetry?  Have them intentionally write a version of the poem that you’re looking at that’s as bad as possible.  The more awkward and unclear, the better!  It’s a silly activity, but also a way to get students to think about what makes good poetry good.

Find a companion piece–Once students have a sense of a poem, they often enjoy finding a song, movie, or picture that “goes with it.”  You could define companion pieces more specifically, but I like to leave it pretty open and see the connections that students make.  You could even make it the summative assignment for a poetry unit and include a written justification.

Hope that helps you fill your teaching toolbox with activities that help students fill their poetry toolboxes!


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