Speak Freely: National Poetry Month Edition

National Poetry Month is, ironically, not notably different from other months in my classroom because I center poetry so heavily throughout the year. Still, there is something to be said about the collective celebration of poetry that excites students and opens the door for teaching methods that may fall flat at other times in the year. This month, I’m sharing some of my favorite pedagogical practices to introduce during National Poetry Month, as well as some of the poems I return to in my classes year after year.

National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), or 30/30

The NaPoWriMo trend is well-known among writers, as it prioritizes poetic production and urges writers to press pause on self-revision for the month of April. The challenge does not prohibit editing, of course, but any writer who has taken part in a public version of NaPoWriMo will likely agree that there is only so much time for editing each day. The guidelines for this challenge are fairly straight forward: write one new poem every day. That’s it. No requirements with regard to form, length, content or medium. On the surface, it seems like an easy enough challenge, but a lot of writers find that the poems come less and less easily as we get deeper into the month. 

For students, many of whom do not regularly write poetry, the task can be exceptionally difficult. That’s why I like to make modifications to the challenge when I bring it into the classroom. My classes, after all, are not creative writing spaces and the students are responsible for quite a lot of analytical writing already. Still, all students benefit from creative output, both mentally and academically. Crafting a poem offers insight into the writing process that students simply cannot glean from analysis alone. Here are a few ways to make crafting a poem more accessible for students:

  1. Erasure Poetry – This is probably one of the most common methods of poetry writing in K-12 classrooms, as it gives students a concrete starting point. One of my favorite things about erasure, though, is that it often makes strong political or cultural statements. Consider “Declaration,” by Tracy K. Smith, for example. Crafting an erasure poem from the Declaration of Independence, Smith takes one of the most visible documents in American history and uses it to call attention to the continued erasure of people of color in American politics. Erin Dorney presents several styles of erasure poetry that teachers can bring into the classroom. Each of these styles can be replicated in a number of ways, including erasure poems connected to research projects, assigned readings or even current headlines.
  2. Writing prompts – Writing Prompts are probably one of my favorite ways to provoke poetry writing, as it offers students a concrete topic on which to write. Prompts can take many forms, from offering a sample poem that students emulate to writing a headline or song lyric on the board. Teachers can create more complex requirements for classes that emphasize creative writing, such as requiring a specific form with each prompt or challenging students to use all the words from a given headline, ghost line, etc. within their own poems. My favorite resource for writing prompts is Rachel McKibbens’ blog, which catalogs more than one hundred prompts.
  3. Collaborative Poetry – This process can generate a number of poems in short succession, which offers teachers the ability to create, read and respond to poems in a single class period. To begin, I have my students write a single line at the top of a page. All students then pass their papers in the same direction and have a set amount of time to add a new line to the page in front of them. We do this until every student has written a line on every page, giving all students a complete poem of the same length. From there, students can either share their poems out or take some time to craft an original piece by revising the collaborative version they get back at the end of the exercise.

These are just a few ways to get students writing poetry of their own. One of the things I love about writing poems as a class is that the process can push students to formulate thoughts and opinions on the things that most affect their lives. Whether using a prompt, headline or erasure method, students inevitably turn to what most occupies their minds. This offers insight for both teachers and students about the issues that are most important to them.

Sexual Assault Awareness

For those who don’t know, April also happens to be Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This can be a deeply traumatic time for students. Many lack the language to articulate their experiences, while others do not have a strong understanding about the breadth of sexual violence and how many people it affects. I use poetry to draw awareness to this issue for a variety of reasons, but the most important is that poetry about sexual violence opens students’ eyes to how differently that violence can look in different situations.

Mary Lambert’s “Another Rape Poem (Sixteen)” is one of my favorite pieces to incorporate, as students recognize Lambert for her award-winning musical career. The poem can be triggering for students, and it is worth being transparent about the rawness of her words, but the nuances inherent to the poem are a valuable exploration of consent, victim blaming and the shame often experienced by sexual assault survivors. Another fantastic poem is Sierra DeMulder’s “Paper Dolls,” which sends a powerful message to survivors that “the person who did this to you is broken, not you.” One of the most important aspects of DeMulder’s poem is that it communicates strength while emphasizing collective healing.

Desiree Dallagiacomo and FreeQuency deliver a powerful rebuke of rape culture in the performance poem “American Rape Culture,” which critiques pop culture, American idioms and the pervasiveness of sexual assault. Because this poem combines lyrics, headlines and statistics, it creates an opportunity for students to create found poetry that addresses a prevailing issue important to them. From a structural standpoint, the poem presents a framework for synthesizing sources across genres and time periods to create a linear critique of a social issue. Students can utilize this framework to do research into their chosen issue, extrapolate key phrases and information, then organizing it into a coherent argument. All the skills inherent to complex, multi-source research projects are reinforced while also illustrating to students how poetry can operate as a social critique of its own.

Teachable Poems

Suffice to say that I teach a lot of poems across my classes, and I am constantly updating the list of poems I bring into the classroom. Some, though, are staples that I return to almost every year for one reason or another. Here are a few of my favorite pieces to teach:

  1. My Mother’s Tango,” by Ilya Kaminsky

    I love this poem for its wonder. Kaminsky is a master of whimsy and using joy to explore the human experience. Though the underlying sensation of the poem presents a situation of grief, the speaker resists sadness and instead quietly leans into the mother’s condition.
  2. The Widower,” by Rachel McKibbens

    This poem is an absolute powerhouse of imagery. I’ve taught this piece for fifteen straight years, and it is constantly a favorite among students. McKibbens uses an imagist approach to create an aching window into grief and mourning. It’s also fairly accessible, so even students who generally struggle with analysis are successful with it.
  3. Turing Test,” by Franny Choi

Choi takes an unconventional approach in this poem structured after a traditional Turing test. I return to it for several reasons, but most especially because Choi masterfully adapts a test generally meant to identify non-human responses into a critique of the dehumanization of women. It’s also important to situate poems that don’t “look like poems” in the traditional sense.

Naturally, there are many, many poems I would love to include here. Wherever I’ve taught across my career, I’ve developed a reputation for having the perfect poem for almost any lesson. Are you searching for the perfect poem to teach a specific skill, address an issue or just generally engage a class that resists most poems? I’d love to connect and help find the perfect poem for your lesson.

For now, I’ll end with the relatively new poem “A Tomorrow,” by Shane Koyczan. His performance style and writing are always a huge hit in the classroom (see “To This Day” and “Heaven, or Whatever”). His newest offering is a beautiful short film that speaks to the isolation created by the pandemic and looks toward collective healing in the wake of so much grief.

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