For the Teachers Who Want to Teach Modern Poetry

AP Lit teacher confession: I have never taught an entire poetry collection. Single poems – lots. A collection – never. But when #APBKCHAT introduced me to Counting Descent coupled with Melissa Smith’s push to #teachlivingpoets, I knew this collection would be on this year’s reading list. I fell in love with Smith’s voice, message, and way with words and knew my students would also.

Counting Descent is Smith’s first published collection exploring his life, his response to the world around him, and his questions about history and humanity forcing the reader to do the same. While the subject is weighty, the accessibility of the words on the page and the free verse form eases the reader to think and question with Smith and exploring the poems feels more like a conversation than a lecture. This is the perfect collection for high school students. These lessons were birthed out of the APLit PLN as several of us began the year with Counting Descent; these ideas are also transferable to teaching any poetry collection. 

Introduction to Clint Smith

Introducing Clint Smith is easy thanks to his website filled with a myriad of videos, links to publications, and biographical information. I began by showing students this video

and immediately had their attention. Next we watched this

from the National Poetry Slam in 2014. Students then read his bio and chose one essay (most are from The New Yorker) to read. After students finished their reading, they partnered with a friend or two and shared about their article and continued to watch videos and explore his website. My teacher heart was full as I soaked in the silence while students intently read, and my teacher heart was full as I soaked in the low hum of multiple conversations across Room 128  of students discussing current and sometimes polarizing issues more maturely than many adults.

Introducing a Collection

I teach by the theory “the more predictable, the less impactful” always adding unexpected elements into lessons. Interestingly, my students have come to expect the unexpected in Room 128 and did think it odd or question why a literature class would begin by watching a clip showcasing a collection from Project Runway. After watching, I asked my go-to question: what did you notice? Without any prepping, students discussed how the first couple of outfits were very edgy to get the attention of the judges then outfits were more accessible for everyday wear. Students also noticed how colors fit together even though everything wasn’t “matchy-matchy” and patterns in the order of different styles. Next I pulled up the “Thriller” album and asked students to comment on the track listing. Students spoke of the progression of songs in terms of lyrics, music style, and length of songs; students also discussed how the songs tied together and were unified even though they all have a slightly different message. My students were then primed for thinking on a collection of poems and had some context for how these poems would fit together yet still be different and how they were ordered in a specific way rather than a random placement. We read the first poem “Something You Should Know” aloud then students spent a few minutes thinking about it before we discussed not only the poem itself but why Smith would open the book with this. Students spent the remainder of the block reading and discussing the next two poems “what the ocean said to the black boy” and ‘for the Boys at the Bottom of the Sea.”

Silent Discussion

I try to hold a silent discussion maybe three times each year, and I absolutely love doing this with poetry because of the personal and emotional responses of students. We decided to move to the media center for our silent discussion, so we could work around tables and have room to spread out. We used the #APBKCHAT questions (why reinvent the wheel), and the “discussion” lasted almost the entire block. We debriefed the next day unpacking interesting ideas and thoughts.

The Essential Clint Smith Playlist

Karla Hilliard described her approach to this assignment as “poetry lite.” When describing this assignment she says, “I wanted to give kids a way to look at the themes and broader perspectives of the texts with a pretty quick and self-directed assignment, but I also wanted them looking through the end of why should we care? how does this work make us more compassionate readers? what moves you? and so on… The kids blew me away with how thoughtful they were and the thematic threads they identified. Almost all of them titled their playlists and it was just…cool.” Before her students started creating their “playlist,” her class looked at a couple of mentor texts such as this to get warmed up. The Essential Clint Smith Playlist instructions and rubric can be found here ready to copy and hand out. Check out some of her student responses:IMG_0666




I slightly tweaked the assignment asking my students with these instructions; most of my students created a slideshow featuring their playlist.

Clint Smith Poetry Playlist


Poetry as a Mentor Text

After a mini-lesson in free verse and prose poetry, each student will select a poem to serve as a mentor text for writing their own poem. While this activity has been moved until next week due to an unexpected school week, my students are already abuzz about which poem they will use as a mentor text. Many will be following the “what the _______ said to the _________” or “for the _________” format even though I am also hearing a “Playground Elegy” and “Chaos Theory” and even a few prose poems. The plan is not complicated: students to study their mentor poem then write their own. We will share these, and I already expect to be moved by their writing. (I will update this post with an example or two after we do the lesson.

Final Thoughts

I cannot say enough about how well this unit went and how much students loved reading Counting Descent.  Need further proof?