Teaching Poetry: A Step by Step Guide

Ok: first of all an admission. The title of this post, with its impossibly bold claim to distil teaching poetry into a series of neatly packaged steps, is somewhat overzealous. In a manner somewhat, and unfavourably, all too familiar to the last year, I fear it will overpromise and underdeliver.

However, what it will do, hopefully, is offer up a kind of template, a broad horizon of possibilities, that will seek to capture and condense what a typical poetry lesson for me might look like. Of course, within this template any individual lesson may vary, dependent on class or poem, but it should indicate a certain sweep of what a poetry lesson may look like.

So let’s imagine the following scenario: the students have the lesson’s poem in front of them. They haven’t yet read the poem and have no prior knowledge of it. What could happen next?

Step 1: Read the Poem

And already we arrive in the territory of overpromising and underdelivering. This is because whilst the first step will be to read the poem in some form (perhaps more precisely I might say encountering the poem), there will be a vast multitude of ways to do this, depending on poem and class. The most obvious format this might take, and probably the one I most often opt for, is simply to read the poem aloud to the class. If doing this, I typically do it twice. They don’t need to write anything down (yet), but just listen and enjoy.

However, variations on this first step might include revealing the poem to the class chunk by chunk, perhaps stanza by stanza or line by line, and asking for views after each revelation. Or, you might wish to reveal only the title and to then discuss what initial expectations a reader might have. Blocking out is also a really powerful way to shape initial student responses and to help scaffold attention. You might, for example, block out everything aside from specific images you wish the students to think about or perhaps leave behind only specific words.

Another possible route into the poem (hence more accurately describing this first step as an encounter) is to draw attention to the form or shape of the poem. This might involve covering up the poem itself so that it’s easier to see the concrete shape the poem takes and considering what this might convey to a reader. If this is a frequent strategy, students will quickly become attuned to the box of the sonnet of the jagged irregularity of free verse. The students could also read the poem to each other in pairs, enjoying the experience not of being read to, but feeling the sounds of the poem for themselves.

Below are some examples of what these kinds of approaches might looks like, showing an example of Walking Away at different stages of being blocked out. It might be we go through a couple of these, gradually revealing more information, or just one of these formats. It might also be, depending on how substantive the ensuing discussion is, we effectively jump straight from this Step all the way to Step 6, which is where we would discuss and annotate the poem.

Step 2: Plot

I often say to my students that there is very rarely such a thing as being ‘wrong’ in English, but there does exist a spectrum of persuasiveness, where an interpretation can be very persuasive or not persuasive at all. In my experience, those students who fall most emphatically into the latter camp do so often because they have misunderstood the plot of poem. With this basic misconception having taken root, the interpretation itself then inevitably suffers, perhaps descending into as close to ‘wrong’ as we might get in English.

As such, before asking students to consider and think about the poem on their own terms I will often make sure we’re all really clear on a basic outline of the plot. I might do this by cold calling a couple of foundational questions (who is the speaker? who are they talking to? what are they talking about?) before then summarising in a couple of sentences. I don’t expect students to write this down (although some do), but I find it helps to ensure a certain parity of interpretative starting point. Of course, depending on how we first encountered the poem this may or may not be possible. Indeed, if I feel the poem’s plot is very straightforward I might skip this step entirely.

Step 3: Big Question

In order to better co-ordinate the students in their own reading and response to the poem (which will be starting very shortly), I often introduce a Big Question for the given poem. If we’re looking at a poem from the poetry anthology, either GCSE or A Level, I would have probably introduced a bank of Big Questions before beginning the anthology and I’ll take one of these. This means the same questions are being used across multiple poems, helping to forge thematic patters across the anthology, as below.

As ever, there are variations to this step. If we’re looking at an unseen poem, for instance, I might not include a Big Question, instead allowing students even more opportunity to engage with the poem on their own terms in which case I might ask them: ‘are there are questions you’d like to ask of this poem?’ I might also not use a Big Question at A Level for much the same reason, that the students are perhaps more easily able to self-generate the kind of immediate conceptual appreciation of the poem that a Big Question hopes to facilitate. However, for the most part, I find them a useful waypoint around which to build and sustain subsequent interpretation.

Step 4: Student Response

By this point, then, we have encountered the poem in some fashion, established its plot and introduced, usually, a Big Question that will help to direct and shape what is about to happen.

So, we now arrive at what is probably, and in many ways, the most important part of the lesson thus far: the opportunity for students independently to engage with the poem on their own terms and to really think what the poem speaks to them.

For this, I will typically provide a separate copy of the poem to the one they will annotate so they can feel free to scribble away and underline without fear of making it ‘messy’. In the redesigned GCSE Anthology that I created (I’ve posted about this elsewhere on the blog) I included two copies of the poem for exactly this reason. As I explain to them, this really is an opportunity to underline/highlight/annotate anything at all that comes to mind or strikes them as interesting, whether aligned to the Big Question or indeed not. There can be no incorrect annotations.

In order to help scaffold this initial engagement with the poem, I’ll often provide a set of prompts, as below, which they can use or ignore as they see fit. These prompts might be put up on the board or be included on a bookmark that is treasury tagged into student books for precisely such an occasion.

Or, I might strip this right back and just simply ask them to consider the below really simple, but very powerful questions:

I go to great lengths especially to emphasise they can simply, and even, at this stage, without much deliberate thought, underline things they like and things they’re puzzled by. Some might begin to self-interrogate (why do I like this or why do I find it puzzling), but I’m more interested for the moment in that initial shot of emotion, that first instinctive knot of feeling that all readers of poetry have, even if just a little and even if unpractised. I would typically give them about 10 minutes for this initial engagement.

They should probably end up with something that looks like this:

Another variation on this initial response which I quite like is what I call ‘snap highlighting’. Here, I read the poem to the students for the first time, as such conflating the first four steps, and ask them, highlighter or pen at the ready, to highlight anything at all they hear that they find interesting or puzzling. This is very much operating on gut reactions. On first doing this, I describe the process by asking them to imagine a sheet of glass that is very smooth, but with a few chips or cracks in it. I explain that if they were to run their fingers over this smooth surface their skin would catch on it. I suggest that reading a poem for the first time is often similar to touching a smooth surface with cracks in it. We’re looking for and highlighting those moments in the poem, as I read, where they feel a certain crack or splinter in its surface, where their fingers would just linger for that moment longer. This is what they highlight. No real time to think, just to feel for those cracks.

Step 5: Collective Highlighting

By this point in the lesson, students would have been given time to think about and respond to the poem as well as highlighting or annotating any lines, images or moments they find interesting or puzzling. The next step is to sample the room so as to collate and make public these individual first impressions.

In order to do this, I take my own blank copy of the poem and put it under the visualiser and I then ask students, typically by cold calling, to offer me something they think I should underline or highlight. What did you like? What’s something you found puzzling? What word captured your interest? At this point, I’m not really interested in any lengthy and protracted discussion (that comes next!) although I may probe some of the responses. The aim here is to collect in one place (my copy of the poem) a variety of student responses for all to see which will then become the basis for any subsequent class discussion and analysis.

As I ask students to offer up an impression or point of note, I highlight my copy so that by the end we can all see a fully highlighted copy of the poem under the visualiser. I ask students not to highlight along with me as we won’t necessarily talk about everything we’ve noted in this stage and so they can annotate their copy as we go. I try also to jot down a reminder of which student offered up which image/word/line as when we discuss as a class it’s nice to start with them: So, X what attracted you to this line?

One strategy I especially like for this part of the lesson is to draw attention to a specific stanza and say, in a rather obviously provocative manner, ‘I don’t think anything should be highlighted in this stanza’. Inevitably, and happily, someone with a rebellious streak will disagree and suggest ‘X’ ought to be highlighted. This then becomes a really good springboard for discussion with that student. I then often ask someone else to challenge or support this inclusion. ‘Who agrees with me?’ ‘Who agrees with Georgie?’ I might frame this in terms of defending the original suggestion and persuading me it should be highlighted. By framing the discussion in terms of contention and argumentation the analysis and class dialogue is made all the richer and more authentic

Once I feel I’ve gathered enough views and the initial conversation is beginning to dry up, I’ll take a look at what we’ve highlighted and see if there are any especially interesting or important lines yet to be noted, but that I know we’ll want to discuss. If there are, and in my experience the students typically already cover most of what is important, I’ll frame this as ‘here’s something I’d love to think about’ and never ‘you missed the most important thing’.

Ultimately, the function of this stage of the lesson is to generate the material we’ll then go on to discuss as a group, but, perhaps most fundamentally, it is to instill in each student a recognition that their views of the poem, their instinctive and sincere response, is as much a source of knowledge as something they may read in a textbook. Whilst they may not (yet) have the vocabulary to express such an idea, it’s important to me students recognise that English as a discipline is affective and that epistemologically the meaning of the poem comes into existence when they encounter it. In other words, the images we’ll discuss, aside from any I might add, originates with them.

Step 6: Discussion and Annotation

With my already collectively highlighted poem under the visualiser, we’ll move through the poem chronologically, pausing on some or all of the highlighted words or images and discussing them. In reality, we very rarely discuss all of the images that were previously highlighted: I make a point of saying to my students we want to avoid annotating the poem to death and instead becoming comfortable and confident with what it is trying to say, its overall tone, and then selected images to discuss in detail.

The choice of moving chronologically through the poem, for me, is really key: I want to unfold the poem bit by bit and allow its meaning to accumulate through our exploration. As we discuss, I’ll annotate under the visualiser, or digital equivalent, and give time for students to do the same, as below:

In terms of the mode of discussion, this is, of course, going to have a lot of variance depending on the poem, the class, the age range, perhaps even the time of day! However, there are probably some underlying principles as to how I’ll approach this:

1) Turn and talk: An easy but important one. I pause on a specific, and especially thorny image, and make it clear that there’s lots to grapple with here and so I don’t want us to rush through it. I then ask them to turn to their partner and discuss anything at all they find interesting about it. Or, I might ask a more specific question should as ‘how is the poet presenting parenthood in this line?’ I then give them 30 second to 2 minutes to share ideas before leveraging this into a whole class discussion.

2) Probe: I often try to make a note of which students suggested which lines in the ‘collective highlighting’ phase and so one strategy is go to back to them and ask why that specific line or image attracted them. This is where I can begin to probe their thoughts about whatever line it may be. Once this student gets the conversation going, I’ll often bring others in.

3) Challenge and Defend: I quite like to pinpoint an image and offer a short analysis of it or to suggest an analytical proposition. I then ask students to either challenge or defend this interpretation, supporting their view with analysis and evidence from the text. This can then shift into someone else joining in to challenge or defend the views expressed by the previous student. You can often sustain an interesting chain of points in this manner.

4) Here’s Three Things: In a manner similar to the above, I might offer up three interpretations of a given line or image and ask students to discuss which they find most compelling or persuasive. We’ll then use this as a basis for class discussions. ‘Hands up if you felt the first one was most interesting? Could you share why you thought that?’ ‘Caroline, which did you most agree with?’

5) Cold Call: Of course, there doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You could always just say, ‘Hey, Chris, what did you think about this word?’

6) My Turn: Equally, there’s nothing wrong with you, as the teacher, offering up your own view. Admittedly, I do try to include authentic student responses as much as possible, but I’m certainly not opposed to simply saying ‘So, here’s what I thought about this line…’ I do think though framing it in this manner, as opposed to ‘this is what this means’, is a subtle but really important choice.

It’s worth saying whatever mode of discussion is utilised, and it might just simply be a series of consecutive ‘X, what do you think about this line?’, as we discuss I’m pausing and annotating under the visualiser and students are being given time to do the same.

By the end of this process, we would have, collectively, a fully annotated poem. And that would be the end of the lesson or series of lessons. All of the above typically takes between one and two lessons, depending on poem and class.

A Note on Sequencing

Reading this I can appreciate it may seem slightly rigid in its sequencing, with Step 1 always coming first and Step 2 always following and so on, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

It might be, for example, I hand out the poem with very little, if any, preamble and ask students to read it and underline anything they like or find puzzling. Or, it might be that I feel we’ve done a lot of work on scaffolding an initial response and I ask them to read it without any initial direction at all. Equally, I might give them a couple of minutes to read the poem and then jump straight into group discussion. I might include a Big Question or not include one. I might show a blocked out version of the poem, have a really interesting and substantial discussion with the class because of this, and then go straight to annotating the poem.

I think the sequencing outlined in this post is most going to be flexible in the first few steps. For example, it might very well be that the kind of open response questions suggested in Step 4 begin the lesson and then we move straight to group discussion and annotation. Or it might be that blanking out certain words, designated here as part of Step 1, in fact function as an alternative to the open response questions and not as well as.

How I approach all of this depends on the class and the poem, and how much prior exposure they may have had discussing poetry. It’s important, always, to be responsive, but, as this post set out to do, the above does offer a shape of how I would approach teaching a poem, even if that shape, as it should, moulds itself to the specific class in front of me.

One way to think of this, as Barbara Bleiman has styled it, is to have a ‘repertoire’ of possible strategies but to then deploy aspects of this contingent on the poem being taught. In this model, part of the repertoire might be blocking out lines or open response questions or asking a Big Question, but what to use would depend. It is at this granular and context-specific level the ambitious project of suggesting a ‘step by step’ guide to teaching poetry begins to break down a little, but then that is also what makes teaching poetry so exciting: it is not, and cannot be, formulaic.

Future Lessons

Of course, teaching the poem does not equate to students having learnt it, and so after this initial lesson we will want to make sure we’re returning to it in different ways in the future.

One way to do this is via a straightforward retrieval quiz at the start of the lesson, which might target some of the below:

1. Asking students to gap fill certain quotations, which works especially well if you are selecting quotations that prime that lesson’s poem (for example, selecting images from Walking Away that align to the discussion that might take place about Mother, Any Distance)
2. Knowledge dump all the words or images they can remember from the poem
3. Tell the story of the poem to their partner or in writing
4. Write about the poem using WHW as a frame

Another really effective way to revisit the poem in future lessons is through relevant recall images, which might be as straightforward as an image of a stem to cue ‘like a seed loosened from its parent stem’. As a related idea, I also really like condensing the poem to an image block, which comprises, like the below, a square with four doodles, each of which represents an image from the selected poem.

The way use this in lesson itself, is to live draw the box and after drawing each image pause and ask the class what image it represents, what we might say about it, how it connects to the poem more broadly. I then draw the next image live and so on. This helps to ensure we’re really focusing on and thinking about each image in turn. They can also go through the same routine with a partner for paired retrieval. The added benefit here is that when they come to the exam they can easily draw these image boxes themselves and so have at least four quotations to discuss that they’ve rehearsed.

Another excellent way to revisit these poems is through a process of thematic mapping, using a a template such as the below. Here, we look at each theme in turn and think about which poems connect to that theme, colouring in the relevant blocks as we go. Not only does this help us to revisit the poems thematically, but also makes sure students see the patterns that exists across the collection as a whole so they know the best poems to compare.

We might also look to condense and crush the poems, either by way of specific images or specific words. This could work as a good revision activity (let’s pin this poem down to the three images that are most interesting) or I could put up on the board, without any other context, a set of say 8 words and use that as a platform for class discussion: which poem are these words from? Find a connection between these two words. How could we connect all of these words? Have I missed any important images? Think of an image from another poem that, for whatever reason, would fit alongside these words. Why? And so on: so easy but effective.

Speaking of poetry crushes, I also really like Jenny Webb’s idea of taking one or two lines from thematically similar poems and then placing of these lines next to each other to create effectively a new poem. Using this ‘new’ poem, we could ask students to name the poem to which each lines belongs or what we could say about the lines. But we could also get them to think about how the lines connect to one another, thus activating comparative thinking about the poems.

Final Thoughts

By way of a summary, here are my key takeaways:

1. Place a high premium on authentic student response, both in the way you speak about the poems and the way you frame student engagement with them
2. Think carefully about how to shape an initial encounter with the poem as this is a golden opportunity to frame and scaffold how they think about it when coming to a fuller analysis
3. Adopt a two-fold process of collective highlighting where anything goes and teacher-led but student informed annotation
4. Find ways to return to the poems throughout the course and increasingly build in opportunities for comparative consideration.

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