Wondering how to teach poetry? Not quite sure how to start?

These tips will help you get started.

How to engage your students

Often, our students complain that they don’t like poetry — it’s boring or they don’t get it.

Combat that by choosing poems that YOU love.

You do love poetry, don’t you? Maybe the truth is, you don’t really enjoy poetry yourself. And your students will pick up on that.

If that’s the case, take a moment to find one poem that you like (love is better, but like is okay too!).

I’ve got a list of 12 poems here that you should take a look at.

Choose mentor text poems

Rather than moving from poem to poem, consider using a mentor text poem to anchor your teaching.

This is a poem you go back to more than once.

No single poem will be a perfect mentor text for what you want to teach; however, you can use a mentor text to compare and contrast poems.

For example:

If your mentor text poem is “I’m Nobody” by Emily Dickinson, you can compare how it’s written with a longer narrative poem. Compare the form of the poem, rhyme scheme, rhythm, how the writer conveys the message.

Mentor texts help build student confidence. The more they go back to the same poem and compare it to others, the better they understand it — and the better they’ll understand elements of poetry.

Teach paraphrasing

One activity you don’t want to miss as you teach poetry is paraphrasing.

After one reading, your students may feel like they understand the general meaning of a poem, but ask them to paraphrase it.

Paraphrasing means to “translate” the poem into the student’s own words.

How does this help?

It forces the student to analyze what’s happening in the poem line by line.

It also helps students slow down and look at vocabulary. What words do they need to clarify?

How to teach poetry by paraphrasing

When your students tell you “I don’t get it,” ask them to try paraphrasing the poem first.

Look for figurative language

Poetry is all about figurative language and how it’s used.

But, if you look around for a list of figurative language — you’ll see that there are many, many types!

Rather than run through a long list checking items off — dig a bit deeper with the basics that you probably already know and are comfortable with:

  • simile
  • metaphor
  • hyperbole
  • alliteration
  • personification

Your students will learn literary analysis tools if you don’t try to teach “all the things” and rather focus on core poetic elements.

Let your students do the talking

You know that your students will let you tell them what’s going on in a poem or piece of literature.

Try this:

Ask your students what they think. And then wait.

Give them some thinking time to wonder and consider what is going on in a poem.

Simple questions like:

  • who is the speaker?
  • what might this poem be about?
  • which lines do you like?
  • what do you see in your mind after reading this?
  • is this a happy poem or a sad one?

Try using open-ended questions that don’t have a definite answer.

Compare poems

Teaching poetry by comparing and evaluating

Give students the opportunity to “rank” the poems they’re reading.

Try this:

Each time you introduce a new poem, have student rank order it against other poems you’ve taught.

Use this technique as soon as you have two poems! Which one do they like better?

Keep it simple — no need for explanation or defense (at this point anyway).

Why this works:

Students will naturally want to come up with a “why” they like one poem better than another. Capitalize on that.

This helps students look for differences between poems.

It also helps to bring students back to poems more than once. So they’re getting multiple exposures as they review and rank.

Where you can go from here:

If you want your students to eventually write a literary analysis text about a poem, this is a great way to get them started.

They can defend why this is their favorite poem and what makes it a poem worth reading.

Need more help teaching poetry?

How to teach poetry to middle school students

You can find an in-depth post on teaching poems here.

If you want ideas for what poems your students will love, check this post out.

And, if you’re as intrigued with blackout poetry as I am, you’ll want to see this article.

Keep teaching poetry!

The temptation is to teach poetry in April and forget about it for the rest of the month.

But don’t!

You can find that poetry works all year long!

You can read a guest post I wrote about using poetry all year here.

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