As difficult as it is for some of us English majors to understand sometimes, poetry is not always a favorite subject for middle school students. In fact, poetry has not always been my favorite subject. I have clear memories of sitting in Mrs. Callister’s class in 7th grade while she tried to teach us poetry. I remember fighting a headache while trying to make sense of the chicken scratch on the chalkboard that was supposedly depicting stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem.
While I have nothing but love for Mrs. Callister (truly, one of my favorites!), as a typical 12-year-old, I had no use for distinguishing the differences between iambs, trochees, or dactyls. Now that I have grown up to become an English teacher myself, I just knew there had to be a more engaging way to teach poetry. This is why I put together my Top 7 Tips for How to Teach Poetry to Middle School Students!
7 Tips for Teaching Poetry to Middle School Students
While I firmly believe that there are a million ways to be a great teacher and, similarly, a million ways to teach poetry effectively, here are seven things that I have found to be helpful when helping young teenagers learn about and connect with poetry.
1. Make It Fun!
My number one tip for teaching poetry to students is to make it fun! How do you do this? It’s simple. YOU have fun! If you are having fun with your lesson, your students are more likely to come along for the ride and find at least some enjoyment in poetry. Plan activities and lessons that are active and exciting and make you laugh! If you’re not enjoying your own lesson… well, your students are probably bored to tears and are finding creative ways to entertain themselves. If you want real learning to take place, you may want to rethink your plan!
2. Make It Relevant
All humans are naturally more engaged in something when we can see how it is relevant to us! Some might say that this is self-centered, but I think it is just human nature. It stands to reason, then, that our students will be more engaged if they can see how poetry is relevant to them! Help students find poetry in their world–in popular music lyrics, advertising and more! Help them connect with today’s young poets! Show them that poetry and poetic elements are all around us, if we have eyes to see it!
3. Make It Meaningful
Similarly, studying poetry will make more sense for students if they can finding meaning in it. Teenagers today care so much about the world around them and poetry can help spread positive messages for issues they care about. Poetry has a special way of forging connections among people. Poetry can take a complicated emotion and describe it with beauty and simplicity. Poetry can help individuals makes sense of the world around them.
We read and study poetry not only to learn about figurative language and poetic elements, but because it helps us understand the human condition. Your students will learn so much more if they can find personal meaning in poetry. So choose poems that mean something to your students!
4. Make It Creative
Another strategy to consider as we think about how to teach poetry to middle school students is to incorporate creativity. Provide students with opportunities to express themselves. Give them the freedom to find the poem within. That said, many students will have no interest in actually writing poetry. To me, this is totally understandable. Not everyone has the natural ability to produce meaningful poems (including me!), so I don’t ask students to actually write too many poems. Alternatively, I like to incorporate creative projects that help them learn about poetic elements and figurative language. Allow them the chance to dabble in figurative language and imagery and alliteration through fun creative assignments.
5. Make it Accessible
Sometimes, we English teachers are in need of a gentle reminder that not every student is a prolific reader and writer. Not every student is going to go to college and take entire university courses on Shakespeare and John Donne for fun! Remembering this, we need to break our poetry instruction down into really simple terms. Start with the basics and scaffold students’ learning from the bottom up so that all students can be successful with your poetry unit. Also, keep in mind that some students may need more support than others!
I still remember, as a junior in high school, hearing my teacher and classmates talk about onomatopoeia in English class. The way they were talking made it seem like it should be common knowledge, but I had no idea what onomatopoeia even was!
I wonder if I missed a lesson on it at some point in my educational career. I thought that such a unique word must mean something highly intellectual. As a teenager, I was much too shy to ask questions, so I simply pretended to understand. Later, when I realized that onomatopoeia was just referring to sound words, I was actually disappointed!
6. Make it Challenging
At the risk of contradicting myself, my next tip is to make poetry challenging! With a solid understanding of the basics, students are capable of being pushed and challenged in their poetry study! One of my favorite things to watch is my students’ growth in understanding poetry. I usually begin my poetry unit with a pretest which asks students to read and analyze Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Without any context or skills, the students rarely comprehend the poem. In fact, they are usually completely lost!
However, a few lessons into our unit, we revisit “Mending Wall.” With a little bit of background knowledge and an understanding of how to read a poem, it starts to make sense to the students! I love witnessing those “light bulb” moments, when you can almost see things beginning to click in students’ minds.
Our students are capable of so much! With a little help and guidance, they can do amazing things!
7. Make It Memorable
However you choose to teach poetry to your classes, make it an experience that students will remember–ideally, in a good way! Use your own personality and strengths to make it an experience students will look back on with fond memories!
Quick Recap: Teaching Poetry to Middle School Students
- Make it Fun!
- Make it Relevant!
- Make it Meaningful!
- Make it Creative!
- Make it Accessible!
- Make it Challenging!
- Make it Memorable!