For most of my career, I’ve saved poetry for the end of the year in my English classes. I did this for a couple of reasons. First of all, I LOVE poetry, and I tend to motivate myself by saving the best for last. Also, a poetry unit can be expanded or contracted to fit that awkward few weeks I often get left with in May – not enough time to start a novel, but way too long to just sit around watching movies. But, if I’m being honest with myself, my biggest reason for holding off on poetry was avoidance of the reactions of many of my students. When first confronted with poetry, the general consensus of my classes – at least the most vocal of them – is not an exclamation of joy. Introvert that I am, it is enough of a challenge getting to know a whole new crop of fresh young faces without additionally embarking on a journey as personal as poetry. However, I realized last year that the personal nature of poetry is exactly what makes it perfectly suited for the beginning of the year.
I started Poetry Fridays as a way to help my AP Literature and Composition students get regular practice with the portion of the AP exam that most of them were struggling with, but once I observed the unplanned benefits that resulted from regular exposure to poetry analysis and writing, I realized that these skills were just as essential to my “regular” students. I implemented them in my English 10 and English 12 classes, and the effect has been monumental. Many of my colleagues have asked how I could find time for poetry with all of the other demands made on us locally and nationally, but I’ve found that poetry is the perfect medium when it comes to teaching students analysis skills; its compact format and layers of meaning provide opportunities to dig deep into meaning and theme in the span of less than an hour. The time I give to poetry in my classroom pays off one hundred-fold. Here’s how I do it:
Using Mentor Poems
Each Poetry Friday starts with a poem on the board. Often it is simply the text, but sometimes, I play an audio or video of a poem being read by the poet him or herself. What’s important is to let students hear the poem, without any commentary from the teacher. After students hear the poem, I always ask them the same question: “What do you notice?” This is the first step in a 3-step process I explain further in So Much Depends Upon Noticing, but the key is to put the power of making meaning directly into students’ hands by giving them the opportunity to decide for themselves and discuss with their classmates what’s important and interesting in a poem. The discussions that result from this process are amazing, and frankly, the reason I got into teaching English in the first place, but what follows is one of the best ways I’ve ever found to really get to know my students.
Time to Get Students Writing
After we’ve spent about half the period analyzing the poem of the day, students practice creating a poem of their own that echoes a key element of this poem. Here are just a few of the poems that I use to help students practice different elements of poetry:
Extended metaphor: “Identity” by Julio Polanco
Multiple perspectives: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by
Symbolism: “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson
Poetic form: “The Art of Losing” by Elizabeth Bishop and “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas (villanelle), “My Mistress Eyes are Nothing LIke the Sun” by William Shakespeare (sonnet)
Tone: “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams
I model the process of writing a poem based on the mentor poem on the board right in front of students, sharing aloud my thought process as I compose. This is a little scary as writing is a messy business, but it is an invaluable tool for helping students understand how writing poetry works, as well as showing them that it’s O.K. to be vulnerable in front of each other.
Here is a poem I wrote based on William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”
So much depends upon
a yellow Ticonderoga pencil
dented with tooth marks
beside the blank paper.
This activity has value for many reasons. By working to apply the literary elements they learn with the mentor poems, students develop a better understanding of those concepts as well as the thematic ideas in the poems. This hands-on practice engages students with poetry at a whole new level. But more importantly, the opportunity to express themselves has yielded a benefit I did not anticipate: building relationships with my students and improving the culture of my classroom.
Students Yearn to be Heard
On the Monday following Poetry Friday, we share the poems we’ve written. To my surprise and delight, I’ve found that students are eager to share their poems, both out loud in class and privately with me. Classmates sincerely applauding an insightful and articulate line have changed the tenor of my class – sometimes within the span of one class period – and the conversations I’ve had with students tentatively offering their thoughtfully wrought words have accelerated the process of building relationships with my students – something I’ve struggled with for years. Sharing the poems we’ve written is a positive and engaging way to start off the school week and the discussions of meaning are some of the richest and most effective ways I’ve ever found to teach analysis. Poetry Fridays are, without doubt, one of the best changes I’ve ever made in my teaching.
It’s not too late to start Poetry Fridays – the spring semester is a perfect time to change things up and April is National Poetry Month!
If you decide to give it a try, I’d love to hear how it goes for you and what poems you use as mentor texts.