Sometimes the only way to get a highschooler to like poetry is by showing them people who do it dramatically really well (slam poems) or Tupac, who put poems to music, or for that matter, any lyrical, or rap artist, arguably any musician (except maybe Ke$ha). That’s not always the way I do it. All I hear when I break out that first poem, because it is definitely a break, and not a nudge, or an “approach” to poetry, is squawking. I break my students in like those good shoes you’ve had forever and your dad accidentally bleached one time in the wash.
Poetry is one of those times I like the static in my classroom, when I can actually feel the buzzing of their lips on the beats, or the clicks as they tap their pencil along each syllable because the best answer to this ADHD dilemma we have in schools, is poetry. Memory, rhythm & blues, permeable words, the answers to life tough questions. If I don’t open poetry with a slam poem, I open it with an exercise. I make them write the first one. I teach them that the stanza is the paragraph of the poem, the picket fence, the razor wire, the metal gate that they have to push open to find their way out into the next stanza. Gosh, even explaining poetry is a metaphor.
I don’t care if they start the year saying, “I hate poems,” or “I just don’t get poems,” as long as once in that year, some line has caused a tightness in their chest, or some confusion of something they thought they held firmly in the palm of their hand, stray specks of dirt that fall out when they’ve broken it open, gather somewhere as a wet pebble in their mind. These are some of my favorite ways to sift the dirt. I don’t need 97 poetry lovers, I need 97 unique individuals who can think for themselves, create something for themselves, or are just able to rake dirt, and plant flowers.
Here are a few of my favorite exercises, please use these at home.
1. If I know they’re going to read a poem, I give them 15 words from that poem and ask them to try to find some thematic way to structure these words together in a set number of stanzas, or lines. If they can’t connect them together to find some theme, I just go for tone. Then they create their own poem using that theme, tone, or a way to make the words rhythmically work (this is for my future rappers). My favorite poems to do this one with is “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid (touted as fiction in the NY Times, but we all know that’s poetry) and “Exile” by Julia Alvarez.
Here are the word lists in case anyone wants to write a poem:
“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid list:
“Exile” by Julia Alvarez
2. Hanging Fire by Audre Lorde: This poem just kicks teenage poetry haters’ butts. I might have one kid in my class every year who doesn’t connect with this poem and that’s because that kid is actively trying not to connect with life. It’s about a fourteen year old girl who just has no side. She is a conglomeration of everything around her. I have my students read this poem and then write one of their own versions. What betrays you? What does no one think about you? Who defends you and who doesn’t? Who cares the most about you? Where are you neglected and where are you praised? What is unfair and unjustified? If there’s anything that teenagers want to do, it’s argue about their own life.
3. Golden Description Chart (THANK YOU, 826 National & McSweeney’s)
#obsessed (HASHTAG OBSESSED) The Eggers version is in the link, but I make my students create a chart, and we usually do this chart within the first week because I want them to start thinking about senses, which leads to imagery.
Chart looks like this:
After the chart, I tell them to give me a golden description of their favorite place. They have to use all the senses to describe the place and I tell them I want to feel like I’m there if I close my eyes and someone reads this to me. Then, I actually have people close their eyes and a student reads about their favorite place. The person with the closed eyes tells the reader what they could best feel/see/hear/smell/taste and what they had a hard time feeling/seeing/hearing/smelling/tasting.
This is the best part though, I make them then write a dialogue between the smelly old person (who has become blind in a matter of seconds) and they have to explain their favorite place to the older, blind, smelly person. This is fun because they have to use so much creativity. They have to give detailed descriptions to someone, while using correct characterization of themselves (and how they talk), but also how an old person might question things. My favorite example is that one of my students has a Chief Keef poster in their room. They had to then describe Chief Keef to the older person because the older person didn’t know who that was. It’s very interesting to see what you get, but I think this is one of those beginning poetry stages that you have to do because imagery is a killer in poetry.
4. McSweeney’s Poetry Prompts That Don’t Suck aren’t half bad either…
(Trees and shit ALWAYS hooks my students). Don’t worry, I got permission to cuss in the poetry parts of my classroom. Speaking of cussing…
5. Twitter Poems
Twitter poems are like technological found poems. For the first time, I just have my students get on their Twitter feed and write down ten random tweets. Then, they can only use these words in their poem.
I step it up when I want them to write a poem with a specific theme and I send them on the hunt to find tweets that will help them develop something around that theme.
I step it up again when I just ask them to write a poem that relates to the novel, short story, or informational text that we’re studying and then write me a few paragraphs on how the two live simultaneously in a one bedroom apartment. What is their relationship, are they married and bitter, are they deeply in love but not allowed to seal the deal, are they sister and brother. Tell me the connection. OU, KILLED ‘EM.
6. Historical Poems: For this students have to research the historical time periods and characteristics of their chosen characters before they can write a poem. Then, they write in the voice of that person. I had a kid once write as Ted Bundy and it might have been the creepiest thing I’ve ever read.
*Write as someone who was beheaded
*Write as a person who died on the Titanic
*Write as an Egyptian Pharaoh
*Write as a woman during the Salem Witch Trials
*Write as a founder of our country, or a dead president
*Write as a school shooter (this one makes me really sad, but it really puts their ideas of school security out there)
*Write as a soldier in a war of your choice
*Write as a Disney Princess
*Write as a gang member
*Write as a famous musician
*Write as a hippie (or a protestor of some sort)
*Write as female leader before the 20th century
*Write as someone just before they experienced Pompeii
*Write as someone from The Bible, or another famous work.
There are too many choices, seriously. I just love the research aspect of this prompt and the fact that students get so into giving me the true voices of their characters.
7. Paintings: In this prompt, students have to research famous paintings (or graffiti) and tell the story behind the paintings in poem form. What is the true story of how this came to life. I had a student write about the Mona Lisa (just for your information, Mona, was a blocked search term on google on my school’s internet) and he wrote about how everything in the painting points toward her cleavage (the river in the background, etc) and how, therefore, it must have been her lover who painted her Mona Lisa smile. Only a junior male would come up with that one.
8. Broadsides: Students just take a line, section, or whole poem and create a visual display of the poem. I haven’t actually done this one in my classroom, but I’ve watched a veteran teacher’s poetry cafe using broadsides and it was unbelievable.
9. Neruda Odes/Neruda Questions
For Neruda’s Odes, students will study an Ode by Neruda and see how he twists language to do how he pleases ,and then they write an Ode to something. There’s obviously more effort done in the analyzing stage of this, but the Odes to things are always interesting. I had a student write an Ode to his brand new oxfords at the beginning of a class, and then at the end an Ode to his dirty ass shoes. See, poetry, makes you see the dirt.
*NOTE: When we read Odes, I have students just randomly read a line and then the next student who feels summoned to read reads the next line until the poem is finished. If more than one student starts reading a line they continue, like a kind of chorus. By the end, they’re all reading every line. It’s pretty fantastic.
- Ode to an Artichoke
- Ode to the Lemon
- Ode to the Smell of Wood
- Ode to a Woman Gardening
- Ode to the Dictionary
Neruda Questions is a little more difficult. Neruda had a sort of series called The Book of Questions. They’re really unanswerable questions about the human experience. I like them because it takes my students a while to come up with a question. I love, “Tell me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?” Students can come up with some really wonderful questions. Then, some genius wrote a book called Talking to Neruda’s Questions and I showed them some of his responses to Neruda’s thoughtful questions. So, after they’ve written questions, I have the groups switch questions and they have to answer the questions poetically. This would be so much fun if we had poetry clubs like we have book clubs.
10. OTHER SOURCES: