There are so many approaches to teaching poetry! While poetry is an excellent way to tap into students’ critical thinking skills, I know my students’ eyes glaze over the second they see those verses. How do you teach poetry analysis without overwhelming or boring students to death? After years of puzzling through this, I have an answer: use poetry analysis as a daily warm-up!
I’ve tried in the past to teach iambic pentameter to students during Shakespeare units. I’ve also tried to explain how to mark rhyme schemes.
We’ve taken notes on literary terms. My students have been tested and quizzed.
It just never stuck. Worse, they seemed bored, which made me feel totally over it.
But we all know how great poetry can be–not only as an entertaining art form but as a way to get kids thinking critically.
(I mean, all of E. E. Cummings is basically a brain teaser, right?)
I wanted to expose them to a variety of mentor texts so that they could learn and be inspired by the greats.
But I also knew that there was no way my students were going to sit through day after day of poetry analysis. Especially since I planned on teaching all this poetry during what was meant to be a fun Creative Writing elective.
That’s how I came up with my Poem of the Week activities!
The idea is to introduce students to just one poem a week. Each day, Monday through Friday, we examine just one piece of the poem. That could mean summarizing a stanza, analyzing tone, or marking the rhyme scheme.
By the end of the week, students have annotated the poem, analyzed it, and don’t feel overwhelmed because they’re just answering a question a day.
(If you want to skip the leg work, you can purchase all of my Poem of the Week activities here!)
Step One: Decide On The Purpose of Your Poetry Bell Ringers
Before you go looking for poems, it’s helpful to know what you want students to get from them.
Do you want students to be able to identify and analyze figurative language?
Is comprehension–the ability to puzzle out a poem’s bigger meaning–more important to you?
Are you more interested in using them as mentor texts and having students “try on” the different styles and voices of the masters?
Knowing what you want to work on with students will greatly inform your poem choices.
When I created my Poem of the Weeks, I knew I wanted students to pay attention to form and imagery. These were concrete skills that I felt my students could immediately understand and master.
Later, when we started working on more abstract skills like voice, I’d be able to come back and use these poems as examples.
It was also important to me that I introduce students to a wide range of voices, if possible.
I did stick to public domain poetry, which limited my choices quite a bit. But I was able to find a good mix of black and white and male and female poets for my students to read.
I also chose a mix of structured and unstructured poetry. I wanted my students to see how varying poetry can be.
Whatever skills or purpose you choose, it will be the guiding principle for your poem choices.
Step Two: Decide on Your Timeline
How long do you want to spend on a single poem? Will it be consistent or different for each one?
Will you be using these warm-ups for a unit? A quarter? A whole year?
You should have a rough idea of how many poems you want to cover.
When I first began using poetry as warm-ups, I was doing it for a 9-week Creative Writing course. I wanted to expose students to as many mentor texts as possible, but I couldn’t resist sharpening up those literary analysis skills at the same time.
I decided to do one Poem of the Week, which meant I’d need at least 9 poems. Knowing how many you’ll need should help you focus when it comes to choosing the texts themselves.
Step Three: Choose Poems to Analyze
We’re fighting against the attention spans of teenagers here, so you’re going to want to choose poems to analyze that are short and don’t require too much background vocabulary.
Aim for poems that are less than a page long. I find any longer and we start creeping into “overwhelm” territory.
If you want to introduce your students to longer works, at least let them get some shorter poems under their belts first. Once they have some quick wins, they might be more apt to attempt longer poems.
I also recommend choosing poems with relatively simple diction. This doesn’t mean the poems have to be simple, but the individual words should be.
If students don’t understand the individual words, they’re out.
I like to start with Robert Frost because there are no surprises. His work is exactly as students expect it to be. The word choice is relatively simple, there’s a pleasant rhyme, and it requires some deep thinking to understand without being impossible.
I also love to throw some E. E. Cummings in front of them. The words themselves are simple, but at first glance, they have no clue what’s going on! I think my students surprised themselves when they were able to analyze “Buffalo Bill’s” after a few weeks of poetry study.
Step Four: Break the Poems Down
This is the hard part. Certain poems lend themselves to some bite-sized lessons more readily than others.
A free verse poem, for example, will not be a great way to teach the different kinds of rhymes. So some of this will be intuitive.
For other poems, there may be so much to talk about, that it’s hard to choose only five tiny features to analyze.
In the end, when I had to make a choice about which skills or literary elements to analyze, I always opted for whatever step I thought would help my students comprehend the overall poem the most.
You may decide to follow a certain poetry analysis structure like TP-CASTT. If this is a structure you and your school use, then great!
For me, it’s not a model I’m terribly familiar with, and I really wanted to stick to the one-step-a-day for the week idea, so I cherry-picked elements to analyze based on the individual poems.
However you structure your activity, aim for the daily exercise to take no longer than five minutes. Remember, the goal is frequent, daily practice that doesn’t overwhelm students.
I created worksheets for all of my Poem of the Week activities. That way students could annotate and answer questions all on one sheet.
Alternatively, you could pass out the text and have students respond on a separate piece of paper.
You could also give students a small annotation task every day. Monday maybe you circle and define unknown words. Tuesday perhaps students underline figurative language. Wednesday students could mark the rhyme scheme or meter. And so on.
The great thing about using poetry as your daily warm-up is that it’s totally customizable. Do what works for you and your students!
The steps, questions, or tasks that you assign for each bell ringer, however, should guide students through reading the poem–not quiz them on it.
You may want to start broad: break down the form/rhyme scheme/meter, identify the thematic ideas, understand the historical context, etc.
Then, ask students to go deeper: why did the author allude to this or that work, why did the poet choose this word over another, and so on.
With your poetry analysis warm-ups, begin broadly and then go deep.
Step Five: Have Fun with Poetry!
It’s almost cruel to expose students to so much poetry without letting them create any of their own!
Because I specifically meant for my Poem of the Week activities to serve as mentor texts, I created a creative writing assignment to go with each weekly warm-up.
Each Write Your Own poem activity asks students to create their own poem using the studied poem as a mentor. This could mean writing around the same subject, using the same rhyme scheme, trying the same poem type–it all depends on the poem we study that week.
(All of these Write Your Own activities are included with their corresponding Poem of the Week activities!)
Your fun poetry activities don’t have to be so elaborate though.
If you’re short on time, you could simply introduce students to Haikus or have them write a poem about themselves.
If you’re looking for hands-on fun, try black out and found poetry.
At the end of the class, you could even cut up all the poetry bell ringers students have analyzed, and have them combine and rearrange the lines into new poems!
With poetry and creative writing, there are endless opportunities for fun.
Step Six: Include Poetry Analysis in Your Summative Assessments
Whether you’re using poetry warm-ups for a unit, a year, or an elective, I recommend incorporating the poetry into a summative assessment. After all, five minutes of practice a day really adds up, and students should be able to show off their skills.
This can easily be done by giving them a full poem as a test or part of a test.
(In my Poem of the Week bundle I’ve included ten poetry bell ringers. You could use nine during a nine-week quarter and administer the tenth as a test.)
You could include some of the same skills that you’ve taught on your course final.
If you’re more project-based and less test-oriented, a fun idea is to have students create their own Poem of the Week!
I’ve included some directions, a rubric, and a template in my Poem of the Week bundle, but you could DIY your own. The idea is that after students have spent weeks practicing poetry analysis with daily tasks or weekly worksheets, they should come up with their own!
This is a great way to offer some choice and differentiation for students. It’s also a way to expose students to more modern and diverse author voices. Plus, you can keep the best ones to use as warm-ups for the next semester or year!
Students would choose a short poem from an author they enjoy. Then, they would carry out the same steps you did to create the warm-up. They’d have to analyze the poem for themselves first, then reverse engineer directions to guide others to their interpretation.
Nothing reinforces a skill like having to teach it!
I have seen amazing growth in my students’ abilities to analyze a poem since implementing my Poem of the Week activities. And personally, I love knowing that I have an entire quarter’s worth of bell ringers AND follow-up activities ready to go.
There is a substantial amount of prep time involved, however.
If you’d like to save yourself a lot of precious time (I spent months working on mine!), have some creative writing extension activities, and get access to a project in which students create their own poetry worksheet, I highly recommend you purchase my Poem of the Week bundle.
Inside is ten weeks’ worth of poetry bell ringers and writing activities, with corresponding slideshows of author background information and analysis answers.