An Ode to Poetry

Oh, poetry. You beautiful, expressionist, challenging, frustrating beast. Many struggle to find your deeper meaning, your hidden messages. Children sit in schools, turned off and annoyed by your very existence, writing the same poems (ahem, haikus) year after year.

This year I took a new approach to teaching poetry, and it’s one that I wish I would have tried before now. My students were energized and engaged, some of them actually excited to spend a whole class period writing.

For half our class (I teach a 2-period block), my students have explored different forms of poetry. They’ve sought out different types of poems, listened or read examples, and found ways to express themselves through this medium. They’ve gotten deep and meaningful, really sinking in to what poetry is all about. It’s been very low-stakes, with each student working toward a more personal goal: To write as many different kinds of poems as they can, to explore poetry outside of their comfort zone, and to express themselves as never before.

We each created a portfolio of our work, not for an assessment, but to share in a gallery walk. The point being to push yourself, write as a form of expression, a way of communication, rather than to work towards getting a grade. Those that follow my blog know that I’ve shifted my focus from grades this year, and this part of our poetry exploration is a great illustration of the positive side effects from that choice.

My students, even my striving writers, thrived in this structure. I have one student in particular who has struggled through writing assignments all year and been quite vocal about her disdain for the craft itself. In this poetry unit, she found her groove. She wrote multiple poems a day, thrilled to show them to me and her peers, and honestly enjoyed herself. The low-stress nature and the encouragement to express who she is has turned her from one of my most resistant students into one of my the most engaged.

Each year, poetry has been a good unit. It’s gotten kids looking forward to our ELA class in years past, but this year it’s become even more. The empowerment they are so clearly feeling through this time to freely write and explore the medium has been awesome. But it’s not just the writing part. Our analysis of poetry has changed, too. The class holds open discussions, focusing on different ways we can find meaning in the words. We learn the traditional poetic devices, like rhyme scheme and repetition, but we also talk about the poet’s point of view, hometown, and historical context. The way we talk about these traditional pieces though has completely shifted. I invite all students to share their thoughts, reactions, and ideas about each poem I read aloud. No answer is wrong, as long as they can explain and defend their thinking. It’s sparked some really interesting discussions, and some really cool points of view. For example, one of my students suggested that the poem Eating Poetry is from the point of view of fire, and though I’ve read it every year, I’ll never read it the same way again. In addition to this and other classic poems from Frost, Whitman, and Dickinson, we’ve also listened to and discussed songs from Hamilton!, Leslie Odom Jr. and Sara Bareilles, Eminem, and Macklemore. My kids have found connections to the poetry, but have also started to see that lyricists and songwriters are poets too.

We’ve taken our analytical skills to a new level, all while acknowledging the multiple perspectives that exist in our classroom. Students are learning new things about each other and themselves, sharing their thoughts and experiences with the group, and expanding on one another’s ideas.

Our unit ended with an incredible Poetry Slam, which is something we’ve held annually. I honestly don’t think I will ever, ever get rid of it. Students are tasked with writing an original poem, either by themselves or with a partner, and then performing it for an audience of their peers, parents, and guest judges. We host it as a group, and make a big production of our American Idol style judging. I invite other teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers, and the like to join us and offer feedback to the students. It’s low-key and goofy, but the kids really flourish from sharing their voices with the audience. Many of them are inspired to come out of their shells and share a little bit of who they are with each other. It’s beautiful, powerful, and moving. Every year I’m blown away by the talent and creativity that exists within my classroom, and amazed that it takes something as simple as poetry to bring it out.

I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand the magical quality that poetry has, or be able to analyze the reason why it is so freeing for students. It could be the openness of it and the freedom to ‘play’ with writing in a new, unfamiliar way. It could be connecting it to something deeper, something that resonates within them and makes them feel seen or heard. It could even be the goofiness of it, and the silliness that comes from learning to perform poetry aloud for their friends. Whatever the reason is, it really works for kids and I love seeing them find joy in language. Nothing makes me happier than a student finally beginning to realize the beautiful expressive nature of writing. Poetry is transformative, and I love bearing witness to the change in my classroom every year.

For my poetic analysis resources, click here!

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