Teaching Poetry


Let me start by listing what it does NOT take. You do NOT have to be an expert. You do NOT have to be published. You do NOT have to be a genius. You do NOT have to know all the answers. You do NOT have to be famous. And you do NOT have to know the difference between assonance, consonance, and sibilance.

Now, let’s look at what it does take. It takes a teacher who will write along side the students, showing young poets that writing is a life-long pursuit. It takes a teacher willing to read poetry aloud to the students, everyday, whether it fits into the curriculum or not. It takes a classroom that is a safe haven for learning and exploration. It takes a group of students who are a community of learners, writers, and readers. It takes a teacher willing to explore and take chances. It takes a teacher with enthusiasm and hope (because 10 years from now, that may be the only thing your students remember you for).

And it takes a teacher who “believes.” Every classroom planning session should begin with this question: What do I believe? Only after you’ve answered this first question honestly and thoroughly should you move on the second question: What will I do? If you honestly don’t believe your students can be taught, or if you honestly don’t believe you are capable of teaching them, then there is no way to correctly determine what “to do.”

Poetry, like most language and communication experiences, cannot happen in a vacuum. Most people who claim they “don’t like poetry” say so because they don’t see how poetry is relevant to their own lives. The number one, blue-ribbon, very best practice in the teaching of poetry is to never separate the experience of poetry from the experience of life.


• INTRODUCE THE WRITING ACTIVITY, technique, topic, or theme. A verbal introduction can involve group brainstorming or some other prewriting activity.

• PRESENT EXAMPLE POEMS BY ESTABLISHED ADULT WRITERS. This could be in the form of a reading, recitation, or performance. Example poems should illustrate the technique, topic, or theme. Remember to think “multi-modal” (see Share Example Poems in a Multi-Modal Way).

• MODEL WRITING on an overhead, blackboard, or chart paper. Write a group example poem. Allow students to suggest opening lines. Suggest a structure if students get stuck. Keep it flowing. You can create a complete poem or just the beginning of one.

• PRESENT EXAMPLE POEMS BY STUDENT WRITERS who have participated in the activity in the past. This is a great time to share a poem that you have written yourself.

• ALLOW STUDENTS TO WRITE ON THEIR OWN. As much as possible, the teacher should write along with the students. This further establishes your class as a “community of writers” and lets your students see that writing is a lifetime pursuit. I like to alternate between “writing and roaming.”

• ALLOW STUDENTS TO SHARE. Share as a large group (always in a circle) or in small teams. “Pair share” if sharing time is very limited.


Be sure to present examples in a “multi-modal” way, appealing to a variety of the senses. For example, you might allow students to see the poem on an overhead screen, blackboard, or chart paper. Allow students to hear poems by asking them to close their eyes as you recite or read. Students can even touch the poem if it is written on some appropriate object (a poem about a pumpkin might be written on a pumpkin). Poems about food can be accompanied by an appropriate snack to appeal to the sense of taste. Strike a match to call upon the sense of smell as you read a poem about fire. Students like to listen to poems read aloud, but they also like to do poetry as active participants. You might invite students to join you at the front of the class to help act out a poem as you recite it. Encourage students to repeat certain lines or sound out a call-and-response of some sort. If you are illustrating a certain poetic device, you might ask your students to clap when they hear an example as you read aloud. Use your imagination and watch your students begin to use theirs.



Preparation: Place four poems of various types on a single sheet of paper. Variety is important here. A serious poem. A silly poem. A rhymed poem. A non-rhymed poem. Free verse. Closed form. Multiple speakers. A single speaker. A child poet. An established poet. Straight narrative. Imagistic. Clear meaning. Complex meaning. Use the sample on the next page if you like. Make enough copies for each student to have his or her own.

1. Have students do a “focus write” on the question, What do you think of poetry? and/or What do you know about poetry? Adapt for younger kids by doing this focus together as a class while you write responses on chart paper or the chalkboard.

2. Hand out the piece of paper containing the four poems of various types. Have students read the poems silently and choose the two they like the best, ranking them #1 and #2. They should mark their choices in pencil BEFORE they know which ones their friends chose.

3. Have the class form teams according to the poems students selected as their favorites. Second choices can be used to balance group size. (Note: I’ve experimented by forming a group to present a “least favorite” poem. It doesn’t work as well.)

4. Allow groups to spend 15 minutes or so planning a presentation/performance of their chosen poem for the class. Memorization is NOT required. Props ARE allowed. Students may present in any way they wish including repeating or reversing lines, using mime, role-playing, or choral reading.

5. Student teams present. Require two things only: a) that each team begin its presentation by announcing the poem’s title and author; and b) that each team conclude its presentation with a group bow.

6. Following the presentations have students write observations in their learning logs. Suggested questions to answer: a) What did you observe about these specific poems?; b) What did you observe about poetry in general?; c) What did you observe about group work? d) How did you feel?


Read each poem silently to yourself. Then choose your favorite two poems, designating them by writing “1st” or “2nd” next to the title.


dirt and
clean them clean them clean them
dirt and
leave them let them rot
dirt and stench and
clean them clean them
bending at the waist and stabbing—
papers papers blowing sticking
never leave them
clean them clean them
people put them
now remove them
clean streets sidewalks
remove them
dirt and dirt and dirt forever

by Patricia Hubbell


It goes twunkety,
then shlunkety,
as the washing goes around.

The water spluncheses
and it shluncheses,
as the washing goes around.

As you pick it out it splocheses,
then it flocheses,
as the washing goes around.

But at the end it schlopperies,
and then flopperies,
and the washing stops going round.

by Jeffrey Davies



Empty the offices
rush all the lecture halls
abandon the copy machines
burst out


see the sky
lid off
shaking loose

What number do we call to
bring it down
box it
back in?

Eve Merriam


one day the
snow fell and it
looked like
stars falling

a white dove flew across
our field

my father killed it
and it looked
like snow

the snow always reminded
me of that dove

I have that dove in my bedroom

and every night
I think of the dove

by Dusty H.


Students compare texts to evaluate proficiency. Give students sample texts along a four point performance continuum and have them rank order them from most to least effective. Working in groups have them develop their own descriptions of each of the four score points and relate these descriptions to proficiency levels designated as Advanced, Proficient, Needs Improvement, and Failing.

Rank the following versions of the same poem from 1 to 4 with 1 being the least effective and 4 being the most effective. Explain your answers as best you can.

The Boy

The boy put his best toy over his head and
threw it down on the floor
and broke it.
That made him sad so
he started crying.


He lifts the toy
his favorite one
above his head
He throws it—mad—
He kicks it—mad—
He stomps it—mad—
in to pie ces
His eyes grow wide
He cries

and cries

The Mad Boy

He lifts the toy
his best one
he holds it over his head
throws it
kicks it
stomps it
His eyes get wide
and he cries.

The Boy

The boy
broke his toy.


Sammy by Elizabeth Ripley

Unanswerable question: If Sammy is such a trouble-maker, why is he so likeable?

Notes: Word choice and dialogue: hopeful, loved, I am.

Down Draft

Kids are forever getting Kids Messes
Kids and messes go hand in hand. Because Most young people It’s That’s It’s part of their A child’s innocence is part of his charm. charm. At first glance tThe jam-loving little boy in Elizabeth R Sammy by Elzabeth Ripley is a trouble-maker, but the auathor may be a troublemaker; but we cannot help but like him. at the same time Sammy is Sammy is very the reader can’t help but like him. By examing Ripley chooses her words In this short funny poem, Ripley has chosesn her words care with care extreme care to make and dialogue with extreme care to emphasize make Sammy irresistable to even the most everyone, including his exasperated mother.


Kids and messes go hand in hand. It’s part of their charm. The jam-loving little boy in Sammy “Sammy” by Elizabeth Ripley may be a trouble-maker, but at the same time, but even so, the reader cannot help but like him. In this short, funny poem, Ripley has chosen her uses words description and dialogue with extreme care to make Sammy irresistable to everyone, including his exasperated mother.

Final (Dental) Draft

Kids and messes go hand in hand. It’s part of their charm. The jam-loving little boy in “Sammy” by Elizabeth Ripley may be a trouble-maker, but at the same time, the reader cannot help but like him. In this short, funny poem, Ripley uses description and dialogue that make Sammy irresistible to everyone, including his exasperated mother.

MoBaTh Blue

Motivator:  Kids and messes go hand in hand. It’s part of their charm.

Background:  The jam-loving little boy in “Sammy” by Elizabeth Ripley may be a trouble-maker, but at the same time, readers cannot help but like him.

Thesis/Blue Print:  In this short, funny poem, Ripley uses description and dialogue that make Sammy irresistible to everyone, including his exasperated mother.



Preparation: A) You’ll need enough 5×7 unlined index cards (the big ones) for each student to have one. Have extra on hand for the inevitable “goof up.” B) Gather assorted markers, pens, pencils, and crayons. C) You’ll want a dictionary on hand just in case. D) Make or borrow a sample Name Tent to use as a model.

1. Fold index card into a tent (“hamburger fold” works better than “hotdog fold.”)

2. Think of an adjective (or word) that starts with the same letter as your first initial and reflects how you feel about being here. (Of course you can break the rules and use our last name or a letter that sounds like your initial.)

3. Write the adjective and your name on the outside front of the name tent, and write the phrase “is ready” below your name.

4. On the inside of your name tent, explain (in writing) why you chose the adjective you did.

5. Also on the inside of the Name Tent, write at least one goal you have for the class.

6. Draw a large question mark on the outside back of your name tent.

7. You may decorate your card if you wish, but don’t let the rest of us see what your “adjective” is yet.

Share as follows: Announce your name. Then, taking care not to say what your adjective is, read the explanation you wrote in step number four above as the rest of the class attempts to guess. Next read your goal(s) for the class.

Note: There are many uses for Name Tents. They can help you determine who has and has not shared. They allow individual students to ask for clarification on a writing prompt without disrupting classmates. They help kids articulate goals and objectives. They help your students to build community. They can help you keep track of attendance. They make a great ice-breaker.


Rather than writing their goals inside their tent cards, have students create Want Ads! They can write a want ad for English Class for example. Or a want ad for a teacher. Encourage them to include their goals within the text of the ad. The teacher can write his or her own Want Ad. (For example: Wanted: One Poetry Writing Class. Must be willing to take risks. Participate in lively discussions. Arrive to class on time. Respect each other’s opinions. Etc.)


The word segue (SEH gway) means to make a smooth transition from one thing to another. Have your students use segues to facilitate student centered sharing of their poetry and other writing. As one student shares her writing, the others are listening for a connection to what they’ve written themselves. After Melissa is done reading, Ted would say, “I can segue from your piece because I also wrote about a time I spent with my grandparents.” Students can even “anti-segue” as follows: “I can follow your piece, Ted, because while you were really close to your grandparents, my experience is just the opposite.” By using segues to share writing, students are constantly listening to each other for connections and contradictions. This makes for some very engaged sharing circles. All comments should be directed from one student to another, not just from one student to the teacher. The teacher will have to keep reminding students of this at first.


When it is possible, arrange students in a circle to share and discuss poetry. It is nearly impossible to create student-centered discussion when the students can only see the backs of each other’s heads.


Before sharing what they’ve written, students will sometimes try to explain too much or come up with some needless disclaimer. Encourage students to simply say, “Getta loada this . . .” Likewise, to diffuse any awkwardness after a reading is over, your young poets can simply say, “Ta Dah.” I try to discourage people from clapping after every poem is read unless the applause is truly authentic and not simply the polite variety. Simple “Quaker silence” is usually more helpful. Encourage students to keep all comments and compliments tied to specifics.


Here’s a quick and easy way to assess student comprehension. After you’ve described a writing assignment, to be sure all students truly understand what is expected of them, tell them “Let me see those thumbs.” Students who understand clearly are to reply with a thumbs-up. Those who don’t understand can indicate so with a thumbs-down or a sideways thumb. If many thumbs are down, you didn’t explain yourself too well. Give your instructions again. If only one thumb is down, ask a student with a thumb up to explain the instructions. And even if all thumbs are up, call on a student to articulate in his or her own words what your expectations are.


In order to bring your class to attention simply raise your hand and wait. As students see your hand up they are to finish their sentences. Only then, should they raise their own hands. When their hands are up, their mouths are shut. This gives everyone an opportunity to finish what they are saying. I do this for all ages.


Here’s a fun collaborative way to assess student reading comprehension and foster student-guided analytical discussion.

Preparation: Choose a poem all students are familiar with. Poems with a narrative line work best for this activity, but just about any poem will work. Divide students up into groups of four or five. Have each group follow the steps below.

1. As a group, come to consensus as to which are the poem’s THREE most important lines (or phrases or narrative moments). Which lines are most important to the chronology of the poem? Which ones best promote understanding and best represent the poem’s main theme?

2. Next, decide how you will create a tableau to represent each of these three lines. How will you freeze the scene so that the viewers will understand what you are portraying?

3. Practice each of the frames.

4. Each group will be called to present. Viewers will place their heads on the desks or close their eyes until the presenters announce, “Okay, you may look.”

5. Viewers write down the line they think the presenters are attempting to represent.

6. After a short time, presenters announce, “Heads down” or “Eyes closed.” Viewers close their eyes or look away as the presenters set up the next tableau.

7. At the end of the third tableau, presenters should remain at the front of the room while viewers attempt to guess what line each freeze frame represented.

After all groups have presented, discuss observations as a class. Students should write down what they’ve learned from the activity.


This activity is also a great way to assess your students’ understanding of longer works of fiction. Instead of giving a written quiz on a reading assignment, have your students create four freeze frames to represent the four most important moments from what they read. A pop quiz could never foster so much critical thinking, authentic discussion, peer review, collaboration, and community building.

We learn...10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we both see and hear, 70% of what is discussed with others, 80% of what we experience personally, 95% of what we TEACH to someone else. from William Glaser.

* The Present-a-Poem lesson model is my own adaptation of an original activity by Cheryl Bromley Jones, master teacher and Lucretia Crocker Fellow, 1989-1990.

*Many of my classroom management ideas are adapted (or stolen whole-cloth) from Cheryl Bromley Jones of Teachers 21 in Massachusetts.

*Freeze Frames is yet another great classroom activity I’ve adapted from my collaboration with Cheryl Bromley Jones of Teachers 21 in Massachusetts.