A 7th grader recently gave me a wonderful gift. She invited me to read an anthology of poems she wrote in 6th grade. Zoe’s poems were sensitive, wistful, beautiful, and silly. As I read them silently, she was drawn back to them and read each one aloud as a critical reader of her own work. I saw a frisson of pleasure when a poem hit its intended mark. Some, from her more mature 7th grade perspective, she pronounced “childish.”
In Zoe’s poems, I could also see her 6th grade teacher’s approach to teaching the art of writing poetry. The anthology included cinquains, haiku, clerihews, and acrostics. In other words, Zoe’s teacher had given her students accessible models of poetic forms and content, laying a safe foundation on which young writers could express their own emotions and observations.
Whether your students are eager to read and write poetry or are resistant to the craft, they will benefit from this approach. Two learner.org video workshops demonstrate techniques that you can use to cultivate your young poets.
In “Gaining Insight Through Poetry” in Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane,’ high school teacher Chris Mazzino uses “copy change” to help students thoughtfully empathize with the children portrayed in the holocaust memoir they read as part of a citywide reading program. Copy change involves using another writer’s structure as the scaffold for your own work. Here, Mr. Mazzino and his creative writing students are exploring what it feels like to be an outsider. He uses the student-written poem “Will They Ever Learn?” (page three of PDF) to instigate a discussion of “otherness.” Afterwards, students copy change the poem to express their own experiences and emotions. In this instance, the copy change technique provided an accessible model and a safety net for encouraging teens to share emotions they might otherwise keep to themselves.
In Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers, workshop 3, “Teaching Poetry,” two master teachers—Vivian Johnson and Jack Wilde—share how they help their students develop as readers and writers of poetry. Both teachers emphasize the importance of immersing their students in poetry throughout the school year to ready them for formal writing units. Mr. Wilde breaks down resistance by providing his students with accessible poems than can be understood on the first reading. Ms. Johnson makes the writing process non-threatening to her 8th graders by presenting forms such as found poetry and list poems.
These teachers agree that close reading of model poems is essential, but they don’t dwell on interpretation of abstractions. They do hone in on structure, word choice, rhythm, and line breaks. They examine techniques students can transfer to their own writing and use with power and purpose. Mr. Wilde uses Mekeel McBride’s poem “The Truth About Why I Love Potatoes,” a fun five-stanza poem that views the potato from five perspectives, to help students discover how ideas can be handled in poetic form and what poems can do that prose can’t. He asks, “What can you learn from Mekeel about writing a poem?” One student responds, “You don’t have to say a potato is a potato, but what else could it be.” At this point, his students are ready and eager to write their own poems based on McBride’s model.
The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning to write.” And, as you’ll see in these videos, imitation can put students on the road to profound and beautiful invention. What a gift!