- Grades: 1–2, 3–5
Many curriculum guides would have us believe that poetry and the month of April are conjoined twins, never to be parted, but we teachers know better. Poetry is powerful stuff, and cramming it into a single month is unfair to our students and to poetry! In my class, we read, write, and publish poetry throughout the year, and I frontload the first two months of school with even more poetry. We gain deep insights about each other while sharing our poetry, we luxuriate in words, and we celebrate creative risks — important back-to-school practices. Here are four of my back-to-school poetry lessons that I use to get to really know my students.
1) Meet and Greet Similes
Writing even a short poem can seem daunting to some students at the beginning of the year, so we start with a single simile sentence. I read my students Quick as a Cricket by Audrey Wood, and we discuss how the narrator uses a series of creative similes to describe himself. In my next lesson, I read My Best Friend is as Sharp as a Pencil by Hanoch Piven to share some more complex examples of character trait similes. After immersing my students in the language of similes, we chart an extensive list of character traits that the students can pick from to write their own descriptive similes. Finally, my students illustrate their favorite personal simile with oil pastels and watercolor paints using the wax resist technique. Last year, I displayed their paintings along with their similes on sentence strips on a bulletin board in the hallway. Everyone loved learning about my students through their similes.
2) Thoughts of a Lunch Box
Back to school icebreakers often include listing favorites — colors, animals, foods, etc. We stick with the favorite food theme by writing poetry from the point of view of each student’s favorite (or most despised) food. First, I read aloud several poems from the anthology Dirty Laundry Pile: Poems in Different Voices. Then we write a poem together about a class favorite food as a shared writing experience. Finally, the students write their own poems that we display on the wall near our lunch table in the cafeteria.
(Tip: To see larger versions of my students' poems, click on the thumbnail photos.)
3) Taking Charge …
I learn more about my students with this one poetry lesson than from anything else. To begin, we read Judith Viorst’s incredible poem, “If I Were in Charge of the World” as our mentor text. My students always erupt with their own ideas for what they would do if they were in charge of the world -– I can hardly pass out writing paper fast enough! I have a template on hand for any struggling students who need a scaffold to get started. (Download "If I Were in Charge of the World" Template.) After the poems are finished, I bind them into a booklet that I pass around during our family open house.
4) Poems about VIPs
I learn a lot about my students when I learn about the important people in their lives. For this lesson, my students write a descriptive poem about a role model or other personal VIP, and then illustrate their poem with a “word cloud.” I use Paul Janeczko’s poem “Raymond” from his anthology Brickyard Summer as a model. I like how the poem includes a physical description: “Hair the color of pencil shavings, eyes as dark as a night river”; as well as a character description: “[He] gave me one play on his juke box quarters.”
After discussing Janeczko’s poem, we write a character-sketch poem together as a shared writing. (The poem below is about our assistant principal.) Then the students write their own poems and highlight the most important words in their poems.
Tips for Teaching “Poetry Icebreakers”
My poetry lessons usually follow a predictable format. I share a mentor poem or two as a shared reading, (I used to copy the poems onto chart paper; now I often use my document camera.) then we have a freewheeling discussion about what the students notice in the poem. I use the poem to introduce new poetry conventions or concepts. Next, we either brainstorm together for the students’ individual poetry writing, or we write a model poem together as a class. Then the students head to their writing nooks to write their own poetry. Finally, we gather in a circle for the students to share their writing. Revising, editing, and illustrating usually take place in a follow-up lesson.
My students know that I always read poetry aloud at least three times in a row — once for the eyes, once for the ears, and once for the heart. It sounds corny, but my students love when I remind them of this. I might say, “This reading is for your ears, so make sure to pay attention to the interesting words,” or “This reading is for your heart, so you may want to close your eyes to really tune into your feelings.”
Students need to feel safe to open up with their poetry. At the beginning of the year, I share a piece of my own poetry with my students. Before I read my poem, I tell my students that my poetry means a lot to me, and that I am a bit nervous to share it. I use this to initiate a discussion about feeling vulnerable while sharing writing — and my students, eager to hear my poem, quickly come up with some ground rules for sharing.