Introducing Poetry: Makin’ it Cool with Music

by Elizabeth Cossick M.Ed.

The first year I introduced poetry to a class of too-cool-for-school eighth graders, I was optimistic…but skeptical. I had grand visions of unearthing a poetic genius from this unlikely crew, and I just knew that they would connect with the authentic voices of Langston Hughes, e.e. cummings and Maya Angelou. If I could get them to keep an open mind. Which–for eighth graders–is a big if.

Sure enough, when I announced the unit on the very first day, the word poetry was met with groans and rolled eyes. I knew I had to change the students’ perceptions. Clearly, they were thinking of poetry that’s limited by rules and rhymes. I wrote the word “poetry” on the board and asked them for a definition. As they called out phrases (“it rhymes,” “it’s all mushy and lovey-dovey,” “boring”), I wrote them on the board.

Then I told them we were going to read some of my favorite poems. I pulled out the overhead projector and put up an overhead with a long poem on it. We started reading it, and they were still groaning. It was a love poem. But, what they didn’t know was that it was actually a song; I’d typed out the lyrics to a song by Boyz II Men (who were seriously hot stuff at the time). But I kept that little secret to myself and just let the students tear into the “poem.”

Then, without saying much, I hit play on my CD player, and the song started playing. It took them a minute to catch on, but when they realized that they were listening to the words on the screen being sung by Boyz II Men…well, let’s just say I had them hooked on poetry.

After the song was over, I pointed out the obvious: music is poetry. If you like music, you like poetry. And so, with that revelation in mind, I erased their previous definitions of poetry and asked for new ones. This time, they filled the board with phrases like “meaningful,” “you can connect with it,” “sometimes it tells a story,”  etc.

By the end of the poetry unit, I was right. They had connected with Huges and Angelou and cummings. And…quite a few unlikely poetic geniuses had also been unearthed.

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