Do your students scream with glee when you dive into poetry? I didn’t think so. If your kids are like mine, they see poetry as a labyrinth they have to muddle their way through. At the very least, they think of it as pure drudgery.
It doesn’t have to be that way, especially if you begin your study with poetry that is more accessible to students, and use activities that are more engaging than scansion. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that analyzing Victorian and Romantic poetry isn’t worthwhile; I’m just suggesting that you might want to lure them in with something else first.
I like to start with Billy Collins’ Introduction to Poetry. It’s relatively easy for students to understand, yet it has a variety of poetic devices they can identify and discuss. Most importantly, the poem deals with the different ways that students and teachers approach poetry. Here’s how I roll out the lesson:
1. START WITH A QUICK-WRITE
Ask students how do you feel about poetry? Discuss and record some of the words and phrases that they use on the board or a piece of chart paper.
2. MAKE A COMPARISON
Ask students to write metaphors or similes that illustrate their feelings about the genre:
Studying poetry is like…
2. DISCUSS THE POEM
Give the students the poem and read it to them. After, ask them to read it again and identify the poetic devices used by Collins. Have them do a turn-and-talk to someone beside them to discuss what they’ve found.
During the full class discussion that follows, direct the discussion to ensure they’ve identified the devices that Collins uses to create meaning. Essentially, in the first five stanzas he suggests that studying a poem should be an experience of exploration and discovery. He suggests that a reader may have to look at it in a different light and to listen to its sound. Or, like a mouse in a maze, the reader must figure out how to move through the structure of the puzzle in order to come out the other side. He also invites the reader into a poem, to feel his way until light can be shone on its darkness. Refreshingly, he says he wants his students to just skim “across the surface of the poem” and just enjoy it. Finally, the tone shifts in the last two stanzas, when the speaker reflects on his students’ approach to poetry. For them, it’s an experience of torture, for they want the poem to confess its secrets, without them actually getting inside it, to figure out what it means.
After you’re sure they understand the meaning and have discussed the effect of Collins’ techniques, ask them if the ideas in the poem match their experience with studying poetry. If so, why? Is it how it should be?
3. LET THEM THINK AND CREATE
Have students write their own free verse poem that captures their feelings about studying poetry. Ask them to use some similes and metaphors to capture the ideas they want to get across to the reader. If they need a nudge, tell them to start with The teacher takes out a poem and…