Teaching Poetry in Middle School

Instructor: Alicia Taylor

Alicia has taught students of all ages and has a master's degree in Education

With a little exposure to some humorous verses, middle school students will discover how much there is to love about poetry. Helping them develop an interest in poetry will lead to better comprehension in lessons about poetic techniques.

Middle Schoolers Love Poetry (They Just Don't Know It Yet)

If there is anything that can truly be said of middle schoolers, it is that they have a lot of feelings. They have anxieties about what others will think about them. They have crushes of other kids in class. And, what humor!

Between middle schoolers' many emotions and their love for laughter, poetry can easily become their favorite subject. There are plenty of ways to teach poetry in middle school, but the important thing is to prove to them that they can love it.

Funny Poems

First, start with some poems that will help your students realize poetry isn't so bad, after all. First, try printing copies of ''The Walrus and the Carpenter'' by Lewis Carroll for your students.

Tell them it is supposed to be a funny poem. It's important to say so, because middle school students can be very unsure about social expectations. They usually don't expect to laugh at literature.

Read the first few lines aloud. Be dramatic and emphasize the funny parts. Furrow your brow in confusion when you read that ''The sun was shining on the sea / ... / and this was odd because it was the middle of the night.''

Students enjoy funny poems, like the Walrus and the Carpenter.
The Walrus and the Carpenter

Class Participation

Do you have a class ''ham'' who loves to perform? Ask him or her to read the next stanza. This gives you a chance to teach the class that a stanza is like a paragraph in a poem. It's one chunk of lines separated from the other stanzas by a blank line. Challenge the reader to make the lines as funny as possible as they read.

After this reader, you can appeal to the sense of competition by asking, ''Does anyone think they can make the next stanza even funnier?'' Continue through the whole poem like this. (Remind students to keep the reading appropriate.)

Do They Love Poetry Yet?

Hopefully, this exercise has drawn the students in and shown them that poetry isn't boring. If your class has too many shy students for this exercise, try having them read aloud in small groups.

Some other funny poems include:

  • ''The Cremation of Sam McGee'' by Robert W. Service
  • ''A Nightmare'' by W. S. Gilbert.
  • ''Jabberwocky'' by Lewis Carroll
  • ''Macavity, The Mystery Cat'' by T. S. Eliot
  • ''The Song of Quoodle'' by G. K. Chesterton

You can do the same exercise with a few different poems, or you can spend a few days just going through one. But the heart of the exercise is this: make sure your students realize that poetry is fun and interesting. Once you have them hooked, they will give you more effort and more focus.

''I Like Poems When They... ''

The next step is to get them thinking about what the poets are doing. At this point, your class can create a poetry toolbox. The poetry toolbox is a list of various techniques the students have recognized in poems they like. This is based on a technique described by Katie Wood Ray in Wondrous Words.

The first step in making your toolbox is drawing two columns on the board. One should be labeled ''Tools'' and the other ''Examples. ''

To create a poetry toolbox, have every student choose his or her favorite line (or pair of lines) from the poem. Tell them all to write down what the poet does in that line. Is it a surprising rhyme? An animal described like a person? The same letter at the beginning of every word?

You may want to model this exercise before your students begin. To model the action for the student, think out loud as you do the task on the board. You might say, ''My favorite line is 'If seven maids with seven mops....' I like it because the carpenter starts crying. That's funny because it's a wacky emotional response.'' Write ''wacky emotional response'' on the board under ''Tools'' and the poem's line on the board under ''Examples''

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