To celebrate National Poetry Month, Nicole Renner shares why she broke the rules to teach poetry as an ELA teacher.
While I generally identify as a rule follower, there were moments in teaching when I broke all of them.
In my senior English class, I taught Heart of Darkness and The Things They Carried back to back to explore the horrors of war and imperialism across text genres and time periods. Then I closed my door and showed Apocalypse Now to drive the point home.
My crowning achievement may have been the moment that Kurtz muttered, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” and that kid—you know, that kid, the one you think is never paying attention—sat up and said, “Hey! That’s from Prufrock!”
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? My colleagues had asked earlier that year. Are you sure you want to teach that? Is that the best use of your time? Are they even going to get anything out of it?
I defied these doubts by teaching poetry, and I would do it all over again. If you’re still skeptical like my colleagues and asking yourself, “Why bother with poetry in the classroom?”, I can offer you a few good reasons.
I speak of promised lands
Soil as soft as mama’s hands
Running water, standing still
Endless fields of daffodils and chamomile
Again I am raging, I am in such a state by your soul that every
bond you bind, I break, by your soul.
I am like heaven, like the moon, like a candle by your glow;
I am all reason, all love, all soul, by your soul.
There’s a reason that the most recent issue of English Journal was themed “Sounds of Music and Language Arts.” Poetry is very much a part of students’ daily lives in the form of contemporary music.
The rhythm and voice of poetry, and the compact, layered meaning of its language, are the threads that weave together Greek dramatists, ancient Persian mystics, 19th century Romantics, Harlem Renaissance intellectuals, Indigenous activists, English modernists, folk rock gods, cypher artists gathered in parks and cafes, and megastar rappers from Tupac to Kendrick Lamar.
Making these connections in the classroom not only creates a springboard for kids into new (or, as the case may be, old) realms of literature. It also honors the rich oral and written traditions from which their favorite artists emerged. It tells kids, “The literacy you already have is the literacy you need. Let’s keep building it together.”
By definition, figurative language says one thing and means another. Poetry, with its remarkable capacity to encode and even intentionally obscure meaning, has long been a tool of subversion and an outlet for the expression of forbidden desires. Poetry gives us voice when speaking outright may be unsafe.
This aspect of poetry gives preteens and teenagers space to explore the big things facing them as they investigate the world and their place in it. By reading, discussing, and writing poetry, students can safely touch the topics that may otherwise be too hot to handle. It’s the literary version of “asking for a friend.”
“Teaching the standards” can be a double-edged sword. This Atlantic piece by Andrew Simmons addresses both why we should teach poetry and why we so often don’t. But it is possible to teach standards without torturing our favorite poems to death.
Consider this standard:
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4)
You could write this standard on the board, circle the verbs, underline the nouns, teach a laundry list of terms for poetic devices, and point them out in a poem for students to analyze.
Or, you could ask,
How would you describe the relationship between the father and son in this poem?
What words and phrases make you think that?
This is what I asked my students when we sat down to read “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke—16 short lines of text that could, and always did, erupt a debate. Was the titular Papa an abusive alcoholic, or a loving and playful father? Was the waltz a rough-and-tumble bonding session between father and son, or was it the metaphorical dance of domestic violence? Could it be both?
We’d turn to the words. Dizzy. Battered. Beat. Scraped. All words used to describe dancing, and music, but taken together, they leave the meaning uncertain. Along the way, I’d define a “lexicon” of violence, review the meaning of an ominous “tone,” and use my voice to point out some neat metrical tricks in the poem. Then, and only then, would I show the standard we’d just addressed.
Of course, it’s important for students to know what they are learning and why. But sometimes we need to get to the heart of the matter first—to give students a reason to care about what standard RL.4 says and why they should learn it.
One good poem. Six good questions. An uninterrupted class period.
These are the ingredients for a lesson that can be rich, deep, and nuanced, like a meal prepared by a great chef. Like any great chef will tell you, though, this simplicity doesn’t mean it’s easy, exactly. With simple ingredients, there’s nowhere to hide. But there is power in letting go and letting students drive the literary analysis.
A poem, bounded in length but packed with meaning, is a manageable playing field for a constructivist approach to learning. And the compactness of a poem rewards us more quickly than long expository texts or even enjoyable novels.
Consider one of these short but densely layered poems for your classroom:
Invite students to take a bite of one of these poems, and see what happens. It might just make them a little hungry for more.
All of these poems are included in the Mirrors & Windows: Connecting with Literature program, along with discussion questions, close reading supports, and writing prompts.
These are just a few of my reasons for teaching poetry. A Washington Post article about why kids need poetry in their lives provides even more, including the point that poetry helps them develop social-emotional learning and problem-solving skills. What are your reasons for teaching poetry?
If you're feeling inspired and want to dive right into teaching poetry to your students, our ELA team put together a mini-lesson series on Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.” You can download it right away!
Coming soon: The second installment of our National Poetry Month series will be about teaching living poets and contemporary poets to watch! Follow us on social media so you don’t miss it.
As a passionate high school English teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools, Nicole taught every 9-12 English class under the sun and supported the implementation of Project Based Learning and Paideia active learning. Nicole holds an M.Ed. in Secondary English Education from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, and an M.A. and B.A. in English Language and Literature from the University of Virginia. For the last decade, Nicole has directed her love for English Language Arts into the design and development of curriculum, assessment, and professional learning at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE); Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC); and now at Carnegie Learning.Explore more related to this author
It tells kids, “The literacy you already have is the literacy you need. Let’s keep building it together.”