Have you ever done a Google search for "poetry ideas" to teach in your high school English classroom? Let me spoil those search results for you - THEY'RE LAME! Poetry, especially at the high school level, it too important to be treated as a coloring activity, or worse, ignored completely.
So many of the poetry resources out on the internet and on Pinterest are, quite honestly, not rigorous at all. If you're truly looking to teach poetry (like, more than just rhyme scheme and a few adorable forms), you're not going to be happy with the coloring-book, bubble-lettered poetry activities out there. And maybe that's the problem: studying poetry isn't an activity. It's hard work that requires a lot of patience, confidence (on the part of the teacher), and clear teaching targets. Don't get me wrong...poetry can and should be fun! But we need to be very careful, as high school English teachers, to not oversimplify our poetry study. If you need help designing your poetry curriculum for this year, I've got a few things for you to keep in mind...
Choose Your Targets
What will the goal of this unit be? Do you want students to study a particular genre or school of poetry like the Harlem Renaissance or Romanticism? Do you want a diverse array of poetry so that you can focus on the basic analytical skills needed to approach any poem? Are you considering a mini-unit focusing on just one poet's works? All of these approaches are very exciting and relatively easy to organize, so decide on the approach you like and the targets you hope to achieve. This will help keep the unit focused on a skill or two that you can measure at the beginning and end (pretest/posttest). If you're using Common Core to write your targets, you won't find a lot of poetry-friendly areas, but certainly consider the language standard:
If you have enough time in this unit, you might also consider adding in a few of the speaking and listening standards (have students perform and read their work for an audience) or even the writing standard about publication. If you're lucky enough to not have to "prove" you're teaching "standards", still make sure you have a few focus goals for the unit: what are the things you want students to be able to do once they're finished with the few weeks you've studied poetry?
Decide on an Analysis Tool
There are lots of approaches to teaching poetic analysis. If you've been teaching for a while, you might be familiar with TPCASTT. I can remember being a student hating TPCASTT (who knows why), but I do have an alternative analysis tool that I can share with you. As a senior in college, poetry instruction in the high school classroom became my focal point in my seminar research. Here I began the process of creating The Big 6, and I have since refined it over many more years of teaching. Essentially, The Big Six is an open circle that invites students into a dialogue with each other and with the poem. We tackle each poem with The Big Six in a variety of ways. Sometimes I have students move around the room stopping at each Big Six Station to talk and annotate about each element. Other times, we vote on the top two we want to examine for a particular poem. If you want to know more, I have some free lesson ideas, graphics, and handouts here.
Select Your Poems Carefully
This is a task taken too lightly by many teachers. Here is where you hold great power - are you going to keep stuffing the old, white, dead, male cannon down students' throats? I suggest you make every effort to diversify your unit's anthology of poems. Keeping in mind the targets of your unit (do not abandon these!), consider a global map of poets from many places. Teach female poets. It's OKAY if you don't teach Frost. He'll be fine with it. Have the chutzpah to try some lesser known poets, even some LIVING poets, to teach your students. The poems you teach shape your students' perception and attitudes about poetry. Here are some tips to help with this monumental task:
- Try pairing contemporary and old school poetry together:
- Willie Perdomo "Where I'm From" and Carl Sandburg "Chicago" (both about where the poets are from, both urban landscapes)
- Poetry & New York Times nonfiction
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and Juanes (Columbian music superstar) "A Dios Le Pido" (both poems about senseless death, both have a prayer-like feel)
- Consider some of these rockstar contemporary poets:
- Check out these female poets you know, but probably don't already have in the curriculum:
Make Sure Your Students Write
No matter what you do in your unit, make sure there is room set aside for students to try their hand at their own poetry. You don't need to organize any formal instruction for this -- seriously! The best way to teach students how to write poetry is to show them great mentors. Your directions can be as simple as "Now, try your own version of "Phenomenal Woman". What is "Phenomenal" about you that you'd like to celebrate? Experiment with your own version for homework tonight". It's that simple.
If you'd like to spend more time with students writing, you might consider this 30 Poems in 30 Days challenge in my shop. I have 30 types of poems ready for students to try as well as a simple digital interactive notebook for the students to use. If you want help with SLAM POETRY or some POETRY PROJECT IDEAS, I've got you hooked up there, too.
That about wraps it up here, folks. Remember, the fact that you're here reading this post means that you care about poetry instruction. We must be powerful forces in our English departments - for so many students, high school is the place where poetry goes to DIE. We can't let that happen. It's just too important. Teaching poetry helps students be more analytical across so many other kids of literature, it stimulates creativity, and it brings them in touch with so many more writers and great moments in our world's history. Let me know in the comments below what you're teaching in your poetry units!