One of the most dreaded units in my junior English class is the poetry unit. Most seventeen-year-olds are simply not fond of poetry. I used to be one of them. Several things about poetry put me off as a student: contrived or awkward language; meanings or references that eluded me; and perhaps most of all, what I perceived to be the stuffy arrogance of poets. You know what I mean—treating each word as though it were the most profound ever spoken.
The funny thing about teaching is it forces you to confront topics you’re uncomfortable with and make peace with them. While I can’t yet say that poetry is my favorite literary form, I have developed a much deeper appreciation for it. And I actually look forward to the poetry unit I’ll begin with my class on Monday.
I like to begin with simple examples of both reading and writing poetic forms. Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was a wonderfully imaginative poet, and I’ll be sure to include some of his in our early readings. Modern song lyrics make great poetry examples as well. Students will research and find some (appropriate, of course) lyrics to analyze. Other poets with whom students can relate are Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, and Shel Silverstein. We’ll read some classic examples as well, but it seems important to read poetry that’s accessible.
As with our reading exercises, I want students to begin creating their own poetry using fairly simple examples. My favorite resource for poetry lessons is ReadWriteThink, a site sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English. There are several interactive links on the site that allow students to create their own poems, using embedded formatting tools. Two of the most basic are the diamante and acrostic poem builders. There are even downloadable apps for creating poems on your tablet or phone.
The poetry lessons that I’ve found produce the most amazing student creations are the Found Poem lessons in ReadWriteThink. They’re available for virtually all grades, and while students sometimes find it difficult to get started on them, I’m always impressed with their results.
Found poetry, simply put, is poetry that is found in the text of a story or article. Students are instructed to underline or highlight 50-100 words they find most expressive in the original and to create a poem from many of those words. Instructions vary about word counts and the number of their own words they’re allowed to use, but I ask students to use no more than 50 words from the text and allow only two of their own words to help the poem flow. They’re given complete freedom in ordering the words into lines.
When students choose a text they’re interested in, the words or phrases they select to craft their poems become more personal. While the result is technically not their own wording, it lets students use words they know but would not have thought of on their own. I also think it helps build vocabulary by creating new contexts for words they’re familiar with. That’s what all poets do, after all.
The ultimate goal of the poetry unit is a class poetry SLAM! at the conclusion of our reading and writing exercises. We did a school-wide poetry SLAM! a couple of years ago that was a big hit, so I might see if the other English classes want to participate. We set the 60s mood with candlelight, hot chocolate, snapping fingers, prizes, and an actual emcee—the whole enchilada. I don’t think I’ll tell students about the competition until we’re well into the unit, however, because I’m not sure I’m ready for the moaning and groaning that will ensue. I’m betting they’ll change their tune, and by the day of the SLAM! students will have a great time sharing their individual creations. I know I’ll enjoy hearing them.