More often than not, if you ask literature teachers how they feel about poetry, they will tell you that they don’t like teaching it because the students don’t like learning about it. While it is true that many students balk at the mention of poetry, this is usually because the teachers try to teach it just like a book, without explaining things like word choice, form, or even what is going on in the poem. Adding some fun activities to a unit on poetry can really help students come up with their own understanding of poetry, and then they can bring that personal connection to the poems you read in class.
Teaching the Form
One of the most important things to teach when you are teaching poetry is about the form of the poem you are reading. Even free verse poems that seemingly lack a form have an art to them. Poetry is different from prose in that there are lines, and when the poet writes a poem, he or she pays careful attention to those lines. Very often, important phrases end at the line, or poets include important words at the end of the line. This can help draw attention to the words and phrases that are used in the poem, and can help illuminate the meaning of the poem.
Most Important Word
By asking students what they think the most important word in the poem is, you are asking them to think about the poet’s word choice. This is actually a very difficult question for students to answer because usually they want to choose a whole phrase. By asking them to pick one word, you are forcing them to look at the whole poem through a critical eye. If they are stuck and need help, you can always give them hints.
Important words can be repeated over and over within the poem. Repetition is always a signal of an important word. Other important words can embody the entire theme or message of the poem, or can be a word that the students like the sound or meaning of. Most importantly, remind the students that, as long as they can explain their choice, there are no wrong answers.
Always read poetry aloud in class. This can help students understand the poem better. Poetry was also meant to be read aloud. You can make this fun, too, by setting up your classroom like a coffeehouse poetry reading. Have the students snap their fingers after each reading, instead of clapping their hands. Add some lamps to create a coffeehouse feel when the lights are turned off, and put a fake microphone at the front of the room for students to stand up and read into. This will get the students listening and enjoying poetry just for the sound of it, which can lead to really great discussions about the content and how the poem was read.
Found poems are a great way to have students dive into writing their own poetry. For some students, writing a poem can be daunting if anything goes. With found poems, have the students "find" words and phrases in magazines and newspapers. Have them cut out what they find and glue it on a piece of paper in the form of a poem. By giving students something to start with - in this case, words already printed in a magazine - you’ve taken away the fear of creating and sharing something new and personal.