Activities & Lessons
What comes to mind when you think of poetry? Stage actors reciting dramatic sonnets? Beat poets driving cultural change? Musicians singing your favorite lyrics?
National Poetry Month is celebrated in April each year and is an opportune time to explore this writing style more in-depth with your middle or high school students. With the following poetry month activities and lesson plans, broaden your students' understanding of what poetry is and how it is written.
National Poetry Month Lesson Plans and Ideas
Write a Self-Portrait Poem
There is no better way to get into the spirit of National Poetry Month than writing a poem. In the following video, poet and teaching artist Glenis Redmond instructs students on how to write a self-portrait poem using alliteration, assonance, and anaphora.
The accompanying “How to Write a Poem” activity breaks down the writing process to help students construct a self-portrait of their own. It will help to have students watch the video above before completing the following activity.
Slam Poetry Presentation
Inspired by the beat poets of the 1950s, spoken word poetry, or slam poetry, allows students to find their voice without the usual constraints like rhyme and syllable count. Written for a live performance, slam poetry is primarily concerned with rhythm and subject matter. Slam poets use the medium to explore ideas that they are passionate about and the emotions that they evoke.
Have your students watch some examples of slam poetry in order to get a better idea of what it entails. Then, have them each write a slam poem about a subject that they feel strongly about before presenting it to the class or to a smaller group. Give them time to practice their line delivery before their presentations.
Create a Nursery Rhyme
Poetry doesn’t have to be about serious subject matter. In fact, your students were in all likelihood introduced to poetry at a young age when they were learning nursery rhymes.
Challenge your students as a group to recall the nursery rhymes that they grew up with, and list them out for the class. Next, have each student select their favorite and identify the rhyme scheme. For example, the poem "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" by Jane Taylor follows a AABB CCDD rhyme scheme.
Once students have identified the rhyme scheme, encourage them to write their own nursery rhyme using this same pattern.
Write a Haiku Series
Sometimes less is more. A haiku is a Japanese form of poetry that is only three lines long. It follows a 5/7/5 syllable pattern, where the first and last lines are 5 syllables, and the second is 7 syllables. While these poems don’t often rhyme, they are a lesson in making every word count.
Syllable counts may differ, depending on factors like accent or language. Many popular Japanese haikus, once translated into English, no longer meet the 5/7/5 pattern. However, that doesn't mean that these poems are not still haikus.
Have students leave the classroom to find inspiration for at least three haikus. The haikus that they write should be part of a themed set, on topics like nature, people, or the classroom itself.
Gothic Poetry Lesson
From Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” to Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” gothic subject matter is an interesting departure from the romance often associated with the sonnet. Gothic poetry is instead a medium for displaying darker subject matter. These poems usually have a melancholic atmosphere and imagery and may also touch on emotions like worry, regret, or fear through their narrative.
Explore this style of poem by reading "The Bells" by Edgar Allan Poe.
After reading the text, review these questions with your class:
- How do your emotions as a reader develop as you read through the poem?
- How does the imagery evolve throughout the poem?
- Which poetry techniques did you notice in the poem?
- What do the bells in each stanza represent?
Absurdist Language Challenge
Many common sayings and words today are often attributed to poets or writers. One such inventive author is Lewis Carroll, who created words for his absurdist poems like “Jabberwocky.” Many of the words that he invented for the poem were a combination of two existing words. For example, the word “slithy” is a combination of “lithe” and “slimy.”
Read “Jabberwocky,” and challenge your class to create new words of their own. Ask them to think about combination words that they might already use in their everyday lives, like “hangry,” and draw inspiration from them. What emotions do they often feel at the same time? What attributes do they usually see occurring together in nature? Have them invent a shorter word they can use to describe a longer phrase or description.
Once the class is done writing their new words and definitions, have them use their favorite ones in a poem of their own.
Write a Rap
Studying rap is a great way to learn about repetition, vocabulary, and patterns when it comes to poetry and song. Teacher and poet Toney Jackson has 5 simple steps on how he teaches students to write raps:
- Choose a topic
- Choose your words
- Pick patterns
- Add a beat or a capella
- Have fun!
Check out the video below for an overview on how you and your students can get started on this lesson idea.
For an even more in-depth look at the process of creating a rap, educator and author Dr. Chris Emdin also shares his wisdom on the subject. Emdin compares rap to poetry or storytelling with added layers, and uses this lesson to connect with his students. Through his partnership with Loaded Lux, he breaks down the benefits of this lesson in the following video.
If you are interested in exploring this lesson further, try out the How to Write a Rap student activity below. Alternatively, create a lesson of your own with any musical genre that interests your class, and work with them to develop their lyrics and rhyme scheme.
Language Research Project
Chances are, many of your students either speak a second language or have someone in their life who does. To get a more international perspective of poetry, have them research a poem written in a language other than their own. They can do this by interviewing someone in their life that speaks another language or else by doing independent research on the subject. Many sources will provide both the original poem and a version of it translated into English. Once they find a poem that they like, have them answer the following questions:
- What language is the poem written in, and why did you choose the language that you did?
- What did you learn from the poem?
- What drew you to this poem in the first place?
- How did the language the poem was written in affect the rhythm of the poem itself?
- If you can, either read the poem aloud, have someone read it for you, or find a recording of the poem being spoken aloud. How does hearing the poem as opposed to reading it change your perception or opinion about the poem?
Analyze "Kubla Khan"
The poem "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge was allegedly inspired by a dream, and if the poet himself is to believed, the work is only a fraction of the 200 to 300 lines he had composed in his sleep.
Read the poem "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge with your class, then have them answer the following questions:
- What are the main themes that you see reflected in the poem?
- What feelings does the poem evoke?
- What elements of the poem serve to remind you that it is a vision from a dream?
- Do the following:
- Underline each metaphor in the poem.
- Circle an example of an alliteration and a consonance in the poem.
- Highlight a personification in the poem.
Inaugural Poem Read and Respond
During the 2021 U.S. presidential inauguration, Amanda Gorman performed her spoken word poem “The Hill We Climb.” Not only was Gorman the National Youth Poet Laureate at the time of her reading, but she was also the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. Her poem, written with the theme of "America United," centers around life and challenges in the U.S. in the years leading up to the inauguration.
Read “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman. Then, answer these questions:
- What two historical events are the focus of this poem? Identify a reference in the poem to each event.
- Note a passage that contains alliteration, and explain the effect of this sound device on meaning and mood.
- What message does this poem express, and how do the closing lines direct readers to act?
Poetry Beyond April
Remember, these National Poetry Month activities do not need to end once April is over. Once your classroom has had time to explore poetry more in-depth over the course of the month, you can leave them with a short poetry portfolio of their own.
There are poetry competitions around the world that give cash prizes to middle and high school students for their writing. Having students research their own local competitions and submit their poems is a great way to encourage them to advocate for their voices to be heard.
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Zoe Del Mar