Each year I anticipate that some of my students will inevitably declare, “I hate poetry!” Indeed, I’ve encountered many teachers who feel similarly and dread teaching it. I am NOT one of those teachers. I LOVE poetry and make it a personal challenge to help each of my students, particularly those naysayers, fall in love with poetry, too.
I begin by acknowledging how my students feel. Those who cry “Down with poetry!” explain that their disenchantment stems from a variety of experiences. For some, the only poetry they’ve been exposed to falls into the Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky realm. While I pride myself on not being a literary snob who instead cheers enthusiastically about whatever my students enjoy reading, to ignite the love of poetry flame will require exposure to a wider range of poems and poets. For others, interpreting the meaning behind poems feels laborious and pointless. I get that. As teachers, sometimes we can belabor a text so much that just mentioning the title results in a chorus of sighs and eye-rolling. And if you teach middle school students like I do, add outward groans and teeth sucking! These experiences and feelings are embedded within our students so deeply, that for those of us who LOVE poetry, it can seem like fighting a losing battle. So how do we overcome this obstacle?
First, although April is National Poetry Month, please DO NOT wait until April to try to foster a love of poetry within your students. If you have fallen into this trap, don’t worry. I did the same thing for the first several years of teaching. You’ll have another chance next year to fall out of it! I flood my classroom with books of poetry of all types. They are available to students all year and I don’t wait until a formal “poetry unit” to begin using them. In fact, on the first day of school I leave a poem on every student’s desk. It’s one of my favorites: Quilt by Janet Wong. The poem is also taped to the front of the classroom door. I ask students to read it with the following question in mind. “How might this poem serve as a symbol for the type of classroom community I hope we’ll create this year?”
Quilt by Janet Wong
is a quilt
of odd remnants
in a strange
fabric wearing thin –-
but made to keep
even in bitter
After providing time for students to read and discuss the poem and talk about their responses to my question, they’re ready to share out and their ideas are always priceless. The poem just naturally lends itself to thinking about diversity; the ways in which we’re all wonderfully different and together, incredibly powerful and beautiful. My students get this right away. So on day one, they are already successful interpreters of poetry! The image of a quilt becomes a symbol for our classroom all year no matter what we’re doing, and it all stems from a poem they’ve read and loved.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of reading poetry all throughout the year for fun and to capture the mood of something profound that students have been particularly moved by. By doing so, students begin to see the pure genius of poets who are able to capture the humorous and heartfelt moments of our lives often in just a few short lines. By waiting until an official poetry unit to begin, we’re almost guaranteed to fail at persuading those students who have strong feelings against poetry to feel otherwise. They need to be wooed gradually, thoughtfully, and continually!
If you’re looking to start a collection of poetry books in your classroom, the Poetry For Young People series is a great place to begin.
The series includes the works of Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Maya Angleou, Carl Sandburg and more terrific poets to introduce to students. Here are several poets whose work I’ve found 5th, 6th, and 7th graders to be particularly drawn to:
Billy Collins – Collins writes in ways that speak to the more serious minded middle schooler who is looking to explore the full range of emotions we experience as human beings. On Turning Ten is a particular favorite with my 6th graders.
Paul Fleischman – Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems For Two Voices is a hit each year. With poems like Honeybees, Fireflies, Cicadas, and other cool insects, my middle schoolers leap out of their seats to perform these with their peers.
Eloise Greenfield – Greenfield’s work is filled with fun and family. Honey, I Love and Way Down In The Music are fun to do as choral reads.
Langston Hughes – When my students read The Dream Keeper and Other Poems by Langston Hughes, they know they are experiencing the work of true genius. Hughes continually inspires my students to keep writing and to see themselves as poets.
Pablo Neruda – What would we do without Neruda and his odes? Ode to French Fries makes our stomaches growl, especially when read right before lunch time! Odes are fun to read and fun to write. Every student feels like they can write one and that’s because they
Naomi Shihab Nye – For those sit back and sigh moments, my students and I turn to Nye who helps us to contemplate the complexities of life and of the world.
Mary Oliver – Oliver’s work speaks to the nature lovers in my classroom. Her work is rich with beautiful imagery and poetic devices.
Charles R. Smith, Jr. – If your middle schoolers love basketball, they’ll love Smith’s work! Pair Rimshots and Short Takes with the Kwame Alexander’s Newbury Winner, The CrossOver for a sure slam dunk!
Mattie Stepanek – Stepanek’s work resonates with my students each year. They are moved by his words and inspired by his bravery and peace advocacy work during his struggles with muscular dystrophy.
Valerie Worth – We just love Worth’s All The Small Poems and Fourteen More. These short masterpieces makes my students feel like they too can accomplish great work as poets!
Jane Yolen – Yolen has teamed up with Jason Stemple, her son and talented photographer, to create gorgeous books of poetry about nature. The photographs inspire my students to write poems of their own.
Rather than potentially alienating students who may feel uncomfortable or resistant, these approaches draws them in and chips away at the armored coat they sometimes wear in response to poetry.
Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member and a part-time instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University where she is also a doctoral student.