Reading and writing poetry: Some top tips and lesson ideas

Written by: Stephanie Nobes | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Poetry can be a tough sell for some young people, but it is worth persevering. Stephanie Nobes – a teacher trailblazer for the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award – offers some quick tips and lesson ideas to hook your students


Like all teachers, I have stolen many ideas from other practitioners and working bodies, so cannot take full credit for any of the ideas in the following article. However, I can truthfully say that I have tried and tested these methods and they have helped me time and time again when teaching poetry.

Nothing is more satisfying than converting a class of poetry-loathers into poetry-lovers. Hopefully these activities will convert yours, too.


Reading poetry

Thrice read: Actually having time to process the words and story of a poem can be overlooked when you are trying to engage a rowdy class of year 10s. However, it is key to understanding. Try reading aloud as a class to begin with, then allow students to read aloud as a pair. Ask them to consider the rhythm and pace at which they read – they can then discuss why they are reading it similarly/differently from one another. Finally, ask students to whisper the poem to themselves.

Knowing the “inside” and “outside” of a poem: Students need to be told explicitly that a writer will have been influenced by their own situation, that’s why they write! I often start a lesson by exploring key factors and themes that the poets unpick in their work.

“Top and Tail”: Exploring the first and final line of a poem can be a great way for students to “ease in” to a poem. Reveal these lines first and ask students to guess what the poem will be about. This is particularly great if these lines are very similar or juxtapose greatly.

Punctuation check: Not that poetry can ever be typical, but we expect a poem to have stanzas, commas at the end of each line and a regular rhythm. If this “typical” structure is not being followed, there is a reason (shout out to John Agard’s poetry for proving this time and time again). Get students to highlight all punctuation and see what it reveals: Why is a certain line end-stopped? Why is there no punctuation in this stanza? It all contributes to the tone, pace and message of the poem.

Image introduction: Some students will find it very difficult to connect the imagery in a poem with its metaphorical meaning. To help with this, it is useful to discuss these images and their connotations prior to reading them the poem – this way students are much more likely to have those lovely “A-Ha!” moments.


Writing poetry

Song Smash: Some students find it incredibly difficult to formulate poetic ideas of their own. Instead, get them to choose lines from their favourite songs and write them on separate slips of paper. Students can then organise the lines in multiple ways to create poetry of their own. It is also brilliant to mix-up lines between students or even the whole class to create unexpected, hilarious and sometimes poignant poetry.

If I were a tree: This poetry-writing technique focuses on creating an extended metaphor to describe a person, place or abstract noun. Starting with the extended metaphor of a tree works well, as students can decide what type they would be, how tall they would be, what colour leaves they would have. As you create, you can discuss why they are making these choices – what does it reveal about their character? You can replace the pronoun and noun in the task title for pretty much anything and it will create a really thoughtful poem (if Boris Johnson was a tool, for example).

Convert a text: Using a short story to inspire poetry provides students ready-made imagery and vocabulary to work with, which can be a great way to get reluctant writers started. Using the senses to structure this style of writing really helps too – each stanza can explore a different sensory experience from the prose.

What’s in your bag? What you carry in your bag or pockets can reveal a lot about you. For instance, I always carry a stone with a hole through it in my pocket as a good luck charm. Students may not have a holey stone, but the contents of their bags can be used to represent them: Is it tidy? What objects are hidden away? What unsuspecting item can be discovered? If this isn’t possible, students can look at photographs on their phone instead. The objects/images can be described in stanzas, considering what they say about the owner.

Timeline poetry: You could get students to track how a person or place changes over time. Students can create a timeline plan before writing to plot the different moments/stages of their chosen subject. This is a really simple idea, but can produce really clear and developed ideas. I like to do this when writing poetry about a character to show their development (it is a great way to explore a key character from a literature text).


Conclusion

These are just a few ideas that have inspired students to read and write poetry with more confidence in my classroom. Although handing over precious class time to writing poetry might seem indulgent, the process of crafting your own poetry truly does help unlock knowledge that allows for excellent comprehension of GCSE poetry (and all literature in general).

Finally, knowing that there is an end goal has really encouraged my students to carry on writing in their free time (which is such a delight to hear). The student who nominated me as a teacher trailblazer last year wrote a heartbreakingly good entry for the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. So share competitive opportunities with your students to remind them that their words matter and should be read.

  • Stephanie Nobes is literacy co-ordinator at Hounsdown School in Southampton and a teacher trailblazer for the Poetry Society’s annual Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, which is open for entries now.


Further information & resources

  • The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2021 is open for entries. The competition is open to anyone aged 11 to 17. The entry deadline is July 31, 2021. It is free to enter and you can submit as many poems as you wish. For details, visit https://foyleyoungpoets.org/
  • Schools can access Stephanie Nobes’ lesson plan putting some of her tips into action via https://bit.ly/33G5mrB


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