Time for Poetry: Entering the Conversation about a Poem

Students in a computer lab
Welcome to the fourth post in my series about the poetry essay I tried this year!  In review, this year I decided to attack one of my students’ glaring weaknesses (according to my AP exam score report): poetry.  In previous years I have asked my students to write their research paper over an independent reading novel, but this year I changed this assignment into a research paper over poetry.

Before we begin writing anything, I need my students to take lots of time to closely read and respond to their poem. In this vein, the first two assignments I asked my students to do with their poems were:

  1. Write an initial response in which the students annotate the poem and create questions and observations.
  2. Apply what we have learned about the lyric to the poem. They used the questions we generated after learning about the lyric.

After finishing these two assignments, we returned to the computer lab one more time for our third response.

I had some ulterior motives with this assignment.

In previous years, no matter how many times I say it, I always end up with students who try to use less-than-credible sources in their essays. No matter how much time we have spent in the library using databases to find peer-reviewed sources, I always end up with a few students who didn’t use their time wisely and try to cite from not-so-credible websites at the last minute.

This year I wanted to address that problem head-on.

I created an assignment where students had to search for their poems on the Internet. I required them to find websites, blogs, online study guides, etc. that analyzed their poems.   The students, in turn, had to critique these analyses.

My goal here was to emphasize that writing is a conversation, and we should never blindly accept what others have said.  We don’t have to reject it either, but we should read other voices critically, asking: What do we accept from this analysis? What do we not accept? Why?

I wanted my students to begin thinking about what they would add to the conversations about their poems, rather than simply parroting what has already been said. I also wanted students to have a chance to see non-peer-reviewed sources before showing them the real deal.


  1. Search for other analyses written about your poem online. Understand that some of these websites will be more trustworthy than others.
  2. Find a few sites that you believe to be written intelligently. Note: Some students had to take whatever they could get, especially if their poems were fairly contemporary, so I was flexible on this step.
  3. Create a new document inside your Poetry Essay folder in Google Drive. Title it “Response to Online Analysis.”
  4. Inside the document, provide the name of the site where you found the analysis, a link to the site, and a summary of what points in the analysis you found helpful or enlightening.  Also include any points that you don’t agree with.
  5. Then write a response to the analysis.  What did you learn from this person’s or site’s thoughts? When do you disagree?
  6. When you are finished with your response, find a second site and write a second response.  Your final document should have responses to two sites.

Here is one student response that I thought was particularly representative of the kind of thinking I’m looking for:

Kim Merry's Response to Out Out
Note, of course, that this is not formal writing. I really have no formal requirements for this response; I just want to see evidence of their thinking. What I love about this particular response is how the student goes back and forth with the author of the online analysis and then back and forth with himself. That external and internal argument is really generative when it comes time to write a thesis statement.

If anyone has any suggestions for how to help students write more effectively about poetry OR how to help students evaluate online resources, let me know!

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