Brett Vogelsinger, a ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, starts every class with a poem. It’s a radical idea considering 14-year-olds are a tough crowd and poetry can be hard to understand.
But he’s been doing it for three years and he makes a compelling case on Edutopia for how poems gear kids up for writing and close readings of texts. He has a list of poems—which we include here—and some useful strategies and exercises for making poetry fun and accessible.
Vogelsinger was inspired for his poem-a-day by Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, who introduced Poetry 180: A Poem A Day for American High Schools over a decade ago. And he cites three reasons poems kick start a class well.
- They are short. They don’t take too much time out of class and kids can read a poem and dissect it quickly. “Even the shortest poems can lead to potent discoveries,” he writes.
- They are intense. Unlike novels, which can take ages to get going, they ignite a lot of emotion quickly. “Poetry is where the art of language comes out most strongly,” he said.
- They can inspire kids to write. He’s used Elizabeth Coatsworth’s poem “Swift Things Are Beautiful,” to get kids to write about the tension of opposites.
He suggests activities to make poetry fun and whimsical. Sometimes he has the kids do a “microanalysis” in which they fill in the blanks like this, “When the poem says _______, it suggests that _______.” That allows kids to riff on what it all means. He also has students do word choice in short poems: they consider the mood of the poem, and then pick five words to replace that change the mood (Mad Libs style). “The results are hilarious,” he said.
Poetry’s power to build a child’s mind is similar to that of literature: it is a building block and an escape passage. It’s well-established that word acquisition and literacy are strong predictors of academic achievement. “Poetry is an intense form of language,” writes Morag Styles, a professor of children’s poetry, at Cambridge. It is both personal and universal, she says. “It enlarges the sympathies, helps us understand ourselves better, gives us the pleasure of vicarious experience and offers us insights about being human.” Based on today’s, and the US presidential election, we could all use more of.
Here’s a list he compiled in his Edutopia article, as well as few extras he shared with Quartz. The first eight are geared for young teens; the last four are for any age.
- “Fog” by Carl Sandburg
- “Wild Geese Alighting on a Lake” by Anne Porter
- “Keeping Quiet” by Robert Bly
- “The Balloon of the Mind” by William Butler Yeats
- “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
- “Tariff” by Michelle Boisseau
- “The Terrorist, He Watches” by Wislawa Szymborska
- “Totally like whatever you know” by Taylor Mali
- “Dawn Revisited” by Rita Dove
- “Hands” by Sarah Kay
- “Boarding House” by Ted Kooser
- “On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins
- “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Vogelsinger also recommends poetry books. His kids are ages five and seven, and he finds that sometimes, bedtime stories can be too long. Poetry, not so much. “It’s not that time-consuming, but it’s a very rich language experience,” he says. Here are some books he recommends:
- Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon
- Death of the Hat by Paul B. Janeczko
- Wet Cement by Bob Raczka
- Lemonade by Bob Raczka
- Silver Seeds by Paul Paolilli