How one teacher excites his students about poetry

“Poem” is not a four-letter word

When teaching a new unit, teachers know that their strategy can either “sizzle” and get the class excited, or “fizzle” and lose their attention. As a first-year teacher, I saw a good number of my lessons fizzle out. But one that really sizzled was my unit on poetry. When we started, my fourth grade students hated the idea of poetry. However, by the end of the unit, my neglected poetry section became the most popular part of my class library. This metamorphosis is all thanks to the careful use of selected authors and scaffolded instruction.

The Place Where the Sidewalk Ends

My students loved Roald Dahl, so to introduce the fundamental concepts of rhyme, rhythm and meter, I read “Cinderella” from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. Familiarity with this well-known story and the silliness of the fractured fairy tale approach made the students much more receptive to the idea that poetry can be fun. We read aloud and bobbed our knees to demonstrate rhythm and meter, and filled in the blanks to guess the rhyming words. My goals were to relax the students and get them used to the format and academic vocabulary of poetry, but I’d chosen my methods carefully, and the students saw it as play.

I followed Dahl with another light-hearted poet, Shel Silverstein. Using “Where the Sidewalk Ends“, we continued our poetry lessons and cemented what we learned from Roald Dahl. We compared Dahl’s rhyme scheme to the multitude of schemes that Silverstein chooses. “You mean poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme like that?” cried my students in amazement. “We can choose our own rhymes?” Exactly! The kids were getting it, but more importantly, they were loving it. After two weeks of our daily Silverstein poem, it was time to move on.

Ancient Maps of Immortal Forces

“More than Dahl and Silverstein,” I told my students, “my favorite poet is Robert Frost.” The class practically roared in anticipation. Whoever this writer was, they wanted to see what I thought was better than their two favorite poets. I put “A Brook in the City” up on the board, and we read it together. Many students were confused. “Where’s the joke?” they demanded.

Their trepidation soon gave way to comprehension. By now, they expected to enjoy the poems I shared with them, so they were willing to find out what I liked about this one. Our class discussion started with basic understanding, but the students soon took it over themselves. Without prompting or clues, they started talking about Author’s Purpose and Theme. My urban students easily picked up on the idea of cities expanding outward and destroying the natural world around them, personifying the destructive force of real estate development as a monster who eats anything in its way.

The key to teaching poetry isn’t drilling the vocabulary into your students and having them practice how to recognize iambic pentameter — the key is getting them motivated. Show them the poetry you enjoy, and explain with genuine enthusiasm why you like it. Let them see what drastically different authors have done. Teach children how to appreciate poetry, and they will understand it. Understanding will lead to their own love of poetry, and that love will carry them forward.