Poetry is everywhere: Strategies for teaching poetry through music, murals and more

Poetry is a mindfulness practice for award-winning author and poet Clint Smith. But as a young person, Smith felt that poetry “was something that wasn’t for people like [him].” In a recent interview with KQED Forum, Smith said that poetry can feel intimidating when presented as if it’s a “geometric proof” or “a code that [students] are supposed to unlock.” He recommended that teachers instead emphasize that no interpretation is wrong. Online resources, too, can show young learners “that there are poets who are alive” and “reflect the diversity and plurality of the human experience of our society.”

“You don’t have to be published to write a poem,” said Smith. “Poetry is in all of us.” He said it’s important for educators to “make poetry feel like an invitation rather than intimidation.” Below, three poetry teachers from around the country shared how they expand the boundaries of poetry in the classroom.

Music and murals

In Carrie Mattern’s high school classroom in Flint, Michigan, students are introduced to poetry through Tupac’s book, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete.” She also includes rapper, poet and activist Akala’s video lecture, “Hip Hop and Shakespeare,” in her lesson plan. In the lecture, Akala quizzes listeners on whether a line is from hip hop or Shakespeare. Students quickly recognize rhyme, sentence structure and diction, Mattern said.

Mattern’s “Is it poetry?” activity prompts students, in small groups, to move from station to station and identify different pieces of writing as poetic or not. This promotes collaboration and movement in the classroom, but also according to Mattern, “illustrates all the things poetry could be.”

Mattern recommended Melissa Alter Smith’s #TeachingLivingPoets movement and pointed to Clint Smith, Jose Olivarez, Fatimah Asghar, Danez Smith, Nate Marshall and Idris Goodwin as some of the contemporary poets who her students read in class. Mattern’s students also participate in a project interacting with murals in the Flint community.

Mattern said that connecting with your local poet laureate is another excellent way to engage with poetry within your community. Here’s what some of Mattern’s high school seniors said when asked what inspires them to be poets:

  • “I really enjoy writing stories and weaving tales; poetry is another way for me to do that.” – Dream
  • “Poetry allows me to be more expressive. It is my creative outlet.” – Ashley
  • “I like to express my ideas anywhere I can; whether it be poetry, art, or anything really.” – Jailen

Pocket poems and temporary tattoos

Christina Linsin, a poet, teacher and librarian in Virginia, has used music as an introduction to poetry for younger students. “It’s something that [students] are so familiar with and it does connect so well with the origins of poetry,” she said. When she worked at a middle school, Linsin would pick songs that were relevant to her students. After listening, students analyzed each song and identified literary elements.

Two years ago, as a high school teacher, Linsin had a new idea while contemplating a poetry tattoo of her own. Why not create temporary poetry tattoos for her students? Linsin customized and ordered the temporary tattoos online and brought them to class for her students to wear during National Poetry Month.

She also participates in National Poem in Your Pocket day, printing and handing out poems for students to carry in their pockets and ask one another to read aloud. Through the Academy of American Poets’ Dear Poet project, students write a letter to a poet in response to one of their works. “There’s no better way to make poetry alive for these kids,” Linsin said.

As someone whose love of reading was modeled by her mother, Linsin was drawn to the emotion and concision of poetry at a young age. One day in class, a teacher saw that she was reading Sylvia Plath and recommended that she pick up “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “I was hooked forever,” she said.

Countless possibilities

For Anthony Fangary, poetry is about vulnerability and honesty. Fangary has taught poetry to students of all ages in schools and community settings. (Editor’s note: Fangary works in a non-editorial role at KQED. He is not part of the MindShift team.) To avoid teaching inaccessible poetry, such as works that are hundreds of years old and use unrecognizable language, he introduces contemporary poets as well as non-traditional poetry, like an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. He aims to facilitate discussion by asking students questions like, “Where is the art?”

Emphasizing that there are “countless possibilities” in poetry, Fangary has utilized different styles of poetry to get students excited about the subject. From epistolary poetry, writing a letter to someone, to ekphrastic poetry, a poetic reaction to a painting, to erasure poems, identifying and erasing the most significant parts of a poem, Fangary says that “the absence of language can be more powerful than the presence of language.”

Student check-ins are also an important part of poetry education for Fangary. Taking the time to ask questions like, “Based on how you feel today, what kind of animal are you?” allows students to think about themselves and their lives through a creative lens.

The common thread? These educators all find ways to help students connect with poetry in their everyday lives and communities. “The pedagogy has to reflect what the kids are dealing with today,” said Fangary. As Smith said on Forum, “poetry is everywhere,” and students “have an opportunity to be participants in that.”

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