Reach Your Students With Poetry (No, Really!)

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April is National Poetry Month, and unfortunately, poetry has a bit of an optics problem.

It’s hard! It’s confusing! It’s boring! I don’t get it!

Sound familiar?

Fear not, there are actually super-engaging ways to dazzle your students with the wonders of poetry — and reach even your most struggling or reluctant students. So this year, be bold. Branch out from the tried and true poetry classics and inspire your students with these engaging forms of poetry that will spark curiosity for all types of learners.

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“The poem is not a discussion, not a lecture, but an instance — an instance of attention, of noticing something in the world.”

~ Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook

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Blackout Poems

A helpful strategy for reluctant writers, artistic students, ELLs, visual learners

Got a marker and an old newspaper or magazine? Then you’re ready to make some Blackout Poetry! Allow students to choose a tear-sheet of text or provide a text for them. Then, the idea is that students use a marker to black out everything except the words and phrases they want to flow together into a poem. They can black out much of the page or create amazing designs that emphasize the words of their choosing. With this technique, students learn how words can combine and flow into poetry without having to do the heavy lifting of summoning the words themselves. This works especially well with reluctant writers, ELLs, and students who are generally resistant to poetry. It’s also great for artistic students and visual learners.

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“We can live quiet, apparently sedate lives if we express our wildness by risking and leaping in our writing… The strangest, most far-out renegade part of ourselves can be expressed in a poem while we sit quietly in our kitchen or bedroom. This can save our lives.”

~ Susan Goldsmith, Poemcrazy

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Found Poems

A helpful strategy for reluctant writers, artistic students, ELLs, visual learners

Found poems use words and phrases from books, magazines, and newspapers — hence, found words. First, students can cut out pieces of words and phrases and lay them out to construct their own work of poetry. They can complete the project by gluing the new poem onto their own sheet. Students can choose to add spaces, break lines, and create entirely new meaning from their chosen words. This is a helpful exercise for reluctant writers and ELLs because they learn how to construct poetry without the pressure of surfacing their own words and phrases. Artistic and visual learners will gain proficiency in crafting poetry through a very hands-on and visual modality. Check out the Teaching Channel video Creating Found Poems to see an example of this strategy in action.

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“Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.”

~ Plutarch

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Ekphrastic Poems

A helpful strategy for artistic students and visual learners

Ekphrastic comes from the Greek word “Ekphrasis,” which means “description,” so ekphrastic poems are vivid poetic pieces that detail a piece of visual art. The speaker is usually impacted by the piece of art and the poem can detail that connection. Get started by providing students with some imagery of works of art or let them choose their own. Because of the focus on visual art, this is a perfect assignment for a Museum field trip.

Once students have chosen a piece, ask them to describe the piece in a unique poem. They can tell a story about what’s happening in the art, describe the work, or express how it makes them feel. Ask students to describe the image thoughtfully, so that a reader who wasn’t looking directly at the piece of art could imagine it well. This is a profound way to stimulate the senses and connect visual learners and artistic students to the concept of poetry.

Check out the Teaching Channel video Poetry Visualization: Draw What Your Hear for a lesson idea on engaging artistic and visual learners in poetry.

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“Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language”

~ Lucille Clifton

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Bilingual or Translated Poetry

A helpful strategy for ELLs and struggling readers

The figurative language and nuances of poetry can be very difficult for English Language Learners to understand. Providing bilingual poems that include both the student’s native language and English can help a struggling ELL student to understand and connect with poetry. Further, using poetry translations side-by-side can illuminate the meaning and flow of a poem and demystify the complex language for a language learner.

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“Spoken word poetry is the art of performance poetry. I tell people it involves creating poetry that doesn’t just want to sit on paper, that something about it demands to be heard out loud or witnessed in person.”

~ Sarah Kay, ProjectVOICE

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Spoken Word

A helpful strategy for reluctant readers and writers, adolescents, musically-inclined students, or performers

Spoken word is a gateway into poetry for adolescents, reluctant readers and writers, as well as for the musically inclined or performers. Spoken word takes poetry off the flat page, and gives it rhythm, humanity, and authenticity. Students who struggle to make sense of poetry in written form are often moved when they hear it read aloud, as meaning becomes more clear. Those who are musical will enjoy the rhythmic qualities of spoken word — especially when it’s done well. YouTube is full of amazing spoken word performances to watch for inspiration, and a Poetry Slam or Poetry Open Mic event at your school can really elevate your students’ experience with both writing and performing poetry.

For more ideas on incorporating spoken word poetry into the classroom, check out this Tch Talks podcast with spoken word poet, educator, and author Sarah Kay. You can also find ideas and resources at websites like Project VOICE, Poetry Out Loud, UrbanWordNYC, and Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

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Ready to Get Started Teaching Poetry?

Check out Teaching Channel’s poetry lesson ideas, along with these great books:

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Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and educator at Hudson High School of Learning Technologies in New York City. At Hudson, she created Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for adolescents. Jennifer is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation. Jennifer is a regular contributor to outlets such as EdWeek, The ByEd Blog, and Concordia University-Portland’s Room 241 Education Blog. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter: @jenniferlmgunn.

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