Back when I was in college, I took a course called Young Adult Literature. I was so excited to take this course because it was and still is my favorite genre. Before class started, our teacher posted the syllabus on our online classroom, and I remember being surprised to see a unit on poetry. At that time, I associated poetry with high-brow, intellectuals, academics, and English majors, not adolescents. However, the approach our professor took completely changed my outlook on making poetry magical for adolescents, rather than intimidating.
Teaching poetry isn’t really the challenge. There are so many strategies out there to teach students to understand poetry. However, understanding poetry and appreciating (or dare I saying loving) poetry are two very different points. It’s definitely a challenge for ELA teachers.
Nevertheless, thanks to a solid foundation from my YAL professor, I have experimented with ways to get students excited about poetry. The best way I can summarize is to make it fun. Easier said than done, right? Well, that’s why to prepare for National Poetry Month this April, I’m excited to share my best unique, yet practical ways to get your students excited about poetry.
No one can deny that poetry and music are connected. After all, some of our best musicians are published and/or recognized as poets. Tupac Shakur and his collection, The Rose that Grew from Concrete, is one that is popular among students. Bob Dylan started his career in poetry and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, and folksinger Joni Mitchell blurred the lines either further publishing a collection of poetry and lyrics together. This is just to name a few. You’ll find many more connections with a simple Google search.
Don’t trust students to just take your word for it. Have them discover the connection for themselves. They can research their favorite songs and analyze them for their poetic qualities. I personally like to use literary lenses for their analysis tasks to guide students on their discovery, but these tasks can be anything related to poetic analysis. Here are question ideas to get you started:
- What type of figurative language is used, and what is the effect?
- What type of sound devices (e.g. repetition, alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhyme, etc.)are used, and what is the effect?
- What influenced the author to write this song?
- What personal connections do you have to this song?
- What type of imagery is used, and what is the effect?
You can check out the exact lesson/tasks that I use here.
Since smartphones have developed such advanced camera technology, students not only have access to cameras, but they are highly interested in taking pictures. One of my favorite activities is pairing photography with poetry.
You can start with a theme or concept and ask students to capture it in photography. They can create an “album cover” if you want to start with music and progress to this idea, or it can be a standalone visual challenge. I like using poems about nature. (“The World Is Too Much With Us” by Wordsworth, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge, and “She Walks in Beauty” by Bryon are my favorites from my Romantic Poetry Unit.) As a side note, I specifically instruct students not to take pictures of people, but rather of the natural world. This prevents any issues with photograph permissions.
If your students have access to devices, digital art is a really fun way to add a unique challenge to studying imagery and symbolism. I ask students to choose a line from the poem and then create a digital representation of that image. You don’t have to be an expert at Photoshop to do this; although, I bet some of your students will surprise you with Photoshop skills they picked up on their own. They can simply use Google Slides to create a visual display.
Click here, and I’ll send you my quick and easy video tutorial to teach you and your students how to create a digital visual art canvas.
I know this sounds a bit out there, but trust me on this one, it works. Pull out Play-Doh, and you’ll see 18-year-olds, smile like first graders. I like to make this a challenge, so it seems a bit less elementary for them (but let’s face it, the beauty IS the nostalgia). First, choose a poem that has a distinct image. Then, ask them to cold read the poem, and create the central image or symbol. My personal favorite is the poem, “Ozymandias” by John Keats because the poem is literally about a crumbled statue. Not to mention, the poem is great, and there is a cool visual you can show them afterwards narrator by Robert Krantz. You can see my exact lesson and directions here.
Everyone loves a good challenge, and escape rooms are ultra-popular right now. You can create your own poetry escape room to introduce a poetry unit, review poetic elements, or even as a final assessment. You can learn how to create escape rooms from this blog post. The biggest downfall to this one is that you will need to budget a lot of extra to time to create it. They are absolutely worth it, but this is not a one-and-done activity. However, you can save yourself a lot of time by using my Poetry Escape Room. Check it out here.
My last piece of advice is to make poetry a community celebration by publishing student poetry and illustrations. You can do this on any level too: your classroom, your grade level, your building, and even your district.
Our school-wide Literary Times started with just one student who loved poetry. Together, we decided we wanted to celebrate the evolution of poetry in our school district. Therefore, we formed a club with officers, voted on a name, create a call for submissions, selected works, and compiled our literary magazine. You can use this same concept on any level. Ask your students to write poems and perhaps illustrate the poems. Then, create a book by printing them out and binding them (either with staples or binding equipment). You don’t have to be selective, but you definitely need to have a release party complete with guest readings by the published authors.
I hope these ideas have given you ideas for making poetry fun and exciting for your adolescent students. You may also want to check out my blog post about teaching poetic close reading skills. If you use any of these ideas, I’d love to see what your students have created! Tag me on my social media @doccopteaching and don’t forget to pin this post so you can easily find it when you’re planning your next poetry lesson. Happy National Poetry Month!