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Teaching Poetry to Students

By Gary R. Hess. Category: Poetry

Teaching poetry is as difficult as you want to make it.

  • What's the purpose?
  • What do you want your students to know?
  • How old are your students?

These are all questions you should already know the answer to before reading further.

Here are some examples of what can be taught to an elementary student:

  • How to write a simple poem.
  • How to recognize rhymes and syllables.

Here are some examples of what can be taught to a secondary student:

  • How to write poetry in numerous forms.
  • How to explicate a poem.
  • How to recognize meter types.

Having said this, teaching poetry has many obstacles, especially amongst secondary students who were previously uninitiated into this brand of literature. An example is a teenage males brought up in a traditional household which finds poetry to be feminine or hold feminine traits. This teenage boy might mention how talking about feelings are something females do. As a teacher, you should be able to quickly counter such arguments with examples of poetic works such as Dr. Seuss or by reading the newest hit song as a poem and explaining how songs are only a form of lyrical poetry.

Gaining Student Interest

The key to beginning such lessons is grabbing the students by their ears, figuratively speaking. Don't start the lesson by rapping off some obscure Shakespearean passage and hope all students will be amazed by his words. Instead, try something mesmerizing which students can relate to easily, especially the students who you find would usually be uninterested in such a subject. Edgar Allan Poe has many such poems but there are others which may be a better choice. Something risqué may be in order, or perhaps a poem like "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" can gain the attention of black students and those who feel they are a social outcast.

Modern poets are the easiest to introduce to beginners. They are easily related to, their meanings are easily found, and their writings are easier to read without shifting through the "thous" and "thys" which may be difficult for young readers.

Decide which poems they may find interesting. Don't look back to your college literature courses or your own secondary school assignments, but look at the diversity and social norms the students have. Are they low income? Are they jocks? Are they black? Are they female?

Once poems are selected, it is important to remember that poetry is an art form. As such, poems can be interpreted in different ways. With abstract word usage common within poetry, a student may develop a unique understanding of a poem. This isn't necessarily because he or she doesn't understand what is written, but meanings are developed from ones own personal experience. Without knowing the history behind a poet (even then the poet may not have been speaking first-hand), it is difficult to know the exact metaphor thus several interpretations can be found. Many textbooks now have short biographies for poets; however, that isn't always enough to limit metaphors and symbols to the author's own history. Let a student's imagination work. As long as a symbol is interpreted as such and a metaphor is recognized, let the reader develop his or her own understanding.

Poetry is about imagination which is important to interest within art and creativity. If a student can see himself or herself within a poem, he or she is more likely to be interested in the subject.

Following Through With Curriculum

A curriculum is important and often not always developed by the teacher. However, teaching only to the curriculum can cause lack of interest and lower grades. When it comes to poetry, finding a happy middle is a must.

For example, the curriculum might state the student must have understanding of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." This, of course, must be done. Nonetheless, it isn't impossible to spend time on poems the students will enjoy. Remember, interest in the subject is important.

As well, leaving a writing assignment open ended can cause a great interest to be developed. After learning about Shakespeare's iambic-pentameter, it is possible to let the students write their own. Let them choose their own subject matter: their life, their love, their hate. It isn't the meaning or words (necessarily) which matter, it is the understanding of iambic-pentameter which does.

Make poetry fun, make it interesting, and let the students develop their imagination and creativity. That is what literature should be.