Poetry Lesson Plans: Teaching Literary Devices, History and Culture

Poetry is one of our most important forms of art and expression. Teaching poetry in schools allows students to understand different points of view and emotions. It plays a pivotal role in connecting students to their feelings at deeper levels while helping them become more empathetic and accepting. Poetry is also a reflection of cultural and societal norms, making it a great way to teach the nuances of history. To make sure your students reap the many benefits of studying verse, these poetry lesson plans can help.

Note: Many of these lesson plans are easily adapted to remote learning situations.

Poetry Games and Activities

Students may have different responses to learning poetry, including boredom to frustration. To help students feel enthusiastic about poetry, start with a game or activity that feels approachable and fun. 

Black out poetry is an activity that middle school ELA teacher Emily Aierstok uses. Rearrange slips of text with words and phrases on them to create a new poem. This activity is fun because there isn’t a lot of pressure to create something perfect, and students can feel playful and let their creative ideas flow without expectation.

For students kindergarten through grade two, consider the “Shapes and Poetry” lesson plan, featured by the National Education Association. Students read the story “Shapes” by Shel Silverstein. Then, they use shapes to create pictures that illustrate the ideas featured in the poems. Another idea is a “Bear of a Poem,” where students work together to create a collective class poem which they then perform.

To add a gamification element to poetry, consider a figurative language game. Teacher blogger and instructional coach Meredith Dobbs plays “Truth or Dare Figurative Language Style, a game for students in grades 7 through 10. She says it encourages her students to “view poetry and figurative language as fun, enticing, and thoughtful.” Dobbs also points out that the game helps them become more confident at closely reading a passage and analyzing literary devices used.

After introducing your classroom to poetry, middle and high school students can benefit from engaging activities designed to teach literary elements, like tone of voice, syntax and speed. Poetry Out Loud has activities that inspire both creative writing in general and poetry specifically. One involves close reading, teaching students how to determine points of emphasis in a poem. Another teaches them about the importance of line breaks in poetry, including how they inform the meaning of a poem and create a certain mood throughout.

poetry lesson plans

Poetry, History and Culture

From history to sociology, poetry is a strong compliment to many other subjects. Poets.org has a number of lesson plans for incorporating history lessons into poetry. These subjects include the Vietnam war, the immigrant experience and Native American history. 

The Vietnam war history lesson plan incorporates historical archives, such as photographs, along with poetry in order to anchor the stories and related themes. The goal of the unit is to allow students to “explore multiple perspectives on the war and its consequences for those it affected directly.”

Another history idea comes from former teacher Elizabeth O’Brien, founder of Grammar Revolution. She showcases how a poem about Christopher Columbus can be used as a starting point for learning about the Pilgrims and their experience. She offers a step-by-step lesson plan, which starts with imagining the time period. Ask your students questions: What was it like in the age before cars and cellphones? Once they can envision the setting, they can better understand the struggles and emotions of the explorers and their journey.

After reading the poem and identifying words and vocabulary, students engage in a discussion about what the explorers were feeling and the words that best describe the people in the story and their emotions.

To teach students about African American history and civil rights, the poem “Alabama Centennial” can be combined with an informational presentation assignment where students demonstrate their knowledge. KET Education offers a lesson plan for grades 9-12 that includes important vocabulary students should glean from the poem, plus instructional and viewing activities. It can be combined with lessons in social studies, as well as cross-disciplinary lessons in writing, analysis, performance and spoken word poetry.

Poetry is also a great way to learn about different cultures. ELA teacher Keith Schoh points out how a poetry can teach about Islam, for example with the book “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors” by Hena Khan. This book focuses on showing young readers the colors and traditions of Islam through simple rhyme. These definitions and terms offer detailed imagery and illustrations to immerse students in a new culture. 

poetry lesson plans

Poetry Prompts

Using prompts is a great way to inspire the creative thinking that poetry requires. A simple, yet effective poetry prompt idea is to use visual imagery. Teacher blogger Melissa Kruse says picture books, cartoon strips and photos are a great place to start. She points out that social media snippets can inspire students to write poetry. Whether it’s a tweet or forwarded quote, these help students see how poetry can relate to modern technological communication.

Reading and comparing the styles of other poets is a great way to understand literary elements — and how to use them. “Poetry can teach writing and grammar conventions by showing what happens when poets strip them away or pervert them for effect. Dickinson often capitalizes common nouns and uses dashes instead of commas to note sudden shifts in focus. Agee uses colons to create dramatic, speech-like pauses,” explains high school English teacher Andrew Simmons. Teachers can use these examples to explain how run-on sentences or clichés weaken writing.

Kelly Treleaven, author of “Love, Teach,” has some ideas for boosting the success of prompts in your classroom. “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,” she writes.

One prompt she uses is to start every line in a poem with the same three words. This activity teaches about using repetition to reinforce meaning and create rhythm. Another prompt is to write a six-word poem where you can fit in as much meaning as possible. This is a challenge to understand the weight and meaning of words, and how to make a micro-poem significant.

Celebrating national poetry month in April is a great jumping-off point for incorporating poetry prompts into the classroom regularly. The National Council for Teachers of English at Read Write Think offers a number of ideas for celebrating poetry month. These include poetry lesson plans on theme poems, poetic devices, haiku, spoken-word poetry and prose. There are interactive worksheets and poems teachers can download and use in the classroom too.

Images by: Bruce Mars, Thought Catalog, Fox  

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