Poetry is one of those things that looks so much easier to create than it actually is. Especially to novice writers, it may appear to be nothing more than a handful of broken lines, so much shorter than an essay and, therefore, so much easier to write—until, of course, they put pen to paper and try to write one of their own. As Vincent Van Gogh once put it, “Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.”
But poetry doesn’t have to be hard. With the right strategies, you can make sure your elementary students’ introduction to the world of sonnets and sestinas is inspiring, rather than exasperating. These imaginative ideas for how to teach poetry to elementary students are the perfect place to start.
#1. Use Visual Guides to Keep Them Focused
One of the most challenging aspects of poetry for many beginning writers is grounding abstract ideas in concrete, descriptive language. Visual aids give your students something to look at for guidance and inspiration, and keep them focused on the task at hand.
- Framed lines or stanzas are great writing strategies for very young poets who may need a little extra help staying on-topic, while graphic organizers and word lists help organize their thoughts during the planning stage and encourage them to put their vocabulary words to good use.
- Try choosing an object in the room (or one that can easily be brought in) as the subject of a poem. Having the subject in front of them to inspect makes describing it much easier than having to recall details from memory, and they may even pick up on new aspects they never noticed before.
- Having either an example of the type of poem your students are writing or a list of guidelines visible while they write helps your students remember rules like stanza length, rhyming scheme and syllable count per line.
- A concrete poem can be a fun way to teach students about the physical structure of a poem. Provide your students with an outline (or ask them to draw their own outline) of the subject of their poem, then ask them to write only inside the lines.
#2. Collaborate to Choose Subjects
The more involved kids feel in a project, the more engaged they’ll be. Instead of assigning a topic point-blank, allow your students a little more control over what they write by:
- Assigning an open-ended topic that allows for multiple possible interpretations. The most poignant poetry is always personal on some level; allowing your students enough freedom to find their own answers to your question helps bring out the most poetic side of their personalities.
- Or, involve your students directly by asking them to participate in the topic selection process. Brainstorm ideas together as a class. Ask for volunteers to provide possible subjects. Vote on the most interesting topic to pursue. Let your students guide you toward the topics they’re most drawn to.
#3. Turn Poetry into Play
Poets like Dr. Seuss and Jack Prelutsky are proof that poetry doesn’t have to be serious to be profound; a fun limerick can be just as meaningful as a heartfelt sonnet or a tragic couplet. The act of writing poetry can be fun too—here are just a few ideas to help make teaching poetry to your elementary students less work and more play:
- Use gameplay aspects. Try rolling dice to determine rules like number of lines, syllables or vocabulary words to include. Use board game figures for inspiration. Or, pull words out of a hat to determine subject matter or adjectives that need to be used within the context of the poem.
- Turn it into a guessing game. Have your students write half a poem, then distribute the poems randomly to be finished by a fellow classmate. Return the poems to the students who started them and ask them to share the finished poem and guess who wrote the closing lines!
- Introduce an element of competition. See who can come up with the most (sensical) rhymes in the shortest amount of time. Or, conduct a small, casual poetry contest in class by having everyone share their poems and then vote (anonymously) on their favorite. Have small prizes, such as stickers or fancy pens, ready for all participants, and include a special ribbon or certificate for the winner
The Final Step: Publishing Your Students’ Poetry
Every poet, young or old, deserves to have their work read by those for whom they write. The most powerful lesson you can pass on to your elementary students while teaching them about poetry is that their words carry weight and their voices are heard—and the best way to do that is to publish their work. Becoming published and acknowledging their work in a public way builds their self-esteem, encouraging them to think more creatively and adopt a poet’s mindset—even if they don’t follow the poet’s professional career path—and keep their eyes and hearts open to inspiration, wherever and whenever they might come across it. That is a lesson that will serve them well, no matter what path they follow.