How can 6 little letters elicit such fear, dread, anxiety, and memories of failure and defeat?
And, that’s just for the teachers!
Many of us literature nerds love poetry. You probably remember how excited you were building your poetry packet your first year teaching ELAR. The other teachers on your team warned you that the students always hate the poetry unit. They don’t understand it. They think it’s boring. They will make fun of it.
“Just go over the poetry terms, have them write the definitions, read a few poems, if you’re really feeling ambitions do a TPCASTT, and give them the unit test. It will be painful so make it short, sweet, and get it over with.”
But you knew better! You love poetry, and your passion for poetry was going to make all the difference! You compiled relevant, contemporary, multicultural poems. You even sprinked in a few classics that you were sure they would appreciate.
You made enough copies of your packets so each student could annotate while reading and keep the poems forever. You walked into class ready to change their lives through the enlightenment of poetic masters.
But your packets were met with groans and sighs. Are we going to read ALL OF THESE? We have to study poetry AGAIN - we did it last year! You’re not going to make us write OUR OWN POEMS, right?!?
At least there was that one student who got excited because she (or he) LOVES poetry (but then wanted you to read all 5 notebooks of poems they had written).
To some, that may have been a bit exaggerated, but we are willing to bet that many of our readers can relate and have struggled to find the best approach, but finally ended up settling with a let’s just get through this approach.
You may have been able to perfect your poetry unit over the years. Perhaps you sprinkle it in throughout the year, thematically linking poems to other pieces you are studying. Maybe you do periodic poetry reading days complete with coffee, a barstool, spotlight, snapping students and bongo drums. Or you finally got your campus to host a slam poetry competition that has become something that the whole school looks forward to.
THEN COVID-19 THRUSTED YOU INTO REMOTE LEARNING AND YOU STILL HAVEN”T COVERED POETRY!
Have no fear! Poetry doesn’t have to be scary, and it can even be used effectively as a tool for students to escape the stressors of the pandemic or express and document their feelings in a creative, meaningful manner.
Songs as Poetry
Everyone likes music of some form, and all songs with lyrics are simply poems set to music (although we are not saying that all lyrics are deep and meaningful). Therefore, all students like poetry; they just may not know it.
We acknowledge that this is not a new approach, but many teachers say this without giving students the opportunity to discover it for themselves.
Consider compiling a list of songs from a variety of genres (don’t forget to screen them for inappropriate content or language). And don’t just pick songs that you like; try and include songs that students are listening to right now. If you are not very familiar with current music, don’t be afraid to ask (maybe a poll on social media).
Try to find songs that contain at least 3 examples of poetic devices. Some songs may be great examples of just one device, but generally, you want several examples in one selection in case students miss the one. The goal here is not to overwhelm them; it is to make poetry less intimidating. Unless you have an advanced class, stick with the more basic poetry elements like metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, irony, allusion, assonance, alliteration, and the 5 types of imagery.
Next, find links to the songs online. Ideally, find links with the lyrics on the screen (you could always provide a lyrics sheet in your online platform).
For the learning activity, simply have students identify 1 poetry element in the song and the tone. We recommend providing a list of tone words (like this one) in order to discourage responses like happy, sad, or angry. While you could ask students to analyze the purpose and effectiveness of the poetry elements, the intent behind this is to make poetry less intimidating.
As a simple extension, have students do the same with a couple of their favorite songs and share in an interactive platform.
Here is a list of some songs we have used to get you started:
Grenade by Bruno Mars
Ironic by Alanis Morissette
Watchin’ You by Rodney Atkins
Staples by Relient K (unable to find a video with lyrics, but it is a fun example of onomatopoeia)
For You by Staind (radio, censored version - the lyrics contain “FU**ED)
We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel
Burnin’ by Nichole Nordeman (unable to find a video with lyrics)
Like a Star by Corinne Bailey Rae
Firework by Katy Perry
We like to keep the definition of poetry pretty simple: the expression of emotion in a lyrical format. With a definition like this, students can come to realize that poetry can be about absolutely any topic that stirs up any emotion, not just love and heartbreak.
Most students have only been exposed to complicated, difficult poems written by dusty, old, white men who have been dead for over 100 years. Then they were forced to pick apart every little nuance. No wonder so many of them fear (or hate) poetry.
Take a similar approach to the songs activity above but with published poems. Find a variety of poems that students will be able to easily understand and maybe even enjoy. We go with the approach that the students won’t necessarily like every poem, but every student will read at least one poem that they like (which for some will be a first).
We recommend looking for poems over a lot of different topics: food, sports, cars, animals, insects, rodeos, fashion, even space travel.
Simply have students read through the poems (or record yourself reading the poems, or even better, find a video of the poet or a celebrity reading the poems) and write a 1-3 sentence response. And by response, we simply mean opinion, reflection, what does it make you think of.
As a follow-up in a subsequent lesson, have students identify a basic poetry element and the tone like they did in the songs activity.
“The Killers That Run…” by Leonard Cohen
“Mexicans Begin Jogging” by Gary Soto
“Woman” by Nikki Giovanni
“Ballad of the Landlord” by Langston Hughes
“Oranges” by Gary Soto
“Alive Together” by Lisel Mueller
“The Shape of History” by Charles Webb
“l (a” by e e cummings
“Incident” by Countee Cullen
“Cross” by Langston Hughes
“If” by Rudyard Kipling
“Sorting Laundry” by Elisavietta Ritchie
“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer
“Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall
Poetry Anthology Project
For a little more advanced project that would allow students to learn about poetry while doing some self-exploration into poems they may find interesting, consider having students create a poetry anthology like this one.
You will compile an anthology, or collection, of poems, songs and artwork portraying two contrasting themes. You will present your poetry in a creative presentation format which must contain illustrations, creative font, and color.
This collection must contain each of the following for each theme:
- 3 poems published* prior to 1990 (note date of publication for each poem) for each of the two contrasting themes. At least 1 poem for each theme must be from a poetry-award-winning poet (note the award on the poem)
- 1 original poem (as in written by you) for each of the two contrasting themes (minimum of 4 lines each)
- Find 1 song for each theme. Songs must be school appropriate (NO references to drugs, sex or alcohol; NO vulgar language). You must type the lyrics and include the songwriter.
- You must have one piece of art for each theme (painting, collage, model, sketch, statue, etc.). One may be an ORIGINAL artwork, and the other must be an image of a FAMOUS piece of art.
- A 1 paragraph analysis of one of the published poems in which you analyze the word choice, character, imagery, figures of speech, tone, OR form
- A paraphrase of one of the poems
- A reflection on your work on this project and what you have learned in this unit (in a paragraph explain how this unit/project changed or improved your understanding and appreciation of poetry)
That makes a total of 8 poems, 2 songs, 2 pieces of art, and 3 compositions
*a poem is not considered published simply because it is on the internet
We recommend that you provide students with a copy of the rubric anytime you assign a project so here is one for this project.
_____/20 – 4 published poems (5 points X 4)
_____/10 – 2 award winning (5 points X 2)
_____/10 – 2 original poems (5 points X 2)
_____/10 – 2 songs (5 points X 2)
_____/10 – 2 pieces of art (5 points X 2)
_____/10 – analysis
______/5 – paraphrase
______/5 – reflection
_____/20 – presentation creativity
Once students have explored how poetry can express any emotion found in the human experience, challenge them to write about their feelings regarding their current situation.
For some, that will be enough, and they will begin experimenting with poetic forms.
For those who need more guidance, have them list 5-10 adjectives describing the different ways they have felt during this pandemic. Have them list 5-10 things they have done or observed that are different from their normal routines. Ask them to describe what they have been most grateful for during this time.
Then have them pick one (or a few) of the items above and describe it with as much feeling, emotion, and detail they can muster up. You could even have them write to the tune of one of their favorite songs. Challenge them to include 3 of the poetry elements you have covered.
All of us are experiencing pretty strong emotions at this time. Poetry can be a healthy way to express and document those feelings. Reading in general can provide a healthy escape. What you’re doing matters! You are helping your students survive what for many is an overwhelming experience.