All things poetic…

I have to say up front that I LOVE poetry and I LOVE teaching poetry! I also understand that many teachers don’t share my passion and that for some reason even more students would scream “Noooo!” if I asked them if they would like a poetry lesson. I think that reaction is tragic as poetry has the potential to emotionally connect with us in a way that other textual forms cannot. Poetry is also a wonderful help to students in regards to vocabulary building, effective use of punctuation and to help them understand the potential power of literary devices.

One of the first reasons I think many students fear poetry is that they have this very fixed view of what a poem should be. The main element they expect is that the poem must rhyme and in fact can’t be a poem if it doesn’t. One of the main reasons for this expectation, I feel, is their very early exposure to nursery rhymes and the like that all rely on rhyme. Every poem after that is filtered through that early learning. When asked why a poem must rhyme my students have always replied – “It sounds better and it easier to remember”. When asked to write a poem, however, they stumble over the need to rhyme as it is the pursuit of matching words that drives them rather than effectively conveying meaning. This then frustrates them and they will either give up or come up with some very twee rhyme that has no power to evoke emotion.

So, this post will look at ways (hopefully) to make the study of poetry more enjoyable for both teachers and their students. This term is the perfect time to do some poetry study as the Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Competition finishes on the 3oth of June and I would really encourage you to try and get your students to enter a poem or two in the competition. This year’s optional theme is “Wheels and Wings and Marvellous Things” which would work in well with many KLAs not just English.

1. Getting Past the Rhyme. Lots of exposure to different forms of non rhyming poems is recommended to break the fixation with rhyme. Blank or free verse allows students to focus on the emotion and message and actually frees them up to express themselves.

2. Play with Words. (a) Found Poems are a great introduction to writing poems. Choose a page in a novel or textbook and ask students to choose words that sum up the important ideas and events. They then use these words to create a poem version of the page. The discussion that can arise from their choices and construction can be amazing. There are many variations you can use: identify an emotion/character/theme etc for them to focus on and choose the words appropriate to that focus. (b) Brainstorm words for a particular topic and then students can work in pairs or by themselves to choose words to use in a poem exploring that focus. Again compare their choices and the different effects.

3. Field Trip. Kids love heading out of the classroom and poetry offers up lots of excuses to leave their seats. I often get the students to head out and collect an object eg a leaf or a rock. They then have to brainstorm words and phrases that describe their object – what it looks like, its colour, texture, what they could compare it to etc and then organise these into a poem. Or we head out and sit around a tree, a garbage bin, a seat etc and talk about it – as a whole, its separate parts, what it reminds them of, emotions that could link with the object, how would we describe the colour/shape etc. They then have to write about the chosen object and in the last line of the poem they have to make a comment about its place/value to society etc. Works well as a pair activity or individually.

4. Art Work. I find that students “get” various literary devices if they can draw them, after all that is the purpose of the devices – to help us visualise what they want us to see. I start by giving them examples of similes etc to draw and then they have to create their own and draw them as a picture. When we are reading and studying poems I will get them to choose their favourite line/image and draw it for display around the classroom. You can also choose a poem to study and allocate a line per student to illustrate and display.

5. Lets Perform! Poems are meant to be read out aloud and you should take any opportunity to read poems to the students or get them to read poems to you. (a) Why not set up a school or class competition along the lines of the American competition, Poetry Out Loud. Better still,  why not challenge other local schools to join you can have a community competition. (b) Poetry Slams are also a great idea and really connect students (and teachers) with poetry. Check out Australian Poetry Slam or @WebEnglishTeacher for lesson ideas. There are lots of examples of students performing in poetry slams on YouTube if you need inspiration. Again, why not hold class and school Poetry Slam competitions. (c) Acting out poems set for study are a great way to learn the poem and to understand the rhythm and meaning behind the words. Get the class on the floor and slowly teach them your chosen poem line by line with actions attached. As you go, talk about the words, the effects of the different techniques used and how that would look and would it be said/acted slowly, loudly etc and what clues were there in the poem to help them come up with that decision. You will be amazed at the conversations and how well they remember the poem. I got this activity from Phil Beadle’s Masterclass on Island Man and I would highly recommend the video to every teacher who needs inspiration.

6. Make a Video. I regularly get my students to create videos of their favourite poem of the ones we have studied in class or of their own poem. I usually show examples the first time so students get ideas on how they can look and the elements of construction. You will find plenty of suitable examples on YouTube. Using MovieMaker, Animoto, or PhotoStory 3  they are instructed to make a movie of their chosen poem. They must find images and music that match the mood/s, tempo/s and purpose of the poem. Overwhelmingly,  the results are outstanding. When they work as a group the dialogue between the students is impressive as they argue about which image/s best represent that line/word, why the music needs to change on this line as the mood changes etc. The presentations to the class and the accompanying explanations really highlight how much they have “got” out of the poem. I have then presented the videos on the school website and at Education Week.

All these activities can be used multiple times (the kids never tire of them and I certainly don’t) focussing on different themes and focuses such as looking at  poetry about love, the environment, animals, people etc. So, I hope these help you and your classes LOVE poetry as much as I do! Need some more inspiration? Check out the following sites:

@Web English Teacher

Poetry Forge

My Monster

Kristine O’Connell George

Poetry Riddles

Shape Poems

Read Write Think

Teacher Vision

Onomatopoeia

My Education Stuff

Got a great lesson for teaching poetry? Found a great site? Please add a comment and share your finds.

Happy Teaching!