The Dreaded Unit: Poetry’s Place in the Classroom

Posted by Lucia LoTempio, Managing Editor for 3.1

This last week I sat down with 2.2 Gandy Dancer contributors who are on their way to becoming certified teachers in New York State. Rather than interview each, we had an impromptu conversation about the importance of teaching poetry in middle and high school settings—and how these lessons can be engaging, rather than feared in this sphere. Here are the highlights:


Andrea is pursuing an MS in Adolescent Education for English at the University of Rochester

Andrea Springer: I think it’s so important to have poetry in the classrooms because I think poets are some of the people who push the boundaries of what language can do. There’s no better way to teach students that the form of a text is just as important as the content.


A senior at Geneseo, Anna will be student teaching in the fall

Anna Kushnir: Teaching contemporary poetry in a high school setting is especially important because writing poems and sharing them (workshopping or not) creates a classroom community and environment that builds empathy and encourages students to share their work with their peers, which builds trust and interest. It also allows students to talk about what is important to them, their own obsessions and interests.


Joey is also a senior at Geneseo and will be teaching in Ghana in a few months

Joseph O’Connor: I think that teaching contemporary poetry is absolutely vital to inspiring future generations of poets. If we continue to recycle only those poets that are considered in the high school canon of poetry (mostly dead, white heterosexual men) then we are doing the poets in our classrooms a complete disservice.

AK: It is important that students understand that poetry is happening today, right now. When all we read is Frost and Keats, the impression that students get is that poetry is something people (primarily white men, really) used to do before the internet.

JO: I recently wrote a lesson plan for the beginning of a poetry unit with contemporary poet Rebecca Lindenberg at the nucleus of the lesson. Her “Status Update” poems are written in the form of a Facebook status, something every student is familiar with. I chose to begin my poetry unit with Lindenberg rather than, say, a Shakespearian sonnet, because I knew that these poems would do wonders for engaging my students. Even my students who I describe as “poetry-phobic” were super motivated to write their own “Status Update” poem that we shared out as a class at the end of the period.

AS: Yeah, I’m a firm believer in encouraging my future students to figure out the ways in which they can contribute to a literary dialogue. I think when teachers have a really solid base knowledge of contemporary poets they can introduce students to poets whose syntactical identities parallel theirs in interesting ways.

AK: How so?

AS: So, you know, if I had a student whose writing continuously used rhetorical questions, I might point them in the direction of Peter Davis. I also think it’s important to give students the opportunity to see weird pop culture in literature, so giving the class a poem creates a way to do that without restructuring an entire lesson block around a modern novel. Really what I find appealing is the ability to pick and choose poets and poems based on a theme or element or craft I’m looking to teach my students on. So you know as a high school teacher I might want to teach Lord of the Flies, for example, but it’s also important to me to be teaching literary devices that Lord of the Flies doesn’t use, like use of unreliable first person. I’d likely only be able to teach a handful of books in a year, but with poetry I have the opportunity to find poems to study that will only take a day or whatever.

JO: So do you view poetry as more of a supplement? Like, I tend to use contemporary poetry as a means of differentiating my lessons for struggling readers and writers. I mean, contemporary poems provide support because they use the language (and slang) of today and can be about topics and themes that are relevant to students’ lives today. For those students who feel constricted by the strict requirements of academic writing, poetry writing allows them to think creatively. But I’m also interested in the “poetry unit.”

AS: I mean, not exclusively at all as a supplement. I would definitely teach a poetry collection if I had the opportunity. I do think that teaching singular poems will give me options to prompt discussions that are really important to the classroom, but I also think a unit on just poetry would be an important part of my ideal curriculum because poets have a unique take on language that makes us rethink the elasticity of a word or phrase or piece of punctuation as well as its limits.

AK: Definitely—I recently constructed a unit plan with the Bell Jar as the main text with Plath’s poems as a supplement and/or side-text. The students get to see Plath as a novelist and as a poet, and have meaningful conversations about craft and her obsessions that weave through her fiction and poetry alike. Also, it was an opportunity to deconstruct the confessional mythology built around Plath and how the Bell Jar is often introduced as semi-autobiographical, or a thinly veiled autobiography. It can open up a conversation about the difference between confession and inspiration, and why people feel entitled to place a confessional label on authors or speakers of poems

JO: I guess what I was getting at was that when most students catch wind that they will soon be starting the infamous “poetry unit,” you can practically hear the groans of disapproval and cries of anguish ringing through our classrooms. And they are right to dread poetry. As it is taught now, students experience poetry in a rather sterile setting. A poem was meant to be dissected, interrogated for deeper meaning, and overanalyzed to death. In short, poetry was not something meant to be enjoyed. I believe that we as teachers need to do away with this self-contained unit and allow poetry to permeate our classrooms each and every week.

AK: This also comes through in the importance of breaking the straight white male authorship. Our classrooms are full of varied individuals, of varied genders, orientations, ethnicities, abilities, etc. If all we introduce them to are poems written by straight white men, we are implicitly saying that only their words matter, only their words deserve being taught, and what we show as examples of poetry are what we, as teachers, believe poetry is. If all a teacher shows is white male authorship, implicitly, they are saying that this is what A Poem Is.

AS: Can you elaborate a little more?

AK: Sure! Showing a variety of perspectives expands the worldview of students and creates more links—a student who might love Maya Angelou, for example, could detest Keats, and never know they loved Angelou if they had not been introduced.

JO: So teachers could turn some students off from poetry by not giving them a diverse selection of authors.

AK: Yes—the more variety we give students, the more connections we are enabling, and the more we are broadening their worldview and empathy. Introducing a variety of poets of different backgrounds opens up conversations about race, gender, class, orientation, etc. in meaningful ways. It is also simply unrealistic and downright insulting to only offer one perspective and one type of writer to a classroom of students of varying interests—the more perspectives offered, the higher the chances are of encouraging students to write and connect.

AS: What do you both think of teaching poetry that is contemporary?

JO: Well, I mentioned its importance briefly when I was talking about its usefulness in helping struggling readers and writers to think more creatively and critically, and when I was discussing my Lindenberg lesson. But also I believe teachers should not only read contemporary poetry, but be contemporary poets themselves. Both teachers and students need to understand value poetry in order to explore and enjoy it, because much of what is taught in the classroom is grounded in this notion of understanding. In order for children to enjoy and value the language of poetry, teachers must demonstrate and model their appreciation for the literary form themselves. This ultimately comes down to staying true to my own teaching philosophy, which is to never ask my students to do something that I am not willing to do myself.

AS: Yeah I agree, and I really feel like most people don’t understand what contemporary poetry is and what it can do. I mean something that immediately comes to mind for me is a good friend of mine who’s pursuing education, but in the STEM fields, who used to look at poetry I’d written and feel as though she wasn’t equipped to respond to it. She felt that as someone who wasn’t a “poetry person,” she wouldn’t be able to access a poem in any way.

AK: And I think it’s important for people to know that poetry is not (only) something that teenagers scribble in their notebooks, full of confessional angst. Learning that poetry requires craft appeals to students who feel like they don’t want to share their diary entries with the world—because there is a rooted misconception that poetry is strictly autobiographical. There are also students who have written fiction or creative nonfiction and felt that they couldn’t do it, so they’ve dismissed writing in general, without any introduction or exposure to poetry. Talking about poetry’s craft is also important because it helps establish it as a legitimate mode of writing. Often, people look at a poem and feel unable to critique it because you wouldn’t critique someone’s diary entry. Viewing poems as pieces of work helps legitimize them to students who view poetry as flouncy or emotional, in the negative connotation of the word.

AS: Exactly. And I think there’s still this pervasive belief that poetry is this secret code and without the exact key you won’t be able to decipher it to arrive at any kind of meaningful reading. Teaching poetry is important to me because I want to tell as many people as I can that poets aren’t trying to trick us, and while writers use ambiguity and duality in their work, they aren’t trying to conceal what they have to say.

JO: Right—I find that it is helpful to remind students that poets never want to be purposefully cryptic in their writing. If anything, the goal of any poem is to write as if having a private conversation, but with many people at once.

AK: Yeah, I definitely agree. I think it’s important to deconstruct the idea of “deeper meaning” and instead talk about layered readings, because students often feel like they don’t “get it,” or that people are overanalyzing and projecting their own symbolism, etc. onto writers. Discussing texts as layered, rather than one singular deeper meaning involves students in contributing their interpretations and backing them up with images, lines, etc. It builds critical thinking skills because unpacking a poem takes time and thoughtful effort.

AS: And I think one important aspect to this idea of accessing or unpacking a poem is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing if a reader isn’t bringing a certain context to the table. Like if I assigned Patricia Smith’s “Blood Dazzler” (which deals with Hurricane Katrina) and a student were there who had experienced a hurricane first hand, they would likely construct more meaning than I would. Everyone gets something different out of a poem; everyone grasps onto different images. I think one important aspect of teaching contemporary poetry in schools would be erasing this dichotomy of “you either get poetry or you don’t”. I think it’s important for teacher to admit that they don’t always “get” a poem either.

AK: Right. Students connecting texts to their own experience strengthens the content they are learning, as well as provides a “real world” application of it. When we share poetry with our students and encourage them to write their own, we are creating a budding network of writers and a community that cares about writing—two things that English teachers are always striving for, whether explicitly or implicitly.

As Richard Siken put it at an AWP panel, poets are responsible for rebuilding the emotional infrastructure of our world—and where better to start than with young, impressionable people in middle and high school. We want to teach future generations to be critical thinkers and creators—and poetry can be the key.

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