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How to Introduce a Poetry Unit for High School English Teachers

When I was in high school, I would have told you my least favorite topics in school were poetry and Shakespeare. I thoroughly hated them. If you told me I’d someday find myself teaching (and loving) poetry and Shakespeare, I would’ve laughed and rolled my eyes. Yeah, right.

Because of this, I’m particularly sensitive to the fact that the mere mention of poetry can cause upset stomachs and dread among some of my students. I’m a firm believer that poetry is one of humankind’s greatest artistic forms of expression and that everyone should be given the opportunity to simply enjoy and appreciate poetry. Every person has a “soulmate” in poem form. It can just take some time to find it. And that’s where you, the English teacher, comes in.

Introducing Poetry: Forget the Standards; Forget the Tests

If you’re going to teach elements of poetry within the bounds of standards, you first have to get your students to open up to the idea of poetry. The insane standardized testing environment that we’ve put our students through (in the U.S. at least) has very effectively squashed many teachers’ ability to foster a love for reading. The reality of the situation is that students will be better readers and perform better on tests overall if they truly love reading. Poetry is, of course, no exception to this.

Don’t immediately open your poetry unit with analyzing a poem you’ve selected. You will get there, and you will hit standards, and you will see your students grow, but you want your students to love poetry first. Only when you love a poem can you really embark on the treasure hunt to find meaning, allusion, allegory, and all the other wonderful things embedded within it. And, let’s be clear- you aren’t going to get all of your students to be head over heels in love with poetry. You have to be realistic. But, if you can spark an excitement about poetry, that can be contagious, and that is what you want in your classroom.

The most crucial element to getting your students excited about poetry is you. You have to be excited and let your love of poetry run so rampant through your classroom that your students really have no choice but to be somewhat interested in it. High school students love finding out details about their teachers. Make those details about poetry.

Little White Lies?

Alright. We’re teachers. We have to lie to students sometimes. It’s part of the job. (And, sometimes it’s fun.) When I first found myself in an English classroom, I was substituting for a teacher who was out on an extended maternity leave. I was not a certified teacher, and I didn’t know squat about teaching literature. I also wasn’t given much in the way of plans past the first two weeks, so I had to figure out how to pretend to be an English teacher on my own.

When the time came to start poetry, I felt sick because I knew had no clue what iambic pentameter was. How was I going to teach it? The only reason I knew that was something that was expected to be taught was because I saw it written on another English teacher’s whiteboard during a PLC one day.

The year I started subbing in this 9th grade English class was the year that the last season of Breaking Bad had just wrapped up. There was a trailer for an episode that featured Ozymandias being read very dramatically by Brain Cranston while a time lapse of the Arizona desert played. So, that’s what became the starting point for my haphazard poetry unit.

I just decided that I would say Ozymandias was my favorite poem. I had no favorite poem. I still operated as someone who felt the lingering sting of my own horrible experience with poetry in high school. But, I needed to put up the façade that I was an enthusiastic English teacher that loved all things English-y. I lied and went on and on about how much I loved this poem.

I played the sound of this video in class with no visual. I didn’t think promoting Breaking Bad was a good idea, but I did think this was a particularly good reading of a poem. I turned off the lights and told my students to close their eyes and just note what images came into their heads as they heard the words.

They loved it.

We just talked about it and then listened again. Admittedly, I think students enjoyed this because there was no real requirement from them other than to listen to the poem. So, as I was winging it in there as a substitute, I decided to turn this into a quick project. Each student was going to find a reading of a short poem to present to the class. This was easy! Just find a YouTube clip of a poem being read and I’d play it for the class with the lights off so we could talk about what we thought of it.

What I didn’t realize, was that my students were developing a fondness for their chosen poems without having to dissect anything or be evaluated. I was just trying to survive in the classroom without any sub plans. I was just tacking things on to this silly project each day and by the end of it all, my students had some pretty decent things to say about their poems. They did eventually write analysis essays using the same poems they picked to share with the class.

The most striking thing about this poetry unit was the fact that a lot of students seemed to be at ease with it. We did TPCASTT, we did a recitation project, we wrote essays, we read a lot of classic poems, and I even got another English teacher to swap places with me one day to teach iambic pentameter!

It was the most fun we had in that classroom during my five months as the substitute.

The funny part is, Ozymandias is actually my favorite poem of all time and poetry is my favorite part of the school year now. I have refined how I teach, but I still make sure to set aside a few days at the beginning of my poetry unit to just have fun listening to poems with my students.

Robert Frost Anecdote

I now open my poetry unit with an anecdote about my own experience in high school. In AP Lit, we had to read Robert Frost’s The Cow in Apple-Time. This poem horrified me. I could not make sense of it and the last line- Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.– just stuck in my head for years. It made me cringe every time it crept into my thoughts. I was very effectively prevented from getting at the meat of this poem because I was just stuck on this shriveled up cow udder.

It’s amazing how my students respond to hearing me yammer on about being traumatized by this cow udder. They think it’s hilarious and ridiculous. Someone always blurts out about being relieved that I’m understanding of the fear of poetry.

I go on about this poem so much and say we are not going to cover it in class to the point where my students look it up and read it on their own. It becomes this whole thing, and I love it. Someone always chooses to recite it during our recitation project which amuses me to no end.

Some Final Notes

Use music and pop culture in your poetry unit. Spend time just listening to poems. Encourage slam poetry competitions. Let your students enjoy poetry and have fun with it!

If you’re interested in a free download for a high school poetry unit, please take a look at my poetry scavenger hunt I’ve created. Students enjoy it, and it’s a great way to break into some exposure to famous poets and poems.

This is one of my favorite all-time lessons in the English classroom. I use univocalism (writing with words that only contain a single vowel) to teach my students about the impact that sound choice and writing constraints can have on poetry. Students (and observing admin) love this assignment!

Stay tuned for more about poetry in the high school classroom! I’ll show you how to put on an incredible poetry competition that students will remember as a highlight of their high school years.

Happy teaching!

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