Those first few minutes of each class period are easy to let slip away. Easy to fill up with taking attendance, handing out papers to students who were absent, answering questions, sorting through the mess I made last period.
And if you know me at all, you know I hate to waste time.
I like to at least make a valiant attempt to fully use whatever time I have with my students, and these first few minutes of class are some of the most useful and precious of the entire period.
After looking through my AP exam data, I realize my students need more instruction in poetry analysis. However, after thinking about concerns other than data, I realize many of my students are intimidated by poetry itself, let alone poetry analysis. Neither life nor previous classes have exposed them to much poetry, and I want their associations with this genre to be as positive as possible. I need to build a comfort level and familiarity with poetry from the beginning of the year, before we move into intensive study of poetry in the spring.
To these ends, this year I have begun opening class with a poem. We are not analyzing these poems; we are simply responding. Although I may change the way I ask them to structure their responses in the future, for now what I ask of them is rather simple.
The daily practice looks like this:
- I pass out a poem; students paste it into their notebooks.
- We read the poem together.
- Students do a 2-3 minute quick-write. I ask them to find words or phrases or lines that they like, to say what they think the poet is trying to communicate, or to simply write a personal gut reaction to the poem.
- We discuss their reactions: I call on five or six students to share their thoughts. They may either read what they have written or they may share a highlight.
The poems I choose are easily accessible, useful for a short warm-up response, designed to interest, intrigue, and inspire my students. I found the Poetry 180 list helpful. Another one of my favorite places to find poems that resonate with my students is the On Being blog.
Here are some of the poems I have used so far:
- “The Dream Keeper” by Langston Hughes
- “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking” by Emily Dickinson
- “To Look at Any Thing” by John Moffitt
- “Do You Have Any Advice for Those of Us Just Starting Out” by Ron Koertge
- “This Being Human Is a Guest House” by Rumi
- “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border” by William Stafford
- “Cartoon Physics, Part 1” by Nick Flynn
- “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon
Please let me know if you have other tricks to help students enjoy and feel more comfortable with poetry. I’m always looking for ways to fit more poetry into the regular rhythm of the course, and consequently, of our lives.