What Do Poets Do? Launching A Poetry Unit

Poetry Books 1

My intention in this post is simply to share some of the approaches I’ve used when launching a unit of poetry. I’ve spoken to so many teachers who are intimidated by the process of teaching poetry. What I always say is, there is no one process. Jump in and enjoy the ride! However, there are a plethora of resources available to assist us along the journey. Recently, @JoyKirr tweeted this wonderful list of poetry resources. And my go to book is Georgia Heard’s Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School. If you know about this, it’s probably your go to book, too. If not, hurry to get it! Heard’s work is inspiring and practical. You can immediately implement these ideas in your teaching. Later, I share one of the strategies she includes and how it helps my students write poetry right away.

One of the first things I do to launch an official poetry unit, is to create a poetry-reading calendar with my students. Each day, one or two students sign-up to read a poem out loud to the class. Where do the poems come from? Students are invited to select a book of poetry to read individually or with a peer. They read for 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning of every class. When the reading time winds down, I give each student one sticky. I ask them to select one of the poems they’ve read that has “stuck” with them and to respond to the following question: “What do poets do?”
sticky notesThen they flag the page with the sticky note. Many of the poems students read out loud on their calendar day are from the books they’ve read and flagged. This immersion phase of the unit lasts about two-weeks and is multi-fold: to encourage reading and enjoying poetry; to expose students to a wide variety of poetry; to get students thinking about the tools and strategies poets use; to help students see themselves as poets and to imagine the type of poetry they will write. Within a week, the poetry books in our classroom library boasts a sea of colorful sticky notes. What a beautiful sight!

On my whiteboard, I create a running list of students’ responses to the question: “What do poets do?” By day three of this, they are excited to share out something they’ve noticed and we marvel at our growing list.White boardThis simple, open-ended question gives each student opportunities each day to contribute an idea about the work of poets. Again, I’m looking to invite ALL of my students into this unit; even those who may at first be reluctant to reading and writing poetry. It is important for these students especially to feel successful.

The other suggestion I’d like to share is to get students writing poetry right away. This may feel daunting to some students. So, I often begin by asking students to write a quick group poem. Borrowing a strategy from Georgia Heard, I ask students to label a page of their writer’s notebooks “tree” and to create at-chart. The left side of the t-chart is labeled “ordinary.” Then, students brainstorm “ordinary” words that can be used to describe a tree. Next, students label the right side of the t-chart “poetic” and for each ordinary word on their list, they work cooperatively to brainstorm poetic words and phrases to use instead.

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Students spend about 10-15 minutes brainstorming and then we create a class community list on the Smartboard. That way, students can “borrow” great ideas they hear from peers around the room. Then it’s time to write! Again, the assignment is Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 6.50.42 PMopen-ended. Write a poem titled “tree.” Some students decide to focus on a specific type of tree. Others don’t. They use some of the ideas from their t-chart and add others. And within minutes, poems are written! Groups type them up and create a drawing of their tree. We proudly display them around the room with the poems and admire each work of art.

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We all have a diverse group of learners in our classes. Some students LOVE poetry and it seems all they need are opportunities to write. They just seem to naturally have a flare for writing poetry and they amaze us with their work. But for many students, in addition to developing a strong understanding of literary devices such as personification, imagery, and line breaks, a strategy is needed to help them conquer the blank page. Next week, I’ll share another strategy that has helped my students feel successful writing 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.

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