I’m obsessed with a lot of things as a teacher. My otter tape dispenser. Outperforming my students on any and every school-wide dress-up day. My carefully-curated Spotify playlist of wordless songs designed to elicit minimal student commentary (things like, “Miss, this song sounds haunted.”).
But these hardly hold a candle to my obsession with getting my students to love reading and writing poetry.
I teach poetry the way you might teach a child to swim: in stages. You certainly don’t throw them in, stand back, and hope they love swimming. First, there’s the dipping of toes. Then floating. Then the doggy paddle, etc., until they can face water with excitement and confidence instead of knee-knocking and cries of “I CAN’T DO THIS I WILL DROWN.”
It’s very similar with poetry. We start by reading and talking about some of my favorite poems from across all different genres. Then I have them write just one line a day, which goes into a journal that only I read. Gradually we build up to writing a few whole poems a week until we reach the end of the unit, which is a class-long poetry gallery. Each student chooses the poem they’re most proud of and hangs it up around them room, we do a walk around the classroom and leave kind notes to each other, and I let them bring fancy snacks* so we can pretend it’s a real gallery opening (do they even have hors d’oeuvres at gallery openings? I wouldn’t know). Obviously it’s a blast, and obviously I participate in bringing and eating fancy snacks for myself that day.
The trickiest part of designing this unit is, in my opinion, finding poetry prompts that will get students writing. They have to be something that will challenge students at every ability level, but won’t be too tough for anyone to at least get started. I’ve compiled 11 of my favorite poetry prompts and put them in the order I would use in the classroom.
A few things about these prompts you may find helpful:
- Allow your students to work on their poems at home before turning them in or sharing. Very few kids can produce a poem they’re proud of or would be willing to eventually read out loud when there’s a ticking clock in front of them.
- Give exclusively positive feedback on the first couple of poems. I totally get that you will have reluctant writers, but it’s worth mentioning that if you give super-positive feedback on even the smallest part of the first 2-3 poems they turn in (things like “Holy cow! I LOVE this line!” or “WHY DID YOU NOT SECRETLY TELL ME YOU ARE A POET SUPERSTAR”), you will find that you can wrangle in even some of your biggest poetry-haters.
- It can be helpful for some students to see an example for the prompt you choose or to write one first as a class. For other students, they may want to work it out themselves after a brief class discussion. Figure out what works best for you and your poets, but be aware that these might not work as “throw ‘em up on the board and set a timer” type prompts the first couple of times.
- If you don’t have time for poetry with the whole class, this list works really well as an extension activity for students who need a challenge.
Here are the poetry prompts I use with my students:
1. Write a poem with at least 8 lines in which every line starts with the same three words: “You told me…” Notice how the repetition can create rhythm and reinforce meaning.
2. Write a poem that uses three of these six random words from this online word generator (http://www.textfixer.com/tools/random-words.php).
3. The shortest “book” ever written is said to be a six-word sentence: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Write a six-word poem that carries the most meaning you can fit in it.
4. Write an ode to an object you love. An ode is a poem that is typically short and lyrical. Your ode can be about something meaningful and symbolic, like a piece of jewelry or a book you cherish, or it can be about something less traditional like socks or French fries. (Check out Pablo Neruda’s work—he wrote odes to both!)
5. Write an etheree poem. An etheree poem has 10 lines. The first has one syllable, the second has two, and so on, all the way up to ten.
6. Finish the sentence, “At that moment, the whole world seemed to fit in a ___.” Finish the sentence, and use that sentence somewhere in a poem.
7. Read e.e. cummings’s poem “l(a” or “a leaf falls on loneliness.” Write a similar poem in which you take a sentence or a phrase and make the visual elements of that poem (line spacing, capitalization, punctuation, etc.) complement or match the content of the poem itself. (These are called concrete poems, FYI.)
8. Write a poem about a sound you grew up hearing. (ex: the whirr of a fishing reel, the snap of a newspaper opening, a cuckoo clock, etc.)
9. Write a ballad about something that made you sad, either recently or as a child. (Typically ballads are narrative poems and have the rhyme scheme ABAB.)
10. Write a poem that uses math to explain a feeling or emotion. Maybe it’s a love poem with a line like “2 – 1 = 0,” or maybe it’s a poem called “How to Find the Area of ___.” Could triangles be used to explain a feeling? What about slopes or square roots?
11. Write a poem about something that is “broken” but not in the normal sense of the word. Maybe it’s a dead moth you found on the ground, a bud that didn’t bloom like the rest of the flowers around it, a store in your neighborhood that closed down, or a person who is considered an outcast. Explore what makes this object broken and whether or not it is reparable.
Do you have a favorite poetry prompt you like to use with your students? Share it in the comment section! Also, if you want more prompts, check out an additional list of 20 prompts I have available here on Teachers Pay Teachers! There are probably typos on it. Sorry in advance.
*My school allows kids to bring their own snacks as long as they don’t share with others or bring peanuts, but check with your campus to make sure you’re not violating HHKA.