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May 1, 2018

3 Poetry Exercises that Spark a Love for Language

Why teach poetry? Moreover, why facilitate poetry exercises in the classroom?

Standing amid a flood of competing to-do items, teachers face several tough choices when designing lesson plans. Common core objectives, state requirements, parent and administrative expectations—all these teacherly commitments blend into one big responsibility smoothie. The result: the Humanities often fall by the wayside.

However, a giant caveat exists.

While instilling mastery of multiplication tables remains paramount for teachers, so does molding young people toward becoming altruistic, communicative and sensitive human beings.

Enter poetry exercises.

If you just released a very audible sigh, it’s understandable. However, it’s important to remember that language remains the star ingredient in the recipe of human kindness. Inside and outside of the classroom, words matter.

How Poetry Exercises Satisfy Curriculum Objectives

The benefits of teaching poetry writing swiftly stack up: teachers can illuminate figures of speech, discuss writing techniques and show students the value of aesthetic judgement. In effect, you’re reinforcing the notion of active, deep reading where the audience engages with a text instead of merely digesting surface-level content.

In other words, we’re talking about critical thinking here.

At the same time, poetry exercises also tackle the nitty-gritty details of ELA education. Even foundational learning, such as learning the parts of speech and comma usage, often happens during these activities.

On one hand, teachers get to check several boxes that satisfy core curriculum. On the other hand, when students are able to pen their own verse, they’ll gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. Lofty as that sounds, this self-realization happens through telling their own stories or discovering the musicality of language.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that students from elementary to high school will have fun while learning.

Poetry Exercises Vol. 1: The Mad Libs Poem

Playing Mad Libs can create a silly atmosphere where filling in a few blanks leads to absurdist images (a dress made of mouse traps, for instance). You can also use Mad Libs-style lessons when teaching the reading and writing of poetry. This exercise enables you to showcase how a poem functions in terms of word choice while simultaneously reinforcing knowledge of parts of speech.

The process is simple: take any poem and remove a sizable number of adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs. It’s your choice whether you allow students to see the original poem, or reveal it after they’ve created their own poetic Mad Libs masterpieces.

Below, we have a short poem from children’s author Sallie Wolf:

“The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound”

The robin makes a laughing sound.

It makes me stop and look around

to see just what the robin sees—

fresh new leaves on twigs of trees,

a strong, high branch on which to rest,

a safe dry ledge to hold its nest.

The robin makes a laughing sound.

I stop. I always look around.

And here is what the assignment might look like.

The noun makes a(n) adjective sound.

It makes me stop and look around

to verb just what the noun sees—

two adjectives leaves on noun of trees,

two adjectives branch on which to rest,

a safe dry ledge to hold its nest.

The robin makes a(n) adjectives sound.

I stop. I always verb around.

Have your students fill in the blanks and share the results, which might look like this:

The robot makes a burping sound.

It makes me stop and look around

to eat just what the bulldozer sees—

burning, crunchy leaves on beard of trees,

crooked, tangled branch on which to rest,

a safe dry ledge to hold its nest.

The robin makes a car horn sound.

I stop. I always dance around.

If you’re teaching elementary students who struggle with identifying nouns as a person, place, thing, or idea, this exercise will help rectify that pressing issue. If you’re teaching older kids, they’ll have a good time while learning to appreciate the function of poetry.

Poetry Exercises Vol. 2: The Dare Poem

Reading is a solo activity. So is writing.

But appreciating literature often works best when it happens in a collective setting. Luckily, the Dare Poem conjures that kind of community atmosphere.

During this poetry exercise, have your students sit in a circle or separate them into even-numbered groups. Each student will create a Dare Poem challenge, a prompt in which unbreakable criteria are set for the writing. This could involve the inclusion of a certain image, the usage of selected words, a strict rhyme scheme, a pre-designed narrative scenario or any other rules the student wishes to set.

If your students need Dare Poem prompt examples (and they likely will), the poet Kelli Russel Agodon developed 30 fun, brain-stimulating writing prompts that culminate with truly creative writing.

Once students concoct their dares, the writer picks their challenge.

If former Poet Laureate Robert Hayden’s classmates had challenged him to combine two colors into one, use alliteration at least twice, include the adjective austere, and make his poem take place on the weekend, he might have written “Those Winter Sundays” during this activity.

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Poetry Exercises Vol. 3: Poem Comics

Speaking of “Those Winter Sundays”—a poem that explores that thanklessness of parenthood alongside the emotional intricacies of human relationships—here’s an animated rendering.

No one is suggesting you add the art of animation to your curriculum; however, a little drawing never hurt anyone. In creating paneled comic strips, students fully comprehend a poem’s narrative, meaning and significance. In doing so, they will ideally gain a deeper appreciation for individual pieces of literary art. Who knew crayons and stick figures had so many advanced uses?

Pass out a narrative poem to your students and read it aloud a few times. If you prefer group activities, you can assign different poems to each pod of students. Ask your students to think deeply about the story the poem tells and then have them illustrate it to ensure full comprehension.

While Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales are perhaps the most famous examples of narrative poetry, there are more modern poems that are one-page snapshots instead of book-length epics.

Take, for example, Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges.” In that story-driven poem, a young and impoverished boy takes a walk with a girl on whom he has a crush. Soto makes a point to illustrate the economic disparity between the two children—specifically, while the girl’s appearance suggests wealth, the boy holds only a nickel and two pieces of fruit in his pocket. After they enter a drugstore, the girl selects a candy that costs a dime, so the boy offers an orange to replace the money he doesn’t have.

Students will not only be able to illustrate the narrative, but they can also provide visual representation of the word choices. For instance, when the friends leave the drugstore, Soto describes the scene as, “Outside / A few cars hissing past / Fog hanging like old / Coats between the trees.”

It’s not common to describe heavy fog as an old coat, and yet the reader clearly understands and accepts the simile without reservation. When students engage with poetry through a visual lens—that is, when they are able to see a poem on the page—the metaphors spring to life.


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