teaching poetry

5 posts

Student-Friendly Poems: The Super Heroes of the Classroom

English teachers’ usual approach into literature is inductive. They read a poem aloud — usually two or three times — perhaps ask students to mark it up or analyze it in pairs or a group, and then wonder if they might write a thesis statement that includes the theme. Thus, to determine the author’s purpose, students must first consider the details within the work before thinking their way up the ladder of abstraction to a thematic balcony.

For a switch, teachers could create a sense of balance by occasionally taking deductive forays into literature. That is, either give the students a theme in advance, or provide the purpose of the work as given by the author himself. In this scenario, the heavy lifting would be done before anyone mutters ready, set, or go. With the “gift” of a thoughtful, abstract statement already in hand, students could begin an Easter egg hunt for literary evidence that will directly line up with the author’s own reflection on the work (or the provided-rom-the-get-go thesis statement).

To test drive this theory, I give you one of my favorite, student-friendly poems: “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too” by James W. Hall. On his blog, Hall provides not only the poem (at the end of his entry) but some insight into the work. Taking his direct words, teachers can fashion a thesis statement that looks something like so:

In his poem, “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too,” James W. Hall uses humor and some harsh truths to show that “it’s a hard thing to… recreate yourself, reinvent yourself. Become someone different, someone new. Throw away one identity (and mask) and put on another. We all struggle with [this] in some way or another. We want to change, to grow, to abandon one set of personality features for better ones,” but this is not as simple as it sounds.

With this statement, much of it from the poet’s lips, students in groups could determine importance by marking up the poem’s key textual evidence — words and lines that will support the claim in the provided thesis statement. This deductive angle might be considered a type of scaffold, but it is simply an equally-legitimate approach with the same learning goals — getting students to connect abstract to concrete as they analyze literature for author’s purpose (in this case, with author’s purpose).

Highlighting important lines and writing comments and inferences in the margins during small group discussion or paired academic conversations, students will be better suited (if you’ll forgive) for the perils of such venues as a Socratic Seminar. Why? Because they will not have to “find the grail” (in poetry, so often a “hopeless cause” in their minds), but instead will have to explain how the provided grail has any bearing in the first place.

Will this bestow confidence in young literary speakers? I would wager yes, much more so than with the inductive approach. Should teachers abandon inductive analysis altogether, then? Hardly. Students should see deductive as Castor to inductive’s Pollux, Scylla to its Charybdis, and (to bring it down a notch) pepperoni to its pizza. They need practice at both.

In short, teachers should see if providing themes upfront now and then leads student discussions to more interesting (and vertigo-inducing) places where they can build on each others’ ideas (or challenge them) until they wind up confronting one of the pieces of evidence they are sure to dredge up head on: the burning suit.

Note that, in his blog, Hall claims “‘buining’ one’s suit is the punchline of the poem.” This, according to the poet, is paramount among other important lines. Will students see it that way, emboldened as they’ll be by having “the answer” up front and “for free”? Will they compare the “fwame-wesistent” suit to jobs, to personalities, to economic classes, to themselves? Will they make metaphoric leaps and bounds that have their teachers swooning with deductive joy?

Time (and Elmer Fudd-like dramatic readings) will tell how this approach might work. Still, students’ “spidey sense” should be tingling, as they say. In my teaching days, mixing deductive with inductive approaches brought strong results.


Nota bene: For other poetry ideas for the classroom, simply search “teaching poetry” on this website.

Nota bene #2: To help to keep ideas and posts about writing and poetry coming, consider pitching in by visiting the BOOKS page and purchasing whichever collection appeals to you. Many of my poems work in the classroom as deductive v. inductive exercises, too.


Sleeping Late and Other Small Delights



For young writers — especially those who say they cannot write poetry — imitation is a teacher’s best friend. Even if they’re too young to know the word “gratitude,” you can ask them to make a list of things they love.

From there it becomes a specific noun exercise, a sensory detail (or “imagery” in poeti-speak) exercise. Ten items will do, although the Laura Foley example below employs 15. Once that anyone-can-create-it list is done, students are ready to make it prayer-like. “Praise be…!”

Whether you want it to be a 14-line sonnet “-ish” poem is completely optional. Once your students’ (or your own) list is complete, have them read Foley’s poem and mark their favorite lines. I used to tell kids to highlight “the cool lines.” Being “cool” is forever, after all, and it’s always interesting how students instinctively “like” lines that showcase a poetic element. (Awesome work, students!) Students might also create categories for Foley’s and their own lists. It might help others who are reaching for that old familiar — “writer’s block.” Thus, thinking up favorites from nature, from foods, from sports, from family traditions, etc., breaks the logjam.

Then it’s off to the races. One with a clear and obvious finish line for those with poetry phobia.


Gratitude List
Laura Foley

Praise be this morning for sleeping late,
the sandy sheets, the ocean air,
the midnight storm that blew its waters in.
Praise be the morning swim, mid-tide,
the clear sands underneath our feet,
the dogs who leap into the waves,
their fur, sticky with salt,
the ball we throw again and again.
Praise be the green tea with honey,
the bread we dip in finest olive oil,
the eggs we fry. Praise be the reeds,
gold and pink in the summer light,
the sand between our toes,
our swimsuits, flapping in the breeze.

For Teachers of Poetry, a Cautionary Tale

Yesterday I provided an excerpt from Rattle editor Tim Green’s interview of the poet Kwame Dawes. Today, a final excerpt, this time touching on the damage “education” can inflict on poetry.

“Part of the problem is that we teach poetry with a manual that is used for an exam. Just think about when people encounter poetry. As children you learn nursery rhymes, but slowly that narrows down, and you stop hearing poetry except in school and in a context that demands the dreaded ‘analysis.’ You don’t have the advantage of a poem being made into a Lifetime movie, which you have for fiction and plays. For poetry it starts to be all school. And in school the teacher stops one day and says, ‘What does it mean?’ But the teacher doesn’t say, ‘You’re going to spend the next 40 years of your life trying to understand what it means.’ ‘Next week there will be an exam!’ is what the teacher says. ‘So you’d better know what this means now.’ Poetry is not like that, but we learn poetry that way.

“Consequently, people come to a poetry reading to apprehend in the moment, because if they don’t, they remember their childhood experience when they felt like idiots for not understanding. If someone comes up to me after a reading and says a poem is deep, what they often mean is, ‘I didn’t understand a word of it, but I can’t admit it, so I’ll say you’re really deep.’ That’s the anxiety. That’s what we need to break. Here’s the thing: we do not put that pressure on music. I admit there’s some music that’s poppy, but look at how many songs are hugely difficult, and people will stay with them and will come back 30 years later and say, ‘You know, I’ve been singing this song for 30 years, and I never realized what was going on.’ … It’s because there’s no exam!

“Listen, I don’t want to stereotype cultures, but in Ireland poetry is read at bars and so on, and people don’t know what they’re hearing while it’s being read, but as they grow older they begin to contemplate it. They know it by heart, and eventually they begin to understand things that are quite complex, but at the time they had something to hold on to, and it was enough—they had the cadence, they had the prose, but they also had stretches that they understood, and they were allowed to have time, because that is not a school room. This also happens in griot cultures in North and West Africa where the griot carries the histories of the community. In cultures in which proverbs are cherished and valued, this also happens. We have come to ritualize this process of learning over time in American rural and urban cultures where ‘folk’ sayings and proverbs are granted the chance to be mysterious for a time. No exam next week. Heck, it happens in churches the world over. We accept mystery and the slow process of understanding.

“The problem with poetry today, even here in America, is what happens in the class room. That’s the problem with apprehending poetry, because we feel like we have to understand it right now—all of it, right now. And the only thing you can understand right now is the Hallmark greeting card—which, by the way, are very smartly written. [both laugh]

“Hallmark cards aren’t easy to write, if you think about what they achieve. My wife gives me a card, and it’s lovely, it tells me a lot. A guy in South Carolina gets the same card and thinks, ‘Wow, you found my soul.’ Same poem—wow, that’s pretty impressive, right? [laughs] So I do think that is the dilemma. That’s the heart of the dilemma: giving people permission to return, to learn and read and apprehend poetry over time. And I think, as we ease the pressure for immediate comprehension, we allow for the possibility of complexity. Because the technology of writing allows us to return and return and return. When there was no writing, we either memorized or we apprehended in the moment, and then the rest was the dew. But the technology of writing,  we can read to the bottom and go right back to the top. If we didn’t have an exam next week, we could keep doing that. If there’s any gift that our poetry community can try to inculcate in the culture, it’s that poetry is a life and life lived. I am not suggesting that we toss out the exam, but I am suggesting that we parallel that kind of learning with more open-ended approaches to encountering poetry. Because we do it with so much else. People go back to museums and do pilgrimages back to the same pieces of art once a month, and they come up with complex feelings and ideas about it. No one says they need a degree in art appreciation… But we rarely give poetry that space. I think that’s something that’s desperately needed.”


Nota bene: The entire interview can be found in the Fall 2019 issue of Rattle.


How Teachers Can Make Challenging Poems Fun


For reasons that border on unreasonable, elementary-aged students love poetry (usually rhyming) and middle- and high school-aged students detest it (especially when they are tested on it).

Perhaps this is because of stodgy assigned works from textbooks and/or old warhorses that continually get trotted out as assigned readings. Perhaps it is because students are often forced to scan and interpret a poem before they are allowed to (radical thought) enjoy it.

Matthew Zapruder is on record for saying that students only need one tool to understand poetry: a dictionary. I wrote an entry on his theory, but I’ll take it one step further. Students need an open mind beside that dictionary, too. What, after all, is the success rate of a psychologist who has a patient unwilling to cooperate, or of a coach with an athlete unwilling to buy in?

Choice is nice, sure, but the trouble with bringing a class of students to the library (or of carting up Dewey’s entire Decimal of poetry books to your room) and saying, “Browse, children, and pick something you like!” is they become overwhelmed, then bored, by choice. Talking to each other makes for better poetry, as you’ll quickly discover.

No, it’s better for a savvy teacher to pre-select poems tailored to the interests of her students. Poems about teenagers, social concerns of teenagers, sports teenagers love to play. Lyrics from songs and musicals. Verse about (wait for it) school-related issues. They’re out there. In spades.

And just as students listen to songs over and over again until they’ve memorized the lyrics (first the refrain, of course), so they need to hear poems again and again. No teacher should ever be shy about reading a poem three or four times before anyone even rolls up a sleeve to dive in.

If anyone complains, just ask what happens when they first hear a new song they like. Do they wait a month before listening again? Then another month before hearing it a third time? OK, then. On the other hand, has anyone ever listened to a song over and over again, head bobbing and volume cranking, until they own it? Thank you.

Teachers need to practice reading poems, too, as if the poet herself were in the audience. The demanding poet, I mean. This is her baby you’re reading, after all. Read it right! Read it con brio, which is Latin for “with emotion” or some such.

From there, let students do the instructing for you. Put them in groups and restrict their time. Two minutes to come up with the coolest words, line, or lines and why. Assure them the why does not have to be a “poetry reason.” It can be a student’s reason. What does it remind them of or bring to mind?

They’ll do this, of course, by choosing the sharpest images and sensory details (imagery!), the neatest comparisons (similes, metaphors!), and the most ear-pleasing rhetorical devices (say, anaphora for one… only say it three times!).

Voilà! Isn’t it nice when students open a door and walk through it of their own volition? By God, these “cool” lines they choose almost always have a poetry-related name. And, getting inside the head of the poet, there’s probably a darn good reason she chose them, too.

Are there any detectives in the room?

Yes, the detective metaphor is a good one. Forget the student label. Let’s be poetic detectives. And, now that the cool stuff is out of the way, let’s take a little more time to look up words we don’t know (enter the Zapruder dictum). Every definition of the word, not just the first.

If this sounds like familiar slogging reached at last, deploy the group’s creativity. For each word they don’t know, tell the group to split up duties and write a short riff of music using the word in all of its multiple ways (or in its one unique way just learned).

Have them use online dictionaries, if they prefer. Then they can first explore and second set their ditties to a familiar tune or make a rap of it, bold-printing, underling, or italicizing the word as it shows its multiple shades.

Once they’ve shared in front of the class or just by shyly standing near their group (safety blanket method), they’re ready to don their fedoras and return to detective mode for the original poem. Which meaning fits this poem’s line? How does it help unlock meaning for what at first was a head scratcher? Now at least some reasonable theories can be floated, even if we are now on Day 2 of the activity (the singing or sharing of written songs being a good dividing point).

Speaking of, the time has come for making a statement about the poem! I always had groups co-create a thesis statement, saying what poetic tools the author used to reveal a certain truth about life (theme). Before they did so, I let them know that we would be putting each thesis before an opposing counsel and jury (classmates), one if by whiteboard and two if by projector.

The job of the opposing counsels was to poke holes in the theory. I told them the first weakness to look for in any theory was this: either that it did not apply to the poem at all (except in the overly-rich imagination of the readers) OR, more likely, that it only applied to parts of the poem (not good enough, friends).

“Any ideas about meaning have to stand up to every line in the entire poem,” I cautioned. “So be on the look-out for words and lines that bring the theories you’ll see into question. As to those of you co-creating a thesis statement for the court, you can save yourselves some embarrassment by rereading the poem before it goes before its peers, testing each line to your thesis yourselves. Anticipate opposing arguments, in other words.”

Early in the year, I engaged in this ritual umpteen times before ever assigning students the task of a full-blown literary analysis. The discussions and debates unfolding in class as “prosecutors,” “defendants,” and, ultimately, “juries” were like warm-ups. Sprints. Push-ups.

They got kids ready — truly ready — for poetry. And kids had fun doing it, too. Reading and understanding poetry, I mean. Even difficult poems. But always poems that had meaning for them.

The rest of these difficult skills will come, eventually, like a Field of Dreams no English teacher ever believed in. But first, you need a foundation. A foundation student-detectives have plenty of practice building themselves.

Riddle Me This


Good news: Poetry continues to work its way back into everyday media. Or every weekend media, anyway, as evidenced by the New York Times Magazine, a Sunday insert that includes a poem selected by Rita Dove each week.

Yesterday, the magazine included an Elizabeth Spires poem. I’m going to hold back on the title to see if you can guess what it’s about. Game? Good. Here we go:


A shirt I was born in.
I wear it. Or it wears me.
White, of course.

A loose fit.
Growing as I grow
but slowly going dull.

It must be washed
once, twice, three times,
then hung to dry.

There, can you see it?
Hanging high
on the hill.

Waving its arms
in the wind. Beckoning.
Sun shining through.


I don’t know about you, but as I read it yesterday, I thought it sounded like a poem for children. One of those puzzle poems. One of those here-are-the-clues, now-see-if-you-can-guess-what-I-am deals. Sold at Personifications R Us. Aisle 6. Bottom shelf (where wee ones can see riddles rolling among the dust bunnies). Where teachers buy poems without titles and put students on the hunt.

If you haven’t guessed already, it’s about your immortal (thinking the best here) soul and carries the title “Picture of a Soul.”

Nice, but nicer still is the quote Dove alludes to in the short introduction. It’s a Wallace Stevens bit I’d never heard before: “the poet is the priest of the invisible.”

I wonder if someone has stolen that for a book title yet. Or is it too cheeky? Priest of the Invisible: Poems. I’ll check with Dewey, then Decimal, and get back to  you.

Until then, Happy Indigenous Peoples Day!