Teaching Poetry, Whole-Novels Style: Creating An Immersion Experience For Students

CONCEPT: Just like in whole novel studies, experience is of primary importance in the study of poetry. Too often, students receive the message in their English classes that poetry exists to be analyzed.  They learn terms, strategies and complicated acronyms to remember them–all in the service of solving a “poem-problem” with, what they understand is supposed to be a clear answer.  As a reader, scholar and writer of poetry, I can say with confidence that poems are not built for a formulated analysis and rarely come with clear answers!  I think the vast majority of English teachers would agree with me on this; yet sometimes, in effort to reach standards and keep kids on track, common classroom methods still push students into the understanding that we read poetry to analyze and arrive at a specific outcome.

If not analysis or a specific outcome, then what characterizes the experience of poetry?

Recently, a reader of my book, Whole Novels For the Whole Class, pushed my thinking. California English teacher, David Jansson, emailed me this interesting question:

I just finished Whole Novels for the Whole Class and am looking forward to implementing those strategies in my classroom next year. Thank you for some wonderful ideas. 

However, I was wondering if you had any thoughts (or resources) on how to use the core ideas of the approach (processing literature in its entirety, student-led discussion, etc.) when studying poetry? Would you recommend looking at a single poem? Several poems by the same author? Several poems organized around a theme?

I had never considered this question before. I do teach poetry, but the “whole novels” method seemed naturally limited to the realm of stories. The nature of the two genres is quite different, and I’d never tried to connect the two in terms of pedagogy. However, as I thought about my general approach to teaching poetry and what I might recommend in response, I began to notice striking connections between my poetry methods and key aspects of the whole novel approach. The more I think about it, the more I have to say about it…(maybe even a short book’s worth!) Thank you, David Jansson, for turning over this stone for me!

Here is my first attempt at sharing poetry, whole novels-style. First, the concept; then tips for classroom practices.

CONCEPT: Just like in whole novel studies, experience is of primary importance in the study of poetry. Too often, students receive the message in their English classes that poetry exists to be analyzed.  They learn terms, strategies and complicated acronyms to remember them–all in the service of solving a “poem-problem” with what, they understand, is supposed to be a clear answer.  As a reader, scholar and writer of poetry, I can say with confidence that poems are not built for a formulated analysis and rarely come with clear answers!  I think the vast majority of English teachers would agree with me on this; yet sometimes, in effort to reach standards and keep kids on track, common classroom methods still push students into the understanding that we read poetry to analyze and arrive at a specific outcome.

If not analysis or a specific outcome, then what characterizes the experience of poetry?

In the novel, the story is what matters most.  Without it, you’ve pretty much missed the point of reading a novel, right? No matter how progressive the novel, its elements, structures and devices are all in service of telling a powerful story that draws readers in, gives us virtual experience and sends us away with new memories, ideas, feelings and questions. Analysis comes most naturally in the investigation of these feelings, ideas and questions through discussion, rereading and writing (as I show throughout Whole Novels for the Whole Class).

The nature of poetry is different.  Instead of looking for a story, it is the sounds and images in a poem—and their impact on us as we are involved in their curious interactions—that matter most. Sound and images create the strong, subjective experience, which provokes authentic response.  Once students have an authentic response and real questions, rereading, discussion and analysis of the devices that created the response can make a natural next step.

How do we draw students into the experience of poetry?

In the case of novel studies, it’s common to break up the extended story experience with questions and discussions, often jumping into analysis too early in the process.  The whole novel approach seeks to depart from these practices in order to allow readers a more fluid, subjective story experience. With poetry, it’s easy enough to read most poems “whole” before doing much else with them, because of their short length.

Does reading one poem through, one time, create an experience deep enough to provoke authentic response? I think, since most students do not have extensive experience with poetry, the answer is often no.  So we need to design experiences for students that will immerse them in the sounds, images, and feel of poetry.  This is the equivalent of letting them “read the whole book first” in a whole novel study.

PRACTICES: Create an immersive poetry experience for students.  Here are some tips. 

1.     Devote some space in the annual curriculum to poetry, in addition to weaving it into other units.

2.     Begin by creating a variety of reading, speaking and listening experiences with poetry that do not include targeted questions or analysis at all.  Every year I have some students who arrive to my class with a fear or dislike of poetry.  Spending some time away from deconstruction of meaning of poems has always worked to put these students at ease and allow them to open up to poetry anew.

3.     Create an anthology for students. I create a packet of poems as wide-ranging and diverse as possible. I include rhyming and non-rhyming poems, contemporary and ancient poems, poems easily comprehended and others utterly mystifying, classics as well unknown, and always a few written by former students.

An alternative is to create an anthology around a particular theme or image, as David suggests in his message above. One year I created a collection of poems with the common image of rivers, which connected to an ecology unit in science—this is great for helping students with metaphor. I would suggest doing this later in the year (or in a subsequent year), after students have thoroughly experienced the initial, more general poetry unit.

4.     Give students time to read poetry in the packet with no strings attached. I pass out the packets and give students about 10 minutes of quiet reading time. I tell them they may read any poems, in any order. They may write on the packet, underline or highlight, but this is not required. I do ask that they pick one poem that catches their attention, either because they like it, don’t like it, or find it strange.

5.     After about ten minutes, I invite students to read any poem aloud to the class.  We just listen to the poetry.  Nearly everyone wants to join in and read a poem! They may make a comment about why they chose the poem, or not. We may read the same poem several times over if many have chosen it.

6.     Try choral reading. The class picks one of the poems for choral reading. Project the poem, if possible. We read it together in unison.  After reading it once, I ask, “What worked? What needs work?” We decide where to pause. Introduce “line breaks,” as a term. Do we want to pause at every line break? Try it that way! If it’s too much, find some other places to pause.  Mark these on the board if possible.

Try experimenting with tone and volume.  “Let’s get louder at the end, and then whisper the last line!” Have students explain why they make a certain suggestion. This becomes like a music class, finding the rhythm and expression in the poem.

7.     Give students the assignment of choosing a poem from the packet with a small group and preparing a choral reading, using expression, rhythm, tone. Students can have “solo” lines too.  Gestures may be added.  No words may be added or changed.

8.     I’m a fan of everyone memorizing a few poems in his or her lifetime. Assign students to choose a poem from the packet (or elsewhere) to memorize and read to the class.

9.     Check out this amazing activity invented by my mentor, Madeleine Ray, and done here by Nancy Toes Tangel in her Newark 8th grade classroom. Tubes: Experiential Poetry Lesson

10. From here there are many directions students can explore. The key, I’ve found, is that they are now more open and interested in poetry.

After spending several days and up to two weeks on reading poetry and enjoying the oral/aural art form, the desire to talk about the poems, understand them better, and write original poetry arises naturally in students. They internalize many of the devices poets use without being explicitly taught them, and students feel more connected and curious, when engaging in the more explicit activities, which may have fallen flat without the immersion experience.

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  • DeidraGammill

    Great ideas!
    Your awesome post reminded me of Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” (below). For too long, we’ve been forced by our district policies or curriculum (or just because we didn’t know any better)to teach our students that poetry exists to be analyzed and definitively understood, not to be experienced. And yet the beauty and power of poetry, what sets it apart from the novel or short story, is its experiential quality.

    Paul Fleischman’s book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices is a great resource for the high school classroom (and a cool way to integrate some science)because it’s non-threatening and fun. Shelley Stagg Peterson (Good Books Matter) presented at the MS Reading Association conference in December creatively using poems for two voices in social studies (think George Washington and King George arguing about the American Revolution. What a great way for students to experience poetry AND show in-depth understanding of historical events).

    I love the many ideas you posted and can’t wait to use some of them myself. 🙂

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    Billy Collins, 1988

    • David Jansson

      Introduction to Poetry

      I love that Billy Collins poem! I always share it with my classes, but then I feel as if I end up having them live out the ending anyway 🙁


      Thanks for the post, Ariel! Your suggestions were helpful, particularly in having the students experiment naturally with how to read a poem aloud. Usually I do a quick lecture and model for my students how to read poetry out loud, but I think you’re right in that most of it will naturally arise if we give students the opportunity to play, practice, and think about it.

  • Michael Salinger

    Missing one component…

    Writing poetry themselves.

  • Patricia Emerson

    ELA 8th

    Michael is right!  (See his book with Sara Holbrook High Definition for some great poetry ideas.)  The antidote to testing is POETRY in April…writing and reading intesely.  My eighth graders fell in love with pantoums and villanelles in addition to Fleischman’s two-voice poems.  Jeff Sapp has created brilliant historical two-voive examples for Teaching Tolerance that my kids used as mentor texts.  Almost any poem can be used that way; copy-change strategy of Stafford and Dunn (Getting the Knack) is the single most effective writing tool ever!  Pablo Neruda’s odes inspired them (Thanks, too, to Gray Soto’s “Ode to Tennis Shoes.”)  

    Love the idea of the anthology packet.  It’s great to have kids create one, too.  

    The students memorized and performed often.  More than a few memorized several poems by spoken-word artist, Sarah Kay, then went on to find other spoken-word performers…inspiring.  The culminating event was a Poetry Cafe…Onr group of kids performed the climactic poem from Allan Wolf’s The Watch That Ends the Night–chilling, brilliant.  

    As Strunk, whose birthday it is today, said,” Omit unnecessary words.”  Poetry can certainly teach that!

  • Alesia

    Teaching Poetry

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for your suggestions and for bringing up this subject of immersing students in a poem’s sounds and images before analyzing it. One frustration I have had this school year is the emphasis on immediately tearing a poem apart before students have gotten a chance to just enjoy the poem. This picking a poem apart this way can be a big turn off for many students.

    I’ve done some of the things you’ve suggested such as reading the poem aloud, having students read it aloud, and just enjoying the sounds and words. It’s such a pleasurable experience seeing students get into a poem this way.


  • ReneeMoore

    Good Stuff

    Thanks for these thoughts and suggestions. I’m thinking about different ways to use some of these with my community college freshmen comp classes. David’s questions made me think of having students read as many poems as they can find (or I can gather) by the same poet and see what questions or observations they may draw–without lecture from me or use of any other critical sources.  My wheels are turning….

  • Lisa


    Great post! I also love Ralph Fletcher’s “Grandma” – http://clyoungauthors.wikispaces.com/Doors+of+Poetry

  • ArielSacks

    And thank you!

    Thanks all for getting into this conversation with me. I’m thinking that I’d love to make poetry a strong theme in my teaching this year. I always say I’ll weave poetry in throughout the year, but I don’t really accomplish that. This conversation is getting me pumped to make poetry a true thread in my classes. 

    Deidra, I love that Billy Collins’ poem. Yes, yes, yes, that is exactly what I’m talking about!  

    I love the idea of using 2 voices poems. I’m embarassed to say, I have had Joyful Noise in my classroom poetry collection for years, but for some (insane) reason, have never used it how it is intended to be used! Poetry for two voices fits perfectly with the goals I have for phase 1 of poetry.

    Michael, thanks for your comment. My suggestions were meant to be an entry point to poetry study, which would lead to writing poetry, and then listening and reading to classmate’s poems…  Also I’m thinking now that the writing of poetry can be helpful experience for students to draw on when trying to analyze poems. If you’ve never written a poem, how would you put yourself in a poet’s shoes?   

    Patricia, thank you for the poem recommendations!

    Renee, I’d love to hear how it goes. What you describe is similar to what the poet, Michael Harper, did for me when I had the great privilege of his advisement in an independent study of poetry while I was an undergraduate at Brown. He gave me a list of poets–this list included many of his favorite poets and influences, but was also customized for me. Each 2-week cycle, I was to pick one from the list and read everything I could get my hands on by the poet, write my notes and questions in a response paper, and bring to him for a discussion. It was a pretty independent, but powerful journey for me as a student and poet, and I learned a ton. 

    • Madeline Reed

      Poetry with grades 6-8

      Each year I collaborate with teachers and students in my Media Center to provide a project based Poetry unit. I combine individual readings, a wide variety of poetry books from the shelves, and plenty of artwork. I use sculpture that is displayed in the library and project a variety of well-known/little-known artwork…mostly tied to events, books, themes, or places the students can relate to  easily. We discuss all the “artistic” ingredients for each piece, with emphasis on word choice and figurative language…we stretch as far as the students want to stretch. This is followed with a week-long live working “social seminar” using their poetry development a la learning stations around the library. By the end of the week they have created their own book of poems, complete with illustrations, and a dedication page! They share their poetry at the Poetry Smash held on the last day of the project. One of my teachers provided a drink and cupcakes for her students..and we taught them to “snap” fingers instead of applause! It works. It works for every level of learner. It is always fun and each year I tweak the lessons/contents/activities with input from teacher and students. One of our most successful collaborations. Our students typically do very well when it comes to the poetry portions of the blasted testing!

  • sharonwright

    Writing Poetry

    Since I began teaching, my poetry unit has always been my favorite. I love to read and write poetry, and I often read poems to my class that I have written without telling them who the author is. They get a kick out of trying to guess and are truly surprised when I tell them that I am the author. This not only makes class fun, but it also inspires my students to write their own poems. I am sometimes the last person they would think of as cool enough to write funny irreverant poems, so this is really fun for me — like playing a trick on my students LOL…

    This approach to writing poetry is interesting and fun. I also use the idea of “found” poetry during other units throughout the year. Whatever we are reading, I instruct students to find at least 20 words (or 10 depending on the length of the reading assignment) that they find interesting or strange or particularly vivid. They then use those words to create a poem. It’s a great way to combine vocabulary and poetry into other types of readings, especially nonfiction. I have found when students do this activity they better understand the overall theme or main idea of a piece of prose literature, whether fiction or nonfiction.

  • Justin Greene

    Introducing Poetry

    I am so glad that I found this post & conversation.  Currently, I am reading Poem Central by Shirley McPhillips.  It has really motivated me to incorporate poetry throughout the year instead of during a 2 week unit.  My goal is to do at least one poem a week.  That could be reading, writing, reciting, etc.  My goal is to just make my 6th graders more aware.  Usually my students all complain about poetry.  I really want to change that.  I am really going to try hard and use a lot of the ideas found here.  Any more suggestions on how to motivate reluctant poetry readers/writers are greatly appreciated.

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