Teaching Poetry Out Loud: Helping students make connections with poems through their selections

Renee AngleWhen participating in the National Poetry Out Loud competition, selecting a poem to memorize and recite is an important decision. Students who have stories to tell about why they select the poems they do at the regional finals really demonstrate how having a connection--and not necessarily a personal one--to a text can make learning and working with that poem more enjoyable and produce a compelling performance. One of the goals the Poetry Center has in serving as a regional partner for this national program, is to set students up to help them start to have a conversation with their poem.  This conversation invariably starts early in the poem selection process. Leaving students plenty of time to read broadly is essential to fostering these connections with the text.



  • Some ideas that have cropped up through working with teachers at the Poetry Center and observing school competitions in the Southern Arizona region include:
  • There seem to be waves of students choosing similar poems each year.
  • But it's really important to let the students choose their own poems; they have so little choice about what they read at school, and this is a chance for them to select something to which they might really connect.
  • It's important to expose kids to a whole range of poems so they know what's out there. Also, they need to see the difference between poems on a page and spoken poems.
  • The national curriculum recommends reading a poem-a-day as a class and giving students time to browse the anthologies. Here are a few ideas to mix things up:
  • Read at least some poems that aren't in the POL anthology as a way to showcase recitation styles, different kinds of poetic practice, and diversity of voice.
  • Show animated poems and poem videos.
  • Show great national performances, but show good work by local poets too so that students have a sense of how the whole community participates in Poetry Out Loud.  Additionally, it can be beneficial for students to seeing a range of skill levels that participate in the program.

Poetry Everywhere with Garrison Keillor: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/poetryeverywhere/uwm/index.html

The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/video

  • Show recordings of young, local poets reciting their own work or memorized poems.

Tucson Youth Poetry Slam: http://www.tucsonyouthpoetryslam.org/

The University of Arizona Poetry Center's Online Performance Primer: http://poetry.arizona.edu/k12/poetry-out-loud/performance-primer

The University of Arizona Poetry Center's WordPlay blog: http://poetry.arizona.edu/wordplay

  • Show recordings of poems read by great performers on voca, the Poetry Center's Audio Visual Library: http://voca.arizona.edu/
  • Challenge students to catalogue their own reading preferences. Do they prefer short poems, poems that rhyme, poems on a certain theme or topic? What are their expectations for what they want to find in a poem? Once they've done this,  ask them to read a poem they might initially find unappealing, that doesn't conform to one or more of their preferences/expectations. This assignment can also incorporate group work. Have peers select recommended reading for each other, trade poems to read aloud to each other or silently.
  • In addition to the National Poetry Out Loud Homepage, here are other websites that feature daily poems. Some of them allow you to sign up to have poems emailed to you directly.

POL, listed on the homepage: www.poetryoutloud.org

The Poetry Foundation Homepage: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/ (Also has a Poetry App)

Poetry Daily: http://poems.com/

Academy of American Poets Homepage: http://www.poets.org/

Poetry 180: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/

The national curriculum recommends discussing poems in class as a way to increase understanding of material. This is important, but also consider finding new ways to talk about what a poem "means." If "meaning" is over-emphasized in teachers' presentation of poetry in general, it can deflate an excitement for or desire to engage with the genre. Or, perhaps even worse, impede deeper more authentic connections with the text. Not addressing the question of "meaning" directly doesn't mean that students aren't engaged with this question. Through preparing a poem to memorize and recite, students are developing and using close reading skills--more actively than we perhaps see them do in a traditional essay format. Here are some ideas for discussing "meaning" in a more active way.

  • In class discussions emphasize what a poem is "doing" rather than "meaning." A poem is an event, not an object. Ask students to interact with the poem accordingly.
  • Cut up a short poem and ask them to reconstruct it using clues they already know about poetry such as line break, rhyme scheme, punctuation, imagery, etc. Or present a poem without line breaks (in a paragraph block) and ask students to create line breaks for the poem. Why did they make the choices they did? (Both these activities require analysis skills, but aren't directly asking questions about meaning. Meaning is illuminated, in part, through the choices a student makes in reading the poem which is similar to the practice of memorizing and performing a poem.)
  • Ask students to attempt "a negative translation" of a poem. For each word of the original poem, they should find its opposite. This requires some willingness to use the imagination, but what results is an entirely new poem that can serve as a kind of x-ray to the original and invite discussion about the choices and intentions the original poet had when writing the piece. Here is a quick example of how the process works.

Original Poem

I am not a painter.

Student's "Negative Translation"

We are IRS tax auditors.

How else do you help students select their poems for use in Poetry Out Loud school, regional, state, and national competitions? We'd love to hear your ideas.

Renee Angle is the Poetry Center's Program Coordinator. She holds an MFA from George Mason University.

For more information about Poetry Out Loud, please see our website.

Created on: 
Monday, December 5, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents