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!