Famous Poets in the Classroom

Too often our English books present poetry lessons with doggerel intended only for the classroom. Fingerplays are fun and we want our students to write their own poetry, but there’s no reason not to introduce the works of great poets to kids.

These are the works that will stay in their minds and influence their own thinking and writing.

Now that you have some famous poems to work with, what should you do with them?

Learn something about the poet

We may not need to know who wrote “Five Little Monkeys” in order to enjoy it fully, but knowing something about the great poets, and about their lives and times, adds depth to our understanding of their work. Even when a poet is surprising or atypical for his or her time and place, that can be important information.

Books like Shakespeare for Kids: His Life and Times, 21 Activities let you examine the world of the poet fully, but it doesn’t hurt to turn kids loose and let them do some research. Add the important dates of the poet’s life to your classroom timeline, find his or her home town on the map, and think about what the world was like in that time and place. Also check out the University of Toronto’s Places of Poems and Poets.

Read the poem

Most poetry is intended to be read aloud. Hear more than one reading of each poem, since the nuances may be different, and encourage students to memorize short poems and recite them. Don’t think they can’t, either — kids who can recite whole scenes of movies and all the current commercial jingles can also recite poetry.

Analyze the poem

We don’t recommend telling students “what the author was trying to say.” We believe that the reader and poet together construct the meaning of a poem, and that it’s possible to get different things from a poem. Even if you don’t agree with us, consider giving students the opportunity to do their own thinking and analysis, since these are important skills. Our lesson on “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by William Butler Yeats includes the kind of open-ended questions that can help students think about what a poem might mean. Our National Poetry Month Lesson Plans  has a simple plan you can use to begin an analysis of any poem.

 Create something with the poem

Have students choose a favorite line or two from a poem and create something with it. There are many possibilities:

  • Use a graphics program or art supplies to create a poster. If you use a graphics program, you can then make a Pinterest page with all the posters.

Damascus Gate by James Elroy Flecker

  • Write the lines on Shrinkable Plastic and use them to create jewelry.
  • Make a large mosaic with bits of paper for your hallway.
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