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Teaching Poetry to Middle School Students

Learn two different strategies to teach poetry to middle school students.

It can be a challenge to teach poetry to middle school students, but here are two tips to make teaching poetry better. 

Today’s blog post is written by Sara Cuzzo from the Teachers Pay Teachers store The Red-Haired Reader. She is going to share her tips for making poetry more accessible to middle school students. 

In my 8th grade ELA classroom, we do thematic units. Therefore, poetry is sprinkled into the curriculum throughout the year. I noticed that whenever the students would enter my classroom and see poetry on the agenda, I would be more excited to present the poem to them than they were to read and analyze it. 

To middle school students, poetry is a dusty, mouldy, archaic art that should have been lost to the ages. Therefore, I have tasked myself with making it more accessible to middle school students so that they would be able to get past their initial reaction of “OH NO!  POETRY??” and relax enough to discover the beauty and universal appeal in both classic and modern poems.

My Middle School Classroom Experience With Poetry

As part of our “Perfection” Unit, students examine the following Essential Questions: 

  1. What is perfection? 
  2. To what lengths will we go to in order to achieve perfection?  
  3. Who has the right to define perfection?

In order to attack these questions, we read a series of non-fiction articles, Hawthorne’s “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” and “The Birthmark”, an excerpt from Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, watched The Twilight Zone’s “Eye of the Beholder”, and read two poems: Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”.  

Teaching poetry to middle school students does not have to be difficult. Check out these 2 teaching strategies that make poetry accessible. #poetry #middleschoolela #englishlanguagearts #poetrylessons

The students were loving this unit until they entered the room to find a Shakespearean sonnet on the board.  Suddenly, we lost all momentum and class came to a screeching halt as their eyes glazed over and I could tell by their body language that they had checked out before we had even started.

Two Poetry Teaching Strategies

1. Chunk The Text

In order to make the sonnet more accessible to my 14-year-old critics, I knew I had to do something, and fast. I told them not to start reading their copy of the poem and passed out a sheet of scrap paper to each student.  

As I modelled on the SmartBoard, we covered the text of the sonnet with the scrap paper, sliding it down only 2 lines at a time. In this way, we chunked the poem into manageable bites and annotated it couplet by couplet.  

By using this method, students became interested in Shakespeare’s insult lines. As we slid our scrap paper down to Shakespeare’s final couplet, the students’ gasps of “OH!” and “I see why we read this poem in our perfection unit!” I witnessed that ever-illusive teacher goal: the lightbulb moment.

Not only did they read, analyze, and understand a Shakespearean sonnet, but they were about to apply the theme of the sonnet to our other works and essential questions. Given the success of the impromptu chunking-through-scrap paper maneuver, I decided that this was the way to attack poetry analysis from here on out in my classroom. 


2. Poetry Analysis Booklets

It is not always possible to do whole-class instruction with poetry, so I created poetry analysis booklets that scaffold the poem like the scrap paper method but that can be completed independently due to my guiding questions. 

Teaching poetry to middle school students does not have to be difficult. Check out these 2 teaching strategies that make poetry accessible. #poetry #middleschoolela #englishlanguagearts #poetrylessons

Sometimes we still use the scrap paper method, but I also like to use foldable poetry analysis booklets that I have created. I put the full text of the poem on the front of the booklet and questions for poetry analysis on the inside. They read a few lines, stop, and reveal the question on the inside flap.  This forces them to stop and not gulp down the poem in one big drink; instead, they stop and consider each set of lines before continuing. In this way, we don’t have to analyze and annotate together; they are guided with my questions and can work collaboratively or individually through a poem.

By using these two strategies teaching poetry to middle school students becomes more enjoyable for the teacher and students. 

Sara’s Favourite Poets

  • Langston Hughes
  • Emily Dickinson 
  • Lucille Clifton 

 Sara’s Favourite Poems

  •  “Theme for English B”  by Langston Hughes
  •  “I, Too”  by Langston Hughes
  • “Merry-Go-Round” by Langston Hughes

You can also find Sara on Instagram – go check her out.

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