6 Strategies to Survive Teaching Poetry

I’m not a big poetry fan.  Just like I’m not a big fan of fantasy novels, professional basketball games or anything coconut.  But as an English teacher, it’s kind of expected to include teaching poetry somewhere in the curriculum.  I had to figure out one or more ways to address the problems I had with poetry.

Some problems I had with poetry related to how much I dreaded the study of poetry as a student (which is basically where the 5 ways to make students hate poetry post came from.)

Other problems I had with poetry related to teaching and grading poetry in my own classroom.  Here’s what I came up with– 5 6 strategies that help me survive teaching poetry:



Grading Student Understanding of the Poem.  Do they “get” it?  The biggest issue with grading is how poetry is approached in the first place.  In my days as a student, much of the emphasis of poetry was on the “meaning”– which we could “get” through feelings and understanding and other apparently ethereal methods.  This doesn’t work out so well on multiple choice questions.  Worse since I’m really not one of those touch-feely people anyway.  So either I would get the meaning “wrong” or my understanding of the poem was wrong.


  1. The first is to grade students largely on understanding, identifying, and examining use of poetry devices.  These are generally objective standards– if a student identifies personification in the text, they are either right or wrong on it.  This can be part of larger analysis, with weight on accurate identification– the objective grade item.

2. Another approach is to rely on textual support (combined with sound arguments.)  Students defend their position using appropriate textual support.  The support can be evaluated on how well it is used and how well it provides support.  A well-supported argument may or many not match other students, readers, or teachers’ understanding of the poem (including any so-called “right” meanings.)  Textual support can also be the basis of activities that make connections— such as text-to-text or text-self.

Note: some poems and texts may have commonly understood meanings– while grading and discussion may be on student understanding, it is important to recognize any commonly understood ideas about texts. 



Writing poems may or may not follow any of the rules or conventions of poetry.  Would you mark down young e.e. cummings for capitalization or punctuation use?  Would a hurriedly grading teacher recognize the import of Emily Dickinson’s dashes if she was just a student in class?  I’m not convinced I would recognize the next convention-breaking genius as different from the student who has little concern or understanding of punctuation in poetry.  I wouldn’t want to crush a budding poet by marking down their convention-defiance.  So what to grade on?


  1. Grade on student reflection.  Poems would be noted as completed and the weight of grade would be on the student’s reflection.  Reflection items would include accurately identifying poetic devices used in the poem, along with examination of what the effect of those devices is in the student’s poem.  And even if they thought it was effective or not.

2. Students have set requirements for one or more poems.  In a portfolio of several poems, students might be assigned different poem types or use of different literary devices, and graded on those items, while other elements are left as ‘art’ or completion scores only.

3. The Write Your Own: Poetry Imitation project where students will imitate a model poem.  The model poem provides a source of literary analysis, including theme and select poetic devices.  Then students include the theme, topic, and select literary devices in their own poem.  Inclusion of those items provides a solid basis of generally objective grade items.



Having to slog through day after day, week after week of studying poetry– the analysis of devices, digging into meaning, parsing odd phrases and laden word choices.



  1. Rather than create one several week long grueling slog through the study of different poems and poetry, create thematic units that include fiction and poetry.  Study the role of dreams such as with short stories like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and pair it with a poem like “Dream within a Dream.”  Study  Snow Poetry, like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with the snowy setting in “To Build a Fire” an analyze the way snow is used in the settings.  Treat poems as just another text, rather than set off in a special unit.  Then it’s a day or so of poetry study in the context of a larger idea, broader theme.
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