a foolproof way to introduce poetry {to middle schoolers}

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by Elizabeth Cossick, M. Ed.

The first year I taught, I was faced with the daunting task of introducing poetry to a class of too-cool-for-school eighth graders.

I was young, naive…and therefore optimistic. 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. Every one of them.

Then I told them we were going to read some of my favorite poems. I pulled out the overhead projector (dating myself here :) 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 (dating myself again). 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 (phew, I’d have been really embarrassed to have to type cassette deck), and the song

There- ha! At least my photo is up-to-date. :)

started playing. It took my students a minute to catch on, but when they realized that they were listening to the “lame” words on the screen being sung by their idols…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 from the board and asked for new ones. This time, they filled the board with phrases like “songs are poetry,” “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 Hughes and Angelou and cummings. And…quite a few unlikely poetic geniuses had also been unearthed.

To search for song lyrics for your poetry unit, check out www.allthelyrics.com.

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