Hear us out. Teaching contemporary poetry opens pathways that lead students to increased empathy and appreciation for humankind. Yes, that sentiment sounds a bit idealistic, but we swear on Walt Whitman’s grave that the promise of this statement proves true.
To pull off this most transformative mission — or if you simply want to add some color to your ELA lessons — check out these classroom activities for teaching contemporary poetry.
Contemporary Poetry: Defining the Purpose
To begin, let’s prepare for one particularly infamous student question: “Why do we need to learn this?”
Defining the function and importance of poetry means that your students will absorb the material in a more meaningful and sustaining way. The trouble is, so much writing on this subject exists that the definition has grown more and more nebulous. For instance, Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote that “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.” (And here we thought our opening remarks seemed fanciful.)
We’re not so bold as to disagree with the literary wizard who penned “Ozymandias.” However, in our classroom experience, we find that it helps to define poetry by discussing the nuances between literary genres.
In our minds, nonfiction authors seek the truth, no matter how ugly or strange those facts turn out to be. On the other hand, fiction writers build characters and environments in an effort to understand the world or otherwise escape from it. These objectives are, no question, noble endeavors worth exploring in the classroom.
But poets? That zany gaggle aims to celebrate language in their writing: what words mean, how words sound, and why words matter. When contemporary poets scribble verses, their chief mission centers on finding not only the music in language but also the humanity behind it. These works tell stories and aim to manufacture beauty at the same time.
That said, let’s get to writing contemporary poetry in the K-12 classroom, shall we?
Group and Individual Chapbooks
A chapbook offers a smaller sample of poems, sometimes with a unifying theme or narrative thread. In literary circles, these slender volumes clock in at around 20 pages, but this contemporary poetry activity remains malleable.
In having kids create such a project — either in a group setting or as individuals — they will understand how poems fit together in a sequence. In book form, even a short one, the poems serve as integral parts of a larger and purposefully cohesive system. The organization might tie together one storytelling arc, tackle one particular subject, or take place in the same setting.
If you’re not diving into writing, you can collect other poems and ask students to organize them in a logical way. To that end, this endeavor will increase engagement with the pieces because students must determine how multiple writings fit under a thematic, narrative, or emotional umbrella.
Creating a class anthology provides another iteration of this editorial project. Working as an end-of-semester or end-of-unit project for all grade levels, a collected volume of students’ writing will function as an artifact that everyone will treasure for years. Plus, if kids continue pursuing the craft, imagine their delight when they look back at where they started.
Poetry Mad Libs
Who doesn’t love Mad Libs? Only the sourest of grouches fail to see the joy in creating such literary delights.
As far as poetic Mad Libs in the classroom are concerned, the process is suspiciously easy: Take any poem, and remove a number of adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs. Have your students fill in their own language for the part of speech you have listed.
Below, we have a “Mad-Libified” poem manipulated from work by children’s writer Sallie Wolf.
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,
a two adjectives branch on which to rest,
a safe dry ledge to hold its nest.
The robin makes a(n) adjective 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 gassy sound.
It makes me stop and look around
to eat just what the bulldozer sees—
burning, crunchy leaves on beard of trees,
a crooked, tangled branch on which to rest,
a safe dry ledge to hold its nest.
The robin makes a noisy sound.
I stop. I always dance around.
Oh, and by the way, when you complete this classroom activity, you’re also teaching parts of speech. Nothing wrong with a little pragmatism, right?
Contemporary Poetry Comics
Narrative poetry tells stories rich with imagery and candor that explores the complexities of the human experience. This feature enables students to create comic strips or drawings from poems. (Spider-Man, eat your heart out.)
Pass out a narrative poem to your students, and read it aloud a few times. Ask your students to consider the narrative of the poem and how it moves from one point to another, and then have them illustrate that story. If you prefer group activities, you can assign a different poem to each cluster of students.
Here is a selection of narrative poems we think will make this classroom activity work seamlessly:
- “The Black Santa” by Allison Joseph
- “Oranges” by Gary Soto
- “Fear and Fame” by Philip Levine
- “Insect Life of Florida” by Lynda Hull
- “The Last Time I Took My Son to the Movies” by Tom C. Hunley
- “Kentucky Rose” by Sarah McCartt-Jackson
- “Bear” by Andrew McSorley
- “Book of Disclosures” by Mary Biddinger
And if you’re wondering what the finished product might look like, here are some poems adapted to comic form:
- “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelly
- “Ithaka” by Constantine P. Cavafy
- “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou
Looking for books with dozens of poetry exercises? Here’s a sample of poetry pedagogy books we’ve found particularly helpful.
The Poetry Gymnasium, by Tom C. Hunley
This book, in its most recent edition, contains 110 poetry-writing exercises that will spark your students’ imaginations, facilitate the writing process, and end with a working draft. Including finished student examples, each classroom activity comes with specific learning objective. In addition, students will encounter contemporary poems from Dean Young, Denise Duhamel, Jeannine Hall Gailey, and Allison Joseph, among many other fine writers.
The Poet’s Companion, by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
This book is a collection of short and directive essays that explain writing techniques and give suggestions for subject matter to explore. Each of these sections ends with writing exercises that your students can complete in class. Some of these classroom activities include writing parodies of existing work and using domestic activities as a framing device for larger philosophical concerns.
Rose, Where Did You Get that Red?, by Kenneth Koch
Where other titles might require pedagogical editing for content and academic level, Kenneth Koch wrote his book specifically for teaching younger students. The book contains poems by William Blake, John Donne, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Federico Garcia Lorca.