I teach middle school, which means I teach some students who are ready for college and others whose reading got stuck in fourth or fifth grade and who need a good reason to move forward. “Tricks and tips” then, from middle school teachers, have to be taken with a grain of salt—they work some of the time with some of the students. Anticipating what will work without experimenting is an inexact science.
Discussions of Common Core have often focused on non-fiction texts, but literary source material is also excellent for teaching many of the skills outlined in the core.
Poetry for middle school
I taught at a university for many years and used to have a great time teaching poetry, but when I reached middle school I hesitated to do more with poetry than basically treating it like any other complex text to decode.
One of the easiest ways for the students to access poetry is through lyrics. They know lyrics, learn lyrics, and value them already. I really like Paul Gallipeau’s lesson as an introduction to rap as poetry. It can be found here: http://www.paulcarl.com/teaching-poetry-through-rap/ . He brings literary language to rap music as tools that can then be carried on to use with more canonical work.
His lesson plan can be downloaded from the site above, but before you do, pause in the middle of Paul’s blog or watch below Alkala’s TED talk on rap and Shakespeare; which connects Shakespeare, which students often read as inaccessible, to hip hop, in convincing and joyful ways.
Performance is another great way to approach poetry in middle school. I have the students pick among poems that I select in a variety of levels and perform for the class. It is useful to learn some poetry yourself to perform, and there are great poetry slams on youtube. One of my favorite performances is by the Canadian poet Shane Koyczan. It inspired a number of students to perform this poem themselves! This is even more remarkable when you see the poem: it has more than 100 lines!
One of the most important aspects of converting skeptical middle school students to poetry is to bring a lot of enthusiasm. They may laugh at your verve, but it gives them permission to feel the electricity of a good poem themselves.
If you feel the need for some inspiration, try the Academy of American Poets selection: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/anthology/popular-poems-teach
Reading poetry is different than reading prose and I find students are not confident, so it is an unlikely equalizer—which all by itself, is valuable in not only a middle school classroom, but any classroom!
WVCTE is wondering…
Louise received a BA in political Science and International Relation from Carleton College and her PhD in Enlish/Composition, Rhetoric and Literacy. She taught at various universities until 2009, when she started teaching ELA at a middle school in Jefferson County. She finds middle school to be the perfect laboratory for learning about literacy and teaches some stuff there too!
Louise serves as Secretary and as a member of the Executive Committee of WVCTE.