Five for Thought: Things to Consider When Teaching Poetry

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Love it or hate it, if you are an English teacher at some point you will be teaching poetry.  But poetry doesn’t have to be an exercise in martyrdom for you or the students.  This week let’s discuss five things that can keep your poetry unit interesting as well as help your students find at least an appreciation of poetry.

One:  Don’t assume that the only thing young people want to read and discuss is “new stuff,” free verse, or the lyrics to their favorite songs. 

If I could tell a new teacher only one thing about teaching poetry, this would be it.  It is easy to assume that students aren’t interested in anything that is older than they are.  This is often not the case.  When I was in school myself, I thought free verse poetry was dumb (I have since changed that opinion) and much preferred reading and writing things that had meter and form.  Most middle and high school girls fall at least a little bit in love with Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman,” and Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” is a perennial favorite in my classroom.  When given the choice, my classes often split fairly evenly between those that like form poetry and those that prefer free verse.  When designing your poetry units, make sure to appeal to all students and include a wide variety of poems.

Two:  Try teaching poetry in a nontraditional format.

English teachers have been teaching/reviewing grammar on the “a little each day” model for years—can you say DOL anyone?  Why not try this with poetry?!  (Shameless plug:  Here is a ready-to-go unit if you want to give it a try!)  Or what about working with your students’ history teacher?  You could study poetry from the time they are studying in history class to give the poetry historical context and the history some personal/artistic connection—“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman when they study the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and “Dreams” by Langston Hughes when they study the Harlem Renaissance for example.  Be creative and don’t just get stuck in doing it the way it has always been done!

Three:  Allow your students a sense of ownership.

Instead of picking all the poems yourself, let the students pick the poems they want to study.  Give them guidelines (for instance, a particular poet or even a list of poems to choose from), but then let them take ownership of the unit.  What if each class session a different student picks the day’s material or what if you try putting poems to a vote–i.e. does the class want to study poem a, b, or c?  If students get really into it, they might even start looking for poems to bring in on their own.  As the unit goes on, you might even consider having students do the teaching.  Again, with a few guidelines students can present poems, technical analysis, and interpretations to the class themselves.  (You might try this if you need a jumping-off point.)  While there are a great many things you can do to improve interest and participation in your classroom, few are as effective as giving your students ownership in what they do.

Four:  Vocabulary is important, but don’t overwhelm your students.

This seems simple enough, but it is easy to feel like you have to get all those vocab terms to your students right at the beginning of the unit.  How else are they going to be able to find and use them as you go?  But trying to force a whole slew of new terms into your students’ minds immediately and in one chunk is a recipe for failure.  It really is much more effective in the long run to teach a term or two each day.  So what if they can’t identify enjambment in the first poem they see—they will get it.  There is no faster way to kill enthusiasm for a given topic than to pile on every vocab word on Day One.

Five:  Don’t forget poetry writing!

Okay, so they may not be Shakespeare or Dickinson, but that doesn’t mean that your students don’t have something worth saying.  If you are studying sonnets, have your students write sonnets; if you are studying free verse, have them write free verse.  Not only does composition give your students a different perspective on and appreciation for what poets do, but also you will often have students who like to write poetry much more than they like to read it, so writing allows them to connect to your poetry unit in a way they wouldn’t otherwise.  You also may discover a few closet-poets in your midst.  (As a side note, it is important to remember that the poems that students have composed are very personal in a way that prose is not.  If you want to share a student’s work with the class, be sure to ask the student for permission before you do.  This is good practice no matter what you are studying, but especially important here.)

Whether these suggestions work for you or not, this week I challenge all you English teachers out there to look at your poetry unit not as something you have to do but as something you get to do.  Bring a fresh, new perspective to your teaching as you bring fresh, young minds to this ancient art form!

How do you go about teaching poetry?  What suggestions to you have for other teachers?  What do you wish your teachers knew when you were a student?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Have a great day, and…

Teach On!


P.S.  Don’t miss the continuing posts of poetry by myself and other educators this month.  For more information, click here.

Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Homeschooler, Staff, Not Grade Specific -


This Week’s Featured Product

Poetry Trading Cards

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Looking for something else unique?  In this project students create trading cards using their own and others’ poetry. It is a great project to use as the culminating project in a poetry unit, as an ongoing project within a poetry unit, or as a stand-alone mini-unit for your middle or high school class.  For more details or to download this product, click here!


This Week’s Journal Questions

For the teacher:  What was your favorite class in school?  What do you remember studying?  What made these things so enjoyable and memorable?  How can you incorporate these lessons into your teaching?

For the student:  What makes something fun?  What makes something boring?  Do you have any control over what is “fun” and what is “boring” in your life?  Explain.


A Recipe from My Kitchen

Rebecca’s Savory Sweet Potatoes

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While the classic marshmallow-covered casserole has its place, this savory take on sweet potatoes is a delicious and pretty addition to your table.


  • 9 cups sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″to 1″ cubes (about 4 large potatoes)
  • 1 strip thick-cut bacon or 2 strips regular bacon, cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup chopped green onions
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2-3 Tablespoons olive oil (1-2 Tablespoons more, as necessary for cooking)
  • 3/4 teaspoon pepper (more or less to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (more or less to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 3-4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into several chunks


  1. Place cubed potatoes in a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until potatoes are soft.
  2. In a skillet (I like cast iron here, but use what you have) heat the oil and begin cooking the bacon.
  3. When the bacon is about half to three-quarters done add the onions.  Cook until soft.
  4. Add garlic and herbs.  Cook until herbs are fragrant and garlic is lightly browned.
  5. Drain the potatoes, and return them to the pot.
  6. Add the bacon mix from the skillet and butter to the potatoes.
  7. Stir vigorously until it is mashed and well-blended.
  8. Enjoy!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Once I had a student tell me that Ben Jonson’s Poem on losing his son had really spoken to her and her dad about losing her brother. So,yes, don’t avoid the old poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it the truth. We never really know what is going to speak to someone (or to ourselves) until it does, and it can only speak to us if we are exposed to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Elizabeth says:


        Liked by 1 person

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