Often, we’re so busy teaching grammar, writing, and reading skills that we miss the opportunity to use poems.
Teaching poetry offers opportunities to teach writing skills, grammar concepts, and reading comprehension skills.
Use poems as mentor texts to help teach students more complex genres and reading skills.
Poems as Mentor Texts
Think about a poem you are familiar with. Now ask yourself what genre is that poem?
Is it narrative? expository? informative? persuasive? memoir? argument?
When you begin looking at poems in this way, you can see that they can be mentor texts.
Why do poems work as mentor texts?
They’re short. You can come back to the poem regularly during your writing class and examine what the poem does that is related to the writing task.
They can be used as practice. Writing a narrative poem is faster that writing an essay — and, because of the short form, students need to get to the point of the story quickly.
How will you teach a poem in a classroom?
Let’s say you need to teach narrative writing. The poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” can be your mentor text.
Start by reading the poem aloud.
Ask students to paraphrase — what is happening in the poem line by line. This is often the quickest and easiest way for students to understand poems.
Next challenge students to identify the writing genre. What is the author doing in this poem?
When you use any mentor text to teach writing, you’re looking at how the writer constructs the work. You’ll do the same when you are analyzing a poem for it’s genre.
As your students are identifying the genre, be sure they take notes on how the writer constructs the genre.
Questions that will help you teach this:
- What is the writer trying to do? describe? complain? argue? persuade? tell a story? share a memory or insight? make a point?
- How do you know?
- What transitions does the writer use?
- Is there a beginning, middle, and end?
- How does the writer use description?
What poems should I use?
Here’s a quick list of poems and how you can use them:
- Narrative writing: “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert W. Service
- Persuasive writing: “I’m Nobody” by Emily Dickinson; “I, too, Am America” by Langston Hughes; “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas
- Argument writing: Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare
- Descriptive writing: “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
- Complaint: Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare, “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins
- How to: “How to Eat a Poem” by Eve Merriam
- Memoir writing: “I like to See it Lap the Miles” by Emily Dickinson, Sonnet 30 by William Shakespeare
You can also give this task to your students. You know all those poetry anthologies you have in your classroom library? Use them to have your students go on a poetry scavenger hunt!
Why this works
By incorporating poetry into other writing units, you’re layering learning.
Not only are poems as mentor texts a great writing example, they also demystify poetry.
It becomes less scary — less intimidating.
Students can quickly see what the elements of a genre are — so this is especially helpful when you are introducing a complex writing task like argument or persuasion.
This is also helpful if you plan to a poetry unit. Students will already have experience writing poetry. You can have them analyze more complex poems and, as a plus, write about them. This introduces literary analysis into your writing curriculum pretty seamlessly.
By using poetry as a mentor text, poetry is nonthreatening. It becomes a text that can be shared and examined.
This is also a great way to warm students up to poetry because, by the time many middle school and high school students enter our classrooms, reading poetry often has become a mystery that they cannot solve.
Poetry writing as prewriting
Once your students have analyzed a poem and determined the genre — why not encourage students to take it further and have them write their own poems?
This is the perfect prewriting activity because your students will be already thinking it terms of the genre.
For example, if they are going to write a narrative poem they’ll need to choose and narrow the topic.
Because the poetic form is relatively short, they’ll need to consider their topic carefully. They’ll also need to think about a beginning, middle, and end.
Since time transitions are so important in narrative writing, students will need to consider and use those in their poem.
When you ask students to write poetry as a prewriting activity, your students will focus on key items. It’s more about the elements of the genre (like beginning, middle, and end) rather than rhyming and figurative language.
Then, it is a quick jump to take their narrative poem and convert it into a narrative essay.
Building a portfolio
As you work your way through different writing tasks, your students can add poems to their portfolio.
For example, the “chapter” in their portfolio for narrative writing can include any narrative poems they’ve encountered during the year.
Additionally, they can add their own voice to any poems they’ve written.
Often, once they write one poem, most students will want to write others.
How this will help unit planning
If your students are exposed to poetry all year, they will be much more amenable to it when you begin a poetry unit.
Since they have already analyzed poems, they’ll be ready to dig deeper into poetic elements.
If your students have written poems in different genres, when you want your students to write their own poetry together, they will have drafts of poems to draw from.
You can give them the option to revise poems they wrote throughout the year. If you want them to create their own poetry anthology, they’ll already have a jump start on it.
Incorporating poetry into your Year Long Plan is easy and fun. You’ll find that once you start using poetry in this way, your students will find the whole writing process easier.
Teaching Resources to Check Out
Still not sure how to teach poetry?
If you’re looking for strategies for teaching poetry and more support, you’ll want to check out my “Strategies for teaching poetry” post. It will help you get started and guide you through the process of teaching poetry.
Need more poems? Here are 12 enticing poems that I think are perfect for middle school students.
Another way to introduce poetry to your students is to share how to create blackout poetry with them. It’s a low-risk poetry writing activity since the words are already on the page. Students just love this activity and it’s a great place to start a poetry unit.
If you want your students to write poems but they don’t know what to write, you’ll love these 101 poetry prompts.
You can also check out Poetry 180. Hosted by former Poet Laureate, this site offers poems and suggestions for sharing a poem a day.
These poems are designed for high school students, so if you are teaching younger grades, you may want to swap out poems that are more approachable for your students. Even if the poems on the site won’t work for your students, you should read the tips on How to Read a Poem.
Read Write Think has a fun interactive acrostic poem online activity.
Storybird has a write-a-poem activity is a blast! (along with the story writing…I love, love, love Storybird…don’t even get me started!) Another aspect of Storybird that is great for teachers the ability to create your own virtual classrooms. If you haven’t checked out Storybird, you really should!
But no matter what you do, consider teaching them poetry lessons all year!
PS: I’ve written a guest post for Rachel Lynette’s blog Minds in Bloom that includes ten reasons why you absolutely should teach poetry all year — and seven simple ways how to do it.