Teaching Students to Write a Poem

One of the most difficult areas in teaching students to write is getting them to write poetry.  Actually, I don’t think it’s possible to teach someone to write a poem.  There is no magic formula.  It is possible, however, to help students improve their poems.  It’s always a challenge to begin a poem.  For me, I have to have an image or a specific line that comes to me at a moment when I am not trying to write, many times in the middle of the night or early in the morning.  For students, an assignment to write a poem usually ends up being time spent staring at a blank page or looking around the room to see what other students are doing.  Only a few students in each class can write poetry easily.

In the beginning of every year, I started my seventh grade students off with a simple poetry assignment–a list poem.  The challenge in this assignment is to get students to go beyond the initial list of things to creating lines that resemble poetry.  They tend to write something resembling a grocery list.   First I had them make a list of things they liked.  It could be a mixture of serious and funny things.  Then I had them add adjectives and prepositional phrases to the lines.  For example, if one item on the list was “snowboarding,” they could revise the line to say “snowboarding in the silence of an early morning snow.”  Then they needed to work on the arrangement of the lines.  I had them group similar items together, choose a line for the beginning,  and then find the one line that said the most, the one they connected to the most, the one that seemed to be the culmination of the entire list.  That was the last line.

This assignment usually is fun for students.  I always shared with them my own list before they began to write.   I showed them my first list, then a revision, and finally my final draft so they could see the process involved.  Then they worked on their own list poem and at the end of the class I asked for volunteers to share their lists.  Usually students do not want to share their writing, but this assignment offers many students the chance to read their poems in an nonthreatening environment because they haven’t had to rhyme or work on rhythm or create some flowery images.  It’s just a list of their personal favorites, and it’s fun for them to read them.

Here is a draft of one of my own list poems so you can see how it works:

What I Love

Powerful ocean waves
the cries of seagulls
the sunrise over the lake
foggy mornings
falling leaves that swirl in the wind
chickadees and nuthatches at the bird feeder
squirrels chasing each other in the woods
the first snowflakes of winter
white Christmas lights and cheery music
stained glass windows in church
the church bells chiming on Sunday morning
my Aussie greeting me when I come home
my cat purring softly next to me
the warmth of a fleece blanket on a cold winter night
the sound of my granddaughter crying.

I rearranged this list many times.  I first tried to capture all five senses.  (Encourage students to try to connect to what they see, taste, hear, smell, and touch.)  I found that I could arrange my list somewhat in order of the seasons–summer, fall, winter.  I went from being outside to the coziness of inside.  The last line was a problem for me at first, but when I connected to the sound of my new granddaughter, it became obvious to me that that line was the strongest.

As you can see, the poem is not meant to be one that other readers will necessarily connect to.  I think a good poem should point out to the reader something new or get the reader to feel something he didn’t feel before, something that doesn’t usually happen here because the poem is so personal, but this exercise can free students from the fear of writing a poem.  It’s fun, and it also gives the teacher some insight into the personalities of  her students.  I hope you will try this yourself and with your students!

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