To commemorate National Poetry Month, plan how to teach living poets all year round with this guide.
This is the second installment of our National Poetry Month series. Check out Part 1, "Why Teach Poetry?"
“The best way to enjoy contemporary verse is simply to read it as though you were dipping into a magazine, listening to a news report, overhearing a conversation. Don't make it a big deal… simply thrill to the words or story.”
Michael Dirda, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life
Ah, the bright, direct stare of a new poem. It is a thing unconcerned with the coziness of prose or the patience of a slow story. It is, as Michael Dirda reminds us, simply there, pure coiled energy, true to itself.
Teaching contemporary poetry can feel cumbersome or uncertain. Squinting into its bright light to find meaning—Is that what it could mean? Is that what it does mean?—is an act of curious vulnerability.
There is a growing movement to stay with this vulnerability, both with ourselves and with our middle school and high school students. The Teach Living Poets movement invites us and our students to sit in the thrill of new poems in order to discover what they reveal about our lives.
Let this compact guide to teaching living poets be a resource as you decide what poetry to explore with your secondary students. I hope the lists of contemporary poems below spark productive precarity and wonder that lingers.
Why Teach Living Poets?
Before we get to the poetry you might teach, let’s consider what contemporary poetry offers that classical poetry doesn’t. Contemporary poetry can serve our students in several ways:
I invite you to wander this world of living poets with me. Consider including the following poems in your language arts curriculum to echo, evolve, or explode the ideas of your classroom online or in person.
Poems to Position Ourselves
Our values, views, and experiences are shaped by the ways our gender, race, class, location, and many other aspects of our identities interact with the world. Living poets assert these interactions without apology, inviting students to affirm the ways that their multilayered identities influence their experiences. Consider the following contemporary poems for your middle or high school classroom:
Poems to Break and Remake Form
The living poet’s workbench of tools has expanded from pen and paper to a broad collection of microphones, keyboards, social media apps, and animations. Their work draws upon the same literacies that students hone each day, allowing students to analyze how tools such as artwork, audio, or the time limits of TikTok videos mediate the meaning of a poet’s words.
Poems to Celebrate Diverse Interests
Today’s poems embrace the joys and confusions of our hobbies, our favorite subjects, and our wobbly journeys with technology. They invite our students to do the same—that is, to observe and to share the parts of their lives that feel fascinating, fun, or just plain goofy. Here are a few poems that do so:
Poems as Bridges
The examples shared here invite us not only to see poems as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, as coined by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, but also to see poems as bridges. Bridges to the storytellers of the past. Bridges to the pain and the joy that our peers experience. Bridges to the radical empathy of observing and writing about our own lives.
Contemporary poems can also remove the bridge of translation that so commonly exists between teacher and student. They invite us to simply step on the path alongside our students, wondering and analyzing and also asserting, as the poet Shane Koyczan reminds us:
Megan Jensen is a former reading specialist with experience developing K-12 writing instruction and blended professional development for adults across the United States, as well as literacy and library programming abroad. Her work continues to uphold her belief that every student can learn and that there is transformative power in supporting students in reading and writing about their worlds. She holds a B.A. in English from UCLA and an M.A. in International and Comparative Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.Explore more related to this author
The examples shared here invite us not only to see poems as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, but also to see poems as bridges.