Poetic Pain: Teaching Poetry to High Schoolers

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During the holidays, I met up with a longtime friend who, like me, teaches high school English. He told me that he was going to be teaching a semester-long poetry class at his school, and he asked if I had any suggestions. Here’s what I said:

Pick poems that you like. I you think a poem is good, chances are it will show in the way you teach it. Granted, there are times as an educator when you have to teach material you don’t personally enjoy, but it’s hard to fake enthusiasm for a poem you don’t like. If you like the poem, the kids will sense this, and if you’re lucky, they may find themselves enjoying it too.

Use songs to teach poetry. Music is a natural bridge between the students’ own experiences with poetic ideas and the more sophisticated forms of language you would like to introduce them to. I suggest picking some songs you personally enjoy. If you are old like me, the chances are pretty good that they’ve probably never heard the song, thus making it a fresh experience for them. You could also select songs you know they listen to, or better yet, have the students select a song and present it to the class as a poem.

Go from simple to complex. Or as C.S. Lewis phrased it, “The highest cannot stand without the lowest.” Start with engaging and accessible poems to get the students used to thinking about poetry from a variety of perspectives before moving on to more complex discussions of form and structure. Find poems that center on the notions of “life and living” rather than the more erudite topics most of us had to digest in school. Granted, a dense poem like Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is a superb work of art, but unless you want to bleed the life out of your students, I wouldn’t begin there.

Use a variety of poems. Students will probably never like every poem they read (who does?), but the more poets and styles they encounter, the more likely they will find some material they connect with and enjoy.

Use imitation. Have the students create lots of different poems in several different forms. For example, if students are asked to create a parody of a famous poem, it forces them to know the features of the original very well. In the process, they will build their understanding of poetic forms and structure, and at the very least, they will come away with a much more thorough understanding of that work than they ever would have achieved by simply reading the poem.

As an English teacher, I would love it if my students enjoyed poetry as much as I do. The reality is that most don’t, and if we are honest, it is schools that are partially to blame for this. I know I can’t change every student’s attitude about poetry, but my hope is that by adopting some of the strategies listed above, perhaps I can help the kids who really hate poetry to hate it just a little bit less.

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About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. A good first poem to teach would be the children’s rhyme about the Black Plague. “Ring around the rosey, A pocket full of posies, Ashes, ashes, We all fall down.” After discovering that a simple children’s song we all learned is a response to a horrible, cataclysmic experience, it sent me on a quest see poetry in places I’d never expect. Most of rap music is poetry, and the rappers speak through their music to each other, sometimes with mortal consequences. And, there’s always Bukowski to prove that poetry can rock.

  2. Janie Potocki says

    I remember being exposed to “Shout” in college and being horrified….also Beowulf in the language that it was originally written in…being horrified with that also