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Poetry for Middle School, Poetry for All

by Dr. Louise McDonald

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.

Once you convince students to read poetry as well as listen to it, they are ready to take some poems in as friends. I cast about for methods for putting together a whole essay using the literary language, until I found this video from Isabella Wallace somewhere in Australia.
The kids have a great time with Ms. Wallace’s accent and her wayward hairdo and they don’t seem to worry too much that her target audience is older than middle school. They are very intimidated by poetry and like a tangible technique. I have them bring in lyrics from their favorite songs to practice the method before we go on to literary canon.

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!

Once the students have analyzed poetry and performed it, I ask them to write some. Of course, they are happier and more successful if they take another work as a model. Maya Angelou has a number of poems that make great models and I guide their writing by asking them to write poems about tangible things at first. The first poem I assign is about someone who is important to them, the second about something they like to do, and the third about the kind of person they want to be. Strangely, these were their favorite assignments of the whole year, when the time came to evaluate at the end.  They liked finding out that they “had something to say.”

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…

How do you approach poetry with your students? What poems work? What activities make poetry click? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook

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. 

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