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Narrative Poetry in the Middle and High School Classroom

My weakness as a literacy teacher is poetry. This could be related to a censorship issue that occurred tangentially related to my classroom in my first district. I think that it’s something I’ve always struggled with as a teacher though. I pride myself on being knowledgeable about YA prose but I don’t read much contemporary poetry and students tend to immediately shut down when presented with canonical poems. I have read some narrative poetry that seems to resonate with students so I thought I would share them. I’d love to hear how others incorporate poetry into lessons. I need all the help I can get in this area.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff is a touching story about two girls from very different backgrounds trying to make it through high school. LaVaughn needs money to go to college and Jolly needs someone to watch her kids so she can finish high school. Wolff’s sparse free verse highlights the struggles faced by each girl and the bond they create by trusting each other. As a short, simple read, it’s a good introduction to poetry to readers who are timid about poetry. And it’s the first in a series so there’s somewhere to go when the readers get hooked.

Several years ago, Sonya Sones was all anyone could talk about, mostly because her books were being challenged. However, these books really speak to a particular cache of students. They are a great introduction to narrative poetry and perfect for reluctant readers. A popular title is What My Mother Doesn’t Know but my favorite is Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Sister Went Crazy. This is one of Sones’s lesser known titles that is a somewhat autobiographical account of Sones dealing with her own sister’s mental illness. It brings the topic of mental illness to an age group that isn’t normally involved in the conversation. The short, intense poems get to the heart of the matter and capture an adolescent’s confuse and indecision about something as complex and emotional as mental illness.

Another popular poet in the past few years has been Ellen Hopkins. Her smash hit, Crank introduced thousands of teens to poetry and to the seductive and addictive qualities of drugs in achingly raw poems. Her books deal with the real and gritty effects of drug abuse and other unhealthy habits. For those reasons, I would make particularly sure this is the right book for the right reader. And again, with both Hopkins and Sones’ books, there are additional related titles so students can keep exploring if they enjoy the poetry.

Jacqueline Woodson’s writing is so lyrical that it’s easy to mistake her prose for verse. locomotion is written in 60 poignant and sometimes humorous poems about Lonnie. Orphaned with his sister when he was small, Lonnie has found a way to channel his energy in poetry and through his writing manage his grief. As his teacher tries to encourage this creativity, Lonnie battles his inner critic that tries to crush his desire to create. Readers will root for Lonnie and gain an appreciation for the sparse beauty of poetry along the way.

I’ve saved the best for last. Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog is one of my favorite reads. Jack, too, discovers poetry through the course of the story. Readers watch Jack’s acceptance of poetry grow and prowess with words develop. In the end, Jack is able to relate the emotion in the poems he reads to the love in his own life. 20120814-181450.jpgIt’s a touching story of how words have the power to help us see ourselves clearly.

I plan to spend some time this year making sure my students are immersed in all kinds of powerful words including poetry. It will be a stretch for me and I welcome any suggestions to add to my list. Here’s hoping we all are successful again this year in teaching our students the ability of the RIGHT word at the RIGHT time to change everything.


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