Poetry, Figurative Language, & Student Engagement

Poetry=Daydreams

Confession: my husband, an elementary school teacher, despises poetry.  He’d rather do dishes, take out the trash, cook, clean the litter box, go to the dentist, watch a RomCom, than read whatever I present to him as: “This is the single best poem on the planet, you must read this!”  Whenever I win the epic battle and he actually reads a poem, he admits to enjoying it; however, he refuses to discuss it.

This example illustrates the feelings of many of my high school students.   Typically, students are forced to read a poem (it’s part of an assignment) and several will say, “Mrs. Lee, I actually like this poem” as if the possibility of enjoying “The Truth About Public Transportation” by Allison Joseph seemed as impossible as enjoying school on Saturday.

On this three-day weekend I’ve been reading Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins, pausing after each poem  smiling, thinking of a specific person that matches each poem, and wanting the opportunity to share each one with my class.  But would the students allow themselves the freedom to be playful and enjoy this poetry?

Students feel like they don’t ‘understand’ poetry.

At the beginning of any year, there are groans when I pass out a poem.  Due to this, I start with narrative poems that help students connect personally with the writing.  For example, I often start with “Little Brother” by Naomi Shihab Nye and the assignment is for students to annotate with reactions and connections only.  I have sentence stems on the board, but after a few times, students don’t need the stems and they are comfortable with more organic annotations.

At this stage, I don’t ask for any academic language; my goal is connection and enjoyment.

High school students struggle with identifying and understanding figurative language.

One day, I expressed frustration that my students were not able to identify figurative language, let alone discuss the impact of this choice on the text.  My husband responded by saying, “Similes and metaphors were hard for me in high school.”  First, growing up on Ray Bradbury stories, this idea of not recognizing a metaphor in a bucket of unimaginative phrases seemed  implausible.  Second, who was this non-poetry reading man I had married?

Since this discussion years ago, I’ve not focused on identifying the figurative language as much as I have focused on responding to the impact of figurative language.  Typically, if I asked students to pull-out their favorite line in a poem, it contains figurative language and then we can have a discussion about the writer’s choice.  At the same time, I still provide activities to help students independently identify similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, etc. Here is an example that will serve as a warm-up for this week:

You can make a copy here.

I think the key to allowing high school students who don’t love poetry to gain an appreciation for it is to inundate them with amazing texts.

If you would like to see some of the poems I use, click HERE and please add one poem that you would recommend to the list!

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