Poetry For Our Time

Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason. -Novalis

Teaching Poetry: The High School Version

with 10 comments

The poetry I will post this week is not written by me, but was brought about by me, so I think that counts. 🙂

First, the story:
Teaching high school students poetry can be a daunting task.  Most teachers hate doing it, partly because they hated poetry themselves in high school and college, and partly because they know off the bat that most students don’t delight in language the way we English majors do.  For two years, I taught “basic” English 1 (I put that in quotes because the students I encounter should never have been put in a basic English class, they are wonderfully intelligent if you can tap into what makes them tick and play from that), and this year I was assigned an English 1 GAP class, which was comprised of students who had been at the school for two years, but had failed English 1 previously.  With my students before this, I always had an easy time with poetry.  Our curriculum was a little looser at my old school, so I could pick and choose the poems I wanted and teach that way.  Here, it was a little bit different, so we got off on the wrong foot, focusing more on terms they would need for the test than the lovely language and “real life” situations one encounters with poetry.

Encountering much boredom and apathy from my students in learning terms they all probably knew from the year before, I changed my plan and started teaching poetry I liked: “Hanging Fire” by Audre Lorde, “The Fury of Overshoes” by Anne Sexton, “love poem” by Linda Pastan, “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, etc.  The kids were enthralled.

So, the other  day was a half day, and my students were particularly riled up, so I decided to scrap the poem I had planned to teach, and to try some of Dr. Theune’s pedagogy in a fun, in-class activity.

Second, the process:
I had to alter the process from Dr. Theune’s a little bit, because I find high school students do better with REALLY concrete directions, and they create better poems with shorter lines because it is easier for them to focus on fewer words.  So, first, we did the Exquisite Corpse activity.  For those of you who are not familiar: Exquisite Corpse is a Surrealist parlor game that explores unexpected combinations of words into a sentence.  This is also a great excuse for a grammar lesson.  On the board, I wrote: The exquisite corpse drank the blood red wine.  We briefly discussed subject and predicate, along with the parts of speech present: article, adjective, noun, verb, article, adjective, noun.  We also discussed “good” adjectives and “good” nouns – ones that will be amusing or complex in any situation.  I’ll spare you the whole grammar lesson.

Then, I asked them to each write  a subject in the format: article, adjective, noun.  Then, they folded their paper up so no one could see what they wrote, and switched with someone else in the room.  Without peeking, they needed to write a predicate in the format: verb, article, adjective, noun.  Then, they could look at the whole sentence.  After a few rounds, we had a great discussion about what words are powerful no matter what you pair it with, so we moved to the next step.

I asked them to each write a subject on one piece of paper and a predicate on another piece of paper.  They folded them up, and put the subjects in one box and the predicates in another box.  We shook them up and had two students randomly draw papers from the boxes.  What we ended up with was language that delighted the students, and poetry that they could take ownership of, as well as really good adjectives and nouns. 🙂

Third, the results:

I saw a bully
eat a green potato chip

The crusty feet
chased the mischievous kids

The hairy mouse
smelled like Fritos

The smelly bear
eats fingernails for a living

The wild zebra
sat on the baby head

The crusty toed biker
ate the ugly duck

The fat cow
ran from the fish

The pastor’s wife
goes to play with her smelly dolls

The ugly-haired person
ate next to me

The angry old man
makes me happy

The musty man
ate up the furry cat

The president of the USA
cried like a little girl

The jumping cat
ate the celery-green piece of bread


Written by Ashley

April 18, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Posted in Poem

10 Responses

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  1. haha my favorite was 10.


    April 18, 2009 at 9:25 pm

  2. i like #1 best


    April 19, 2009 at 1:38 am

  3. “8.
    The pastor’s wife
    goes to play with her smelly dolls”

    That is hilarious. And very vivid. Nicely done, Ash.


    April 19, 2009 at 11:11 pm

  4. I think my faves are 4, 8, and 12. Awesome work!

    Molly M M

    April 20, 2009 at 12:03 am

  5. Terrific work by your students, Ashley. Nice ironic structures in 1 and 10, but of course so many of the others work for other reasons.

    And terrific work by you, Ashley. Very smart, I think, to adapt the general lesson to your specific class. That’s some good pedagogy!

    Dr. Theune (aka Mike)

    Mike Theune

    April 20, 2009 at 4:14 am

  6. Aw, shucks, guys! I’m almost as proud as if these were my own poems. Glad you enjoyed them!


    April 20, 2009 at 11:43 am

  7. Very interesting article and many ways to look at this subject. Many are closed in their thoughts and need to open up a little.

    Robert Shaw

    April 28, 2009 at 5:17 am

    • Thanks for the comment!

      While I don’t think the teaching of classic poetry should be abandoned, I do think it is important to open students up to the ways language can delight and expand one’s way of thinking about the world – especially when students are young.


      April 29, 2009 at 1:11 pm

  8. Hi, interesting post. I have been thinking about this topic,so thanks for sharing. I’ll definitely be subscribing to your blog.

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