Before I go any further, I want to say that I hate gender stereotyping as much as anyone. Expressions like “boys will be boys” make my blood boil. Having said that, I also know the fear that strikes the heart of an English teacher who is lesson planning poems for boys in middle or high school.
It seems that the majority of boys think that poetry is for someone else—it’s too dainty or difficult or they just can’t relate. Of course, this isn’t always the case. But from my experience, it’s definitely been harder to engage boys over the years.
I finally figured out a trick. It has to do with the TYPES of poetry you teach them. I have poems for all sorts of units and themes, but I have found that some are more appealing and popular to boys. Here are my top recommendations of poems for boys.
1. “2000 lbs” by Brian Turner
Turner is a veteran. The fact that he is alive and writing today matters to students who think poetry isn’t relevant anymore. His poem is about a bombing in an Iraqi market. It takes, as Turner says, a 360 view of the events of that day. What I most love about “2000 lbs”—and all other good works of literature—is the way that it takes what you think you know and turns it on its head.
2. “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley
This is not a subtle or very nuanced poem. It is, however, a great choice for students who tend to blame others for their lack of success, or sit back and let life happen to them, or who need a little push. The poem’s last lines, “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul” express the kind of message that students these days desperately need.
3. “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
This poem is a great choice for anyone who has to write about themselves for English class (read: every student). But it also brings up some really big questions. They might not all be answerable—about identity, race, equality, and how much we can really know another person. “Theme for English B” is also a great segue to getting students to write about their own identity. Which, if I am going to stereotype genders again, is not always so easy with boys.
4. “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke
This poem about a boy and his father is a great choice for teaching students how much can happen in a few short lines of verse. The speaker of the poem describes his father who may or may not have abused him, and their time together in the house, which he may or may not have cherished. I’ve found that one of the best ways to get students hooked on poetry is to dazzle them with amazing pieces and “My Papa’s Waltz” is a great choice for that reason.
5. “Much Madness is Divinest Sense” by Emily Dickinson
This is such a technically masterful poem that it hooks anyone who likes to think about big ideas, history, or society. Of course, I would never want to perpetuate the idea that boys aren’t interested in writing by or about women. Dickinson is, in my opinion, one of the greatest poets of all time—the fact that she wore a skirt doesn’t mean that boys won’t be fascinated by her work.
6. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
This is a classic of war poetry. It’s another piece that really wows students with its technical mastery, but also hits them on an emotional level. It’s a brutal portrayal of British soldiers attacked by chlorine gas and a challenging poem. Students who enjoy unraveling the puzzle of a great poem really like this one.
7. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman
This poem is a great choice for any students who would rather be outside experiencing life than inside listening to someone lecture at them. I want my students to feel that they are ultimately the ones who are responsible for their own education, and this poem is a great choice for spurring discussions on how we learn.
8. “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes
In many ways, this is the perfect poem for today. The ambiguity, hope, anger, and sadness of the speaker when he talks about the struggles that he has witnessed in this country feel super relevant, even though he is describing situations almost 100 years old. I’d recommend just about any Langston Hughes poem for teaching high school kids, but this one is one of my favorites.
9. “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden
This is about a man looking back on his rough childhood and his father who expressed love in indirect ways. A poem about the difficulty of communicating and showing love is a great choice for those boys who attempt to conceal their feelings by hiding behind vague gestures.
I have a special place in my heart for the boy who comes into English class, slumps down in his chair, and proclaims with every inch of his being that he hates literature and everything related to it. I guess I like a challenge. But when I can get that same kid excited about discussing a poem that I love, then I really know I’ve accomplished something.