Getting started – reading
I can’t think of a better way to start your students (or yourself) on poetry than by reading! Immerse yourself …
Immersion for teachers
Find some anthologies that are accessible and enjoyable to read. Don’t begin with Norton’s, which is around 1200 pages and goes back to the 1600s. Look for collections that are contemporary, and that contain a variety of poems. These might include Anne Fine’s books, called A Shame to Miss 1, 2 and 3, any anthology collected by Lee Bennet Hopkins, or a good children’s collection (often called Treasuries). I will provide a list at the end.
The vital thing to remember here is that you will not like every poem. Some you may love, some will leave you cold.
What you are looking for are the poems that you love, the ones that speak to you. I would highly recommend that when you find these poems, you collect them and make your own class anthology. Why? Because your likes and dislikes transmit clearly to your students, whether you are conscious of it or not, and if you choose only the poems you enjoy, you can’t help but pass that pleasure on to them.
You may ask – why not just use other people’s collections? Won’t it save time? Yes, but this is not about saving time – passing on an enjoyment of poetry takes time. Time to think, time to read again, time to savour.
Immersing your students
The first method is to share your collection of favourites with your class. You can read one per day (read it out loud at least twice during the day) and put a copy on the wall. Or photocopy your collection so everyone has a copy. Please note: this is not about dissecting or analysing. That is a different process, and often one that will kill the enjoyment of a poem. Simply read, think, and if your students are keen, then talk about what the poem means to them. What do they feel when they read it? Were there any bits they didn’t understand? Help them to access the poem and then let them ‘get’ from it whatever they want.
Poetry is not prescriptive! There is very little right and wrong in how a person chooses to engage with a poem. And it’s definitely not a test – of any kind.
The next step after this is to have lots of poetry books in the classroom, or access to the best sites on the internet, and let your students compile their own collections. You might ask each student to find a poem they like to put in a new class collection, or each student might want to create their own collection of favourites. The more they read along the way, the better. And then they can share.
Other activities that encourage immersion are a poetry basket – collect enough great poems so that there is one for each student (add an extra ten or so – that way no one feels they get the last pick). Let each student pick a rolled-up poem from the basket and then present it to the class however they want. One per day is good. They can perform it, create a wall hanging with it, draw a picture to go with it, make it into a song – whatever they want. They need to at least read it out loud, and then it should go on a wall so everyone can read everyone else’s poems.
There are lots of websites with terrific poems on them. Please take some time to find poems you think will excite the students, not just funny little ditties to make them laugh. Billy Collins created a site that gives you 180 poems, one for each school day in a year. This site is aimed at high school students, but there are some poems that younger ones can tackle.
Be aware that a lot of people self-publish poems that are not very good – if you feel that you are not adequate to judge, you will find that the more good anthologies you read, the more you will see what works and what doesn’t. (Anything that sounds like a Hallmark greeting card should probably be avoided, especially if it rhymes badly.)
A short list of websites that list good anthologies
Many of the books recommended will include classic poems, but start with the most accessible and enjoyable first.
another way to introduce poetry to your students is via a verse novel. There are many good ones out there – if you read aloud at first, your students probably won’t notice it’s poetry! But there’s more …
How to read a verse novel
The answer is no, because, just like a prose novel, a verse novel tells a story, so you need to start at the beginning and read through to the end. Someone once suggested that a reading a verse novel is like reading a lot of tiny chapters, which I think is a great description.
You will find that it is both a fast and a slow read. Sounds weird? A verse novel might have between 40 and 100 poems (Farm Kid has about 40, Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) has about 60), of which many will be quite short. So you could read a verse novel quite quickly if you wanted to.
But because a poem can pack in so much more in terms of images and ideas and suggesting things to think about, it can take a while. Many readers like to read all the way through for the story, then read again and take the time to think about all the things the poems create in their imagination.
Often, the poems in a verse novel can’t stand alone. There are some poems in Farm Kid that have been published in magazines on their own, but in Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!), most of the poems are strongly linked into the storyline and don’t have as much meaning out of their context. This is also the case with my verse novels, Motormouth and Runaways.
If you are a teacher reading one of my verse novels – or anyone else’s – to your class (and I hope you will, as poems are great to read aloud), treat it like a prose story. Depending on how long you want to spend, you could read a verse novel in thirds or quarters. I’d suggest you read it all the way through before you start talking about the poems. You might not want to tell your class you are reading poems to them! My verse doesn’t rhyme, and many of the poems naturally lead on to the next, because together they create the story.
For more detailed study of each book, click on the links below.