Poetry should be powerful. As William Wordsworth wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” — yet often, as we introduce our upcoming poetry unit to our students, their groans seem to imply anything but enthusiasm. Somehow the link between poetry and passion has been severed and replaced with a sort of anxious bewilderment. Is this a symbol or just a hill? Is the theme this or that?
This bewilderment, I would argue, is a direct result of a lack of personal connection to poetry. Poetry is the “language of the soul.” It taps into the very essence of human experience and – at least as of yet – all of our students are human and thus should be able to find at least one poem they can relate to. How do we guide them to such a poem? I’m glad you asked: through a student-led thematic exploration of poetry.
Introducing the Assignment:
At the start of the unit, I work on introducing relatable poems to my students. John Updike’s “A Dog’s Death” or Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables” are often favorites of my students. I seat them in groups and have them complete a “poetic carousel” activity, where each student reads a different poem, analyzes it, passes it on to the next student, and then debates its interpretation. It’s a lot of fun and it peels back a lot of the stress my students feel surrounding poetry; they often independently begin to make connections to their own lives.
Then I introduce students to some of my favorite spoken word poems on Youtube and we talk a bit about the power of poetry. We talk about what makes a poem powerful and worth reading. Before introducing the assignment, I may mention my own favorite poem (“On His Blindness” by John Donne, which has some personal relevance due to my own battle with chronic illness) and how poems encapsulate pieces of the human experience and moments of human comfort that might not be conveyed otherwise.
Finally, then, I challenge them to think of themes that are significant in their own lives: for some, it might be nature; for others, it might be the loss of a family member; and for others, it might be coming out. Regardless, I ask them to find something personally significant.
The Assignment Itself:
Students are then tasked with finding ten poems that relate to their topic, writing a poetic précis for each poem, and then presenting how each poem deals with their topic in various ways.
My students loved this. It allowed me to connect with my students in a deeper way, but also allowed them to connect to poetry. It’s easy for us as teachers with standards to cover to neglect the emotional connection students feel to a literary work, but the emotional connection is often the most powerful part. It’s what allows our students to become readers of poetry.