Hook Students Through the Heartstrings With Poetry

7 Min Read
Literacy@ Work Howto Writea Poem 1

Hooked ‘em through the heartstrings is what we did before winter break. As poet Glenis Redmond says, “Tap your pen to your heart, and let it flow.” We paused for poetry. We pushed pause on the pressures of delivering the curriculum and spent some time learning more about our students and building relationships. We paused to help students see the magic inside of them. What we got in return was a lot of surprising and touching information about our students and their lives.

To frame our work, we used a lesson from the HMH Literacy@Work web series. The goal was to help students see that poetry is relevant to their everyday experiences as well as to continuing the work of growing our reading and writing community. Although the lesson plan is recommended for Grades 6–8, we had success with it at the high school level as well.

Sandra Windham, a high school teacher and co-author of this blog post, relates that she was truly in awe of her students' willingness and, most importantly, openness, with this lesson. The final products were simply amazing. Reading and sharing the poetry was emotional for many participants, and her class bonded in a way she never could have imagined. The lesson was easy, manageable, and fun. This low-stakes writing assignment culminated in high-stakes results not easily drawn from teens: risk taking, honesty, ambition.

Our classes learned about the struggles of an immigrant trying to fit into an American high school, another student’s homelessness, a sibling who had been shot due to gang violence, another student’s relationship issues, one student’s dyslexia, and whatever else students were willing to share in a supportive, low-stakes writing environment. The student authors said writing poems made them feel good because it helped to relieve stress and that poetry made them happy because it enabled them to express their true feelings.

All of the students we worked with produced something. Almost all produced a poem. Several wanted to share. Many others wanted to publish.

We got moments like this:



and slowly,


Break the cocoon

Flying, higher, higher, and higher

If you want to give this lesson a go, here are some tips:

  • Plan in advance and tweak the lesson to meet your needs or style.
  • Create a low-stakes environment.
  • Do the doing.
  • Provide plenty of time to work.
  • Use scaffolds and supports.
  • Share and celebrate.

Plan in Advance and Tweak

Prior to teaching the lesson, we read through it and thought about the students we teach. We didn’t want to scare them, so we tried to lure them into the work with some fun. Charmion Mohning, a co-author of this blog post, introduced the lesson with a turn-and-talk about what a self-portrait is. Dionna Smith, another co-author of this blog, started with some tongue twisters and some appropriate rap lyrics to introduce alliteration and assonance. We rearranged the components to fit our teaching styles and the students’ needs.

Create a Low-Stakes Environment

Writing can intimidate students because it’s personal and sometimes challenging. Something we really thought about while planning was how to make the work nonthreatening. We made sure to tell the students that we weren’t doing this work for a grade—just to get to know each other better since we have only been together as a literacy family for a few months.

We invested in felt-tip pens and let each student choose his or her magic writing wand. Some students chose to use their pens, and some chose to draft in pencil. Some even used colored pens to do creative work with paragraphing. Colored paper would be another nice touch, as would fun paper for publishing. It’s not really about the pens, paper, or the tools, though. It’s about creating a safe space for students to share a tiny slice of their identity with you.

Video: Glenis Redmond on How to Write a Poem

Do the Doing

If you expect students to write, you need to write. Part of creating that low-stakes environment is showing students your writing work. Charmion's work was messy and imperfect because writing can be messy and imperfect. She saved the first drafts of her brainstorming and poem and shared them with the barely legible handwriting, cross-outs, word choice changes, and arrows indicating rearranging. She made a more readable copy to display under the document camera.

All three of us wrote either for or with the students. What was remarkable and exciting to share with students was that all of our poems reflected who we were—an urban girl with lots of swagger, a farm kid who escaped with books, or a transformer who went from being painfully shy to teaching students to find their inner reader and writer. Check out one of Ms. Smith’s lines:

I loved to blow big beautiful bubbles

and I could pop gum so

and not even flinch

and my sister always gave a tiny little pinch—Ouch!”

Provide Plenty of Time to Work

Think about what’s most important and allocate the largest chunk of time to that task. In this case, we wanted the students to brainstorm quickly and then have plenty of time to write. The students proved that this was the correct decision. Everyone had a few things on their brainstorm lists even though we limited the time to three minutes per topic. For students who were struggling to get started, we would just walk by and chat with them. Once they had an opportunity to talk, most were able to add an idea or two to their list.

Use Scaffolds and Supports

We found the sentence starters embedded in the lesson plan invaluable to help bridge the gap from brainstorming to writing. Authors are sometimes intimidated by that blank page with no words on it and need a little jumpstart to get going. By simply saying, “Tell me more” and “Share some details about that with me,” we guided students to elaborate on the sentence starters and get the words flowing.

Share and Celebrate

We told students that they wouldn’t have to share if they didn’t wish to, but in the end, everyone either shared their writing or published it. They even shared the intensely personal details. Ms. Windham’s class "lit" a bonfire (via cellphone) and shared their stories while standing around it. Ms. Smith’s students opted to publish on special paper and have their work displayed in the classroom. No matter how you choose to publish and/or share the work, make sure you celebrate the effort and the sharing of students’ inner selves. After all, who better to tell your students’ stories than your students?

If you need that one day of respite from business as usual, desire to continue developing rapport and relationships with your students, or just want to share the relevance of writing as a tool for self-expression, try hooking your students through the heartstrings with the Literacy@Work lesson on poetry.

It might just do your heart good, too.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Learn more about the Literacy@Work web series featuring Glenis Redmond, an HMH effort to not only help students grow as readers and writers but also show them the lifelong role literacy plays in their lives.

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