Why I Teach Poetry All Year Long...And Why YOU Should, too

As English teachers, most of us know that April is National Poetry Month.  And as English teachers, most of us love to read (and even write) poetry.  It seems to follow that April should be one of our favorite months, since we can spend our time teaching what we love, right?

But, what if, like me, you hate listening to teenagers moan and complain when you tell them we are going to spend the next month studying poetry?  And, what if, like mine, your curriculum is set by district standards, and you don't have the freedom to move and change units at will?

Then, do what I do--teach poetry all year round and pair it with the literature that you're currently teaching.  I love this method for several reasons:

1.  By teaching poetry with literature, you reduce the cognitive burnout that a month's worth of daily poetry can inflict.  When poetry, which students perceive as difficult, is shoved down students' throats is focused on every day, it is no surprise that they start to dread reading it.  Yet, when presented as a complement to their current literature selection, it is refreshing and makes them want to dig deeper and find the connections and messages that seem to elude them when taught without context.

Take a look at this assignment I like to use when I teach The Things They CarriedIt takes a selection from Tim O'Brien's novel and pairs it with a thematically similar poem.  I ask students to read the text and share their thoughts about some discussion questions with a partner.  Then I ask them to read the poem, making connections to it and the novel excerpt.  It's a great way to get students talking, and appreciating the novel that you're studying in class.

2. By showing a variety of poetry that thematically ties to your current literature, students can make the connections to universal themes and the human experiences that can be shared through unique forms. Poetry is artistry, and by reading and viewing different types, formats, and themes, students will begin to see themselves in the poetry and will hear it speak to them.

This year, as my juniors and I were reading The Catcher in the Rye, using a mental-health lens to analyze Holden’s behavior, American suffered another tragic school shooting. The next day I shared “Somewhere in America” by Brave New Voices and told them to listen for anything that resonated with them, not only personally, but in our class, in our world. (Just FYI, there is a bad word related to the novel, but you may need to edit it depending on your school).

You can bet they ALL took notice of the allusion to Catcher and gun violence, and because it was shown in context, they absolutely made the connections. And not only that, they were absolutely moved by this amazing spoken word poem in a way that they might not have been if this poem was shown without context, as part of a block of daily poems.

3.  Finally, by teaching poetry throughout the year, students get more access than when it is taught in isolation. I typically teach 2-3 poems per month, tied into out literature (and even nonfiction) reading. Because we are frequently looking at poetry, students begin to see poetry as an important reading experience, not just as something they’re forced to look at at and analyze at the end of each school year.

When I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, we spend about four-five weeks reading the novel, acting out the trial, writing about the verdict, and analyzing paired poetry.  In this four week period, students are taught four different poems!  They know that these works are just as important as the novel itself, and look forward to the challenge of identifying common themes and making connections not only to the novel, but to their lives.  Here is the link to my To Kill a Mockingbird Paired Passage Bundle  if you'd like to try it in your own classroom.  I also have a resource which pairs an excerpt from The Odyssey with "Siren Song,"  you can check out as well.

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I'm curious to know how you teach poetry in your classes.  Let me know in the comments what works best for you!

Lessons in Literature: The Catcher in the Rye

Each year that I teach The Catcher in the Rye to my juniors, I experience the same thing: either they LOVE it and totally relate to Holden's teenage angst, or they HATE it and can't stand Holden's incessant whining. There is very little middle ground here.  I knew I had to do something to get them all on board, so after a few years of tweaking and fiddling with my existing planss, I found a way to increase buy-in for everyone.

Like it or not, we teach in a world where smartphones are an extra appendage--students see the horrors of the world in real time, are bombarded with comments made behind the anonymity of a screen name, and have fewer face-to-face interactions with their peers than ever before.  Even worse, depression and anxiety and teenage norms, and the statistics of teen mental illness are staggering.

Given all these factors, I knew I wanted to focus on increasing empathy and developing deeper connections to Holden and the struggles he experiences.   I was counting on Holden's isolation, his confusion with sexuality, and his desire for innocence to resonate with teens who live in a fast paced world that wants them to grow up too quickly.
The Catcher in the Rye by trivialcause on deviantart.com

Before we looked at mental health, though, I wanted my students to get a feel for Holden; both his unique situation and his iconic voice.

I started by showing a clip of The Dead Poet's Society so that my suburban high-schoolers could get a taste of the prep-school life in the 1950s.  We talked about what we noticed about the students, the professors, and the parents, as well as what type of pressure would be placed on a student during that time.  Although not directly related to mental health, we also discussed who we did not see and why, so the students could address the whiteness of the film, and consequently, the novel.

We read chapters 1 and 2 together, to identify who Holden is as a character--what is he like? what does he share? what do we learn?  I asked students to complete a page of Novel Notes (see how to get them for free at the end of this post!).  They read chapters 3 and 4 independently, this time looking at Holden's interactions with others, and again, completing their notes.

Chapter 5 is where is we start getting into Holden's mental health issues.  In this chapter, we learn about Allie's death, and my students are always startled by the way Holden casually drops it into conversation.  Here is where I share a link to this Padlet that we will be working through as we progress through the novel:
Made with Padlet

We start by opening the link to the Five Stages of Grief, and reading together.  I then let students discuss the stages, and they decide what, if any, stage Holden is at.  I also introduce the mental health journal topics, and let students know that from now through the end of the unit, they will be completing 10 journal entries of their choosing.

At this time, I also pass out my Mental Health Bookmarks, which are available HERE.  We look at possible mental health issues that Holden might be suffering from, and we track his symptoms from this point forward.

The next day, we read the Time Magazine article, "Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why The Kids are Not Alright."  Students read the article in partners and complete a Say, Mean, Matter chart with the information (the charts are also included in my TpT unit).  This article is timely and relevant to my students, so we often spend a full class period discussing what in the article surprised them, and what confirmed what they already knew.

Much of the reading is done independently from here on, but we come together to discuss, and they have their bookmarks to track symptoms and their novel note-takers to use as discussion guides.

An issue that always comes up is Holden's sexuality, and why he seems so confused.  They wonder if this contributes to his mental issues.  To help students work through this, I set up a Gallery Walk of quotes from the novel relating to sex.  Students rotate through the quotes, using a sheet of guiding questions I provide.  When finished, they have to write a one-page argument explaining Holden's feelings about sex, using textual evidence to prove their points.  This takes the awkwardness out of an English teacher-directed discussion about sexuality and puts it into the hand of the students to argue.

Finally, towards the end of the novel, we watch the Andrew Solomon TEDtalk shared in the Padlet above.  We listen for his arguments and support, and we discuss whether or not the talk is effective and accurate based on their own experiences.  By doing this, students are easily able to connect with Holden and see him in a new light.

Students conclude this unit by writing an argument from the position of one of Holden's doctor's, diagnosing his condition by using evidence collected throughout the novel.  Because this isn't a standard literary analysis essay, I've found that students are more creative and really allow their voice to show through.

I'd love to hear how you teach Catcher.  Let me know in the comments!

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