Looking for teaching strategies as you begin a poetry unit? Teaching poetry can be intimidating — for both students and teachers. But it doesn’t have to be! This post dives into ways you can teach poetry in fun and effective ways.
Why should I teach poetry?
By the time your students reach middle school, they have already been exposed (hopefully) to poetry. They may already have prejudices like “it’s too hard to understand,” “it’s stupid,” or “I don’t get it.”
And, as middle school teachers, we want to move our students from the easy and often “cute” poetry of intermediate grades to more sophisticated and challenging poems.
When students start analyzing poetry beyond comprehension, they begin practicing critical thinking skills. You are asking them justify their ideas using the text.
The value in teaching poetry comes from:
- empowering your students to tackle challenging texts
- teaching students reading strategies to understand poetry
- thinking about the world and life-issues in new ways
- building reading confidence
- stashing your students’ reading toolboxes with strategies that will help them in the future
Introducing poetry to your students
Of course, your students know what poetry is…or do they?
Here are two strategies for teaching poetry that you can use as you introduce your students to the unit. These will help make sure your students understand the terms you’ll be using.
Ask your students to define poetry. Write your own definition. Tricky, isn’t it? As soon as you think you’ve defined it, another kind of poem comes along that doesn’t fit the definition.
Start by having your students open a page in their notes entitle “What is Poetry?” Students can write their own definition, and then add to it as you discuss different poems. It can be as simple as a list of qualities that they notice in the poems you read as a class.
Have students bring in a line or two of a favorite song that they think is poetic.
This is a great way for students to start thinking about figurative language. You can have students print up their lines on card stock and use them as discussion starters or on a “poetry wall.”
One year, a student brought in Ozzie Osborn’s “Crazy Train.” It is a perfect example of an extended metaphor!
What are your students bringing to the study of poetry?
Another teaching strategy you can use to introduce poetry can be to simply open the discussion of poetry up with your students.
For example, begin by asking them how they feel about it. Why is it difficult or easy? Why they like it or don’t like it. But encourage them to be specific. Stating that poetry is “boring” is vague. Can they expand on that.
By doing this, you give your students the opportunity to express their feelings and opinions (and what middle school student doesn’t love to do that?!!), but you are also gathering information that will help you plan your lessons.
If they say, “It’s too hard to understand,” you can start with simpler poems (more ideas for that later).
By now you are ready to start sharing poems with your students. Of course, they’ve read plenty of poems, so it’s not like you’re bringing a visitor in from the planet Qwerty…or is it??
Start by choosing two or three poems that you’d like to share with your class. Make or provide a copy of each poem (one per page). Need ideas for poems? Here are several.
- Provide students with poem #1.
- Start by simply reading it out loud to you students. Ask them to just listen.
- Read the poem aloud to your class again. This time, ask them to underline any parts of the poem they “notice” or think are interesting or they like. I ask them to do this in pencil — less scary!
- Then, ask them to share what they noticed. You can have them do this as a whole class discussion (though this is scary at first and your students may be reluctant to share their thoughts!) or you can have them jot their ideas down on an exit card or in a journal entry. You may want to model this by sharing what you noticed.
Finally, I have students glue the poem into their resource books and give it a star rating. How much did they like this poem?
- Repeat the activity from Day 1.
- Did they notice anything new? Did any words or phrases stand out to them? Would they like to change their star rating?
- Provide students with poem#2.
- Repeat the Day 1 reading & noticing activity.
- After you and students have shared, ask them to rank this poem. Do they like it more or less than poem#1? Why? You can have them record their responses on an exit card or in their writing journals.
You can stop there, or you can repeat the process with poem #3. Now students will have two or three poems to look at (comparative literary analysis!). They feel comfortable with them and are probably starting to understand the poem and its form a bit better than the first time they read it.
What this does and why it works
By just asking students to “notice” something about the poem, you are taking away the “right answer” phobia that many kids (and adults!) have about poetry. They are just “noticing.”
When students begin to notice things about a poem, they will become more sensitive to the language, images, literary elements — because they are starting to “notice.”
Pay attention to what your students notice. If they are already skilled in identifying literary elements, you can choose more complex poems. If they are struggling, adjust the selections.
But be careful! Use exit cards or reflective journal entries for this formative assessment. Students who are intimidated or shy may not be willing to vocalize what they do and do not notice.
What teaching strategies should I use?
Once you’ve collected the poems you want to teach, sort them in an order that makes sense to you.
Unless you have restrictions or requirements for what poems you teach when, you can sort by topic, style, time period, difficulty, literary technique, or theme.
You can expand the “what I noticed” activity by asking students to look a bit deeper. It is so exciting when students begin to “see” deeper meaning in poetry! Allow them to try to discover this by asking them questions rather than providing them with an answer.
Try these questions:
- What do you notice about the word choice the writer makes?
- Who is talking?
- What do you notice about the use of metaphor or simile?
- This poem is called an “extended metaphor.” Why do you think that is?
- This poem contains a symbol for life. What do you think it might be?
- Look at the structure of the poem. What kind of pattern do you notice in the poem?
- Is there a title for the poem? What might it mean?
If your students need more support, a great tool is TPFASTT. (You can find a copy that you can use for your students in my free poetry resource .)
It’s a mnemonic that provides students with some basic tools as they dig deeper into a poem’s meaning. It stands for:
- Figurative Language
- Attitude of the speaker
I love using this little device to put the learning and exploring the text back in the students’ control.
Model using TPFASTT with a poem. You may want to spend more time talking about attitude of the speaker and shift since these may be new terms for your students.
Let your students discover! They want us to tell them what a poem means, but allow them to struggle a bit — when they ask what something means, turn the question back to them. What do they think it means? They often can answer that question! And what a powerful learning experience that is!
What poems should I teach?
If your students are reluctant poetry readers, start with easy-to-read and understand poems.
A perfect one is “I’m Nobody” by Emily Dickinson. This poem sounds like it was written for middle schoolers! Your students will quickly pick up on the themes, images and metaphors.
You can find a list of 12 poems that I love teaching here. And here are a few more to consider:
- “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
- “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
- “Harlem” by Langston Hughes
- “Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost
- “A Day” by Emily Dickinson
- “The Secret Heart” by Robert Coffin
- “BLK History Month” by Nikki Giovanni
- “Taking One for the Team” by Sara Holbrook
- “A Noiseless Patient Spider” by Walt Whitman
What if I don’t know the answers?
It is often intimidating when you use a poem in class — and don’t have a teaching guide to steer you. Our students often think there is one correct answer for a poem (and we do too — at times!).
However, it’s okay not to know or have a definitive answer!!
Most poems have a strong theme or literary elements that you can say, “This is a metaphor” or “This is alliteration.” However, have you ever taught “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams? No matter how you analyze it, there are questions!
I believe that if a student can prove his or her analysis using textual evidence and logic, then who am I to say that analysis is wrong? As long as it is argued with evidence, I allow students to develop their own thinking about poems we read.
This is so important for encouraging critical thinking. Students have to take a risk to argue their point. And that is the beauty of the flexibility of a poem.
What literary terms are the most important?
By middle school, most students are familiar with the “biggies”: metaphor and simile. You’re teaching standards may include poetic forms or other devices such as:
- extended metaphor
Have students keep a running list in their resource books or you can keep it as an anchor chart. That way you can add to it as students “notice” different items in a poem.
You can also find a list of literary terms in my resource library.
Pssst! Don’t forget to include teaching poetry and literary terms in your Yearlong Plans.
What do I need to assess?
Before you even start teaching a poetry unit (or any unit!), think about what (and how) you will assess.
Here are some ideas for formative and summative assessments:
- use “what I notice” exit cards
- matching device with example quiz
- practice writing an original example of a literary device
- guided question responses
- journal responses to poems
- literary term definitions & examples
If you’ve spent several class periods practicing using TPFASTT with your students and using guided questions to help them dig into poems, then you may want them to try analyzing a new poem on their own.
I love this type of assessment since it allows the students to show what they’ve learned. I let my students use their resource books as a reference. They are really applying what they’ve learned, and their notes and reference charts are helping trigger their minds to read deeply.
Maybe you don’t want students to take a test; maybe you’d rather they show what they’ve learned through writing a poem in the style of one of the poems you’ve read and analyzed in class.
This assessment is not only creative and often very challenging, but it depends on students truly understanding the format and function of each line of the poem they are imitating.
If you decide to have students write patterned poems, be sure to set up your rubric first! This will make it much easier for you to grade!
What is the best time to teach poetry?
I love teaching poetry all year!
Poems can easily be added to units of study to provide a condensed study of different writing modes. When you are looking for mentor texts, consider using poem as well. Because of the condensed nature, you can analyze the writing mode.
- narrative writing: “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert W. Service
- definition: “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson
- how to essay: “How to Eat a Poem” by Eve Merriam
- argument/persuasion: “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell
- compare/contrast: “Did I Miss Anything?” by Tom Wayman
Introduce the poem along with the writing mode and other mentor texts.
How can I expand this?
Keep your students thinking critically by trying some of these ideas:
- have students write their own poems. Here are some easy ones to start with.
- a poem of the week — similar to a warm up activity. Spend a few minutes a day looking at a poem. This will keep students’ analysis skill sharp.
- write a poetry anthology — have students write companion poems for each poem you study. Then, gather them together to create an anthology.
- if students are writing their own poems, you can host a poetry slam!
- after students “rank” the poems that you study (see the notes on how to do that above), they can write a “in defense of…” argument for a favorite (or least favorite) poem.
- put a poem to music, pictures, or video — students can use their own poems or one that you have studied in class.
- create a “poetry wall” — students can add examples they find of poetic language or poems that they like. My students always loved putting song lyrics here.
- plan a 30 Days of Poetry — for either reading or writing (or both!)
Use these strategies for teaching poetry to make your units more fun and productive.
Need extra help?
You can check my Teachers Pay Teachers store for lots of poetry resources that will make teaching poetry a snap!
Enjoy teaching poetry! I’m here if you need a bit of extra help!