I don’t think it’s an accident that National Poetry Month falls in the spring. After spending so much time inside during the winter, being able to spend more time outdoors is literally a breath of fresh air, and with that fresh air comes a renewed sense of creativity. The world is coming back to life, and it’s the perfect time to express the sights, sounds, and feelings that come with that in poetry.
Reading poetry in spring can feel more moving, too. Every spring, there is a large patch of daffodils on the stretch of highway that I drive on my daily commute. Seeing that swath of yellow always catches me by surprise: One day it’s just a green patch, and then seemingly overnight, it is transformed into a field of gold. When I read William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” he describes the same feeling of coming upon “a crowd / A host, of golden daffodils.” I instantly connected to that poem because I knew exactly how he felt. Here I offer you three ways to get your students engaged in the reading and writing of poetry that can be used in spring during National Poetry Month or anytime you want to get creativity flowing in your classroom.
We Used To…Now We
When asked to write a poem, some students can get right to work, but many, myself included, freeze at this directive, unsure how to proceed or even get started. That is why I love to use imitation to get students writing poetry. Looking at a poem as a mentor for structure and even topic can help even reluctant writers get started.
In her book Beyond Standards: Excellence in the High School English Classroom, Carol Jago introduced me to the poem “Flying Kites” by Quincy Troupe, which explores the childhood pastime of flying kites and then uses it as a metaphor for being a writer as an adult. Jago recommends imitating the structure of Troupe’s poem: two stanzas, the first starting with the words we used to and the second starting with the word today. I began by asking my students to brainstorm a list of topics that could show a shift in time, perspective, or growth. They came up with elementary school and high school, a change in a friendship, pre-driver’s license and having a car, and life before and after a move or a death.
Emma’s imitation reflected on a breakup:
We used to be each other’s everything.
We’d laugh and smile together, talk about any and everything.
We used to be each other’s safe place, somewhere we could call home.
We believed we were just right for each other,
And we thought this would last forever.
But today, we are nothing more than strangers,
Who give each other no more than a single glance.
We say not one word to each other.
And we’ve moved out of the homes we built together.
We realized that “forever” couldn’t be further from the truth.
But most of all, today, we learned to move on.
The word cento comes from the Latin word for a patchwork garment, and it describes a poem that is completely made up of lines from other poems, arranged in a meaningful way to create something new. The cento poem is very accessible to students because all they need to do is act as curators and collectors. I spread poetry collections and anthologies around the room and direct students to comb through them for lines that strike them as interesting or that just sound good, and record them. Since students are so interested in music, I also allow them to use song lyrics that they love. We spend an entire class period perusing poetry. The next day, we form our centos by mixing and matching lines until a poem emerges.
Delaney created the following cento using lines from Azelyn Klein, Hanif Abdurraqib, Irene Latham, Harry Styles, Naomi Shihab Nye, Fleetwood Mac, Mac Miller, Marilyn Singer, and Linda Sue Park.
Emotions swirl. How did I miss it? No matter how beautiful, what season, Things are getting worse. Wishing everybody could hear that things are getting worse. You talk, “it’ll be better than before” But times get harder, you can’t feel it “nothing” means everything. I’m someone I don’t want around
The golden shovel is a more challenging next step after students have created a cento. This form of poetry, invented by the poet Terrence Hayes and named as a reference to “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, is inspired by a line of poetry or a quotation. It is constructed so that when read from top to bottom, the ending word of each line composes the inspirational line. We began by searching for a famous quotation to work with. Then I instructed students to type out the quotation one word per line. They could begin building the poem from there, filling out each line, with the word from the quotation becoming the end of the line.
Kyle composed this short and powerful golden shovel based on Socrates’ words “To be is to do.”
I would love for you to Let me be But the thing is You don’t want to Because that’s all you can do
The work that my students created shows that teens are filled with emotions just waiting to be expressed and poetry can be an outlet for those feelings. Each of these poetry-writing activities takes some of the pressure off the writing process by using another poet’s structure and/or words as a starting point. Even so, it never ceases to amaze me how deep and personal the resulting poems can become. I hope that these ideas help your students enjoy reading and writing poetry just a little more.