Reading Poetry in the Classroom: Bell Ringers

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Rarely a day goes by in which I do not find a “new-to-me” fabulous item in the digitized collections of the Library of Congress. A recent search uncovered this image, titled “Hanging Poems on a Cherry Tree.”

Hanging poems on a cherry tree, 1741

Hanging poems on a cherry tree. Woodblock print by Toyonobu Ishikawa, 1741.

The title inspired me to think about bringing poetry into students’ lives every day as a way to cultivate comfort with the genre while moving them toward appreciation and love. Instead of working with poems in isolated units once a school year, we should be hanging poems in trees so they are ever present.

Below are three ideas for engaging students with bell ringers or warm ups to begin class reading and connecting with poetry.

1) Getting to the Heart

  • Present students with a short poem between 10 and 15 lines long.
  • Ask students:
    • To read the poem silently
    • Then underline what they think is the most significant line
    • Next circle the most important word in the line
      (If they cannot identify one significant word, they should go back to the poem to select another line.)
    • Finally, read the poem a second time to decide if the one word represents the topic or the theme of the poem
  • Pair students to discuss their choices. Share a few as a class.

As an example, in the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening,” by Robert Frost, I would underline “But I have promises to keep,” and circle “promises.” In a re-read I would feel justified in my choice. With a classmate I would share my thinking that the narrator feels he must fulfill promises he has made despite the temptations of the snow.

2) Poem Jigsaw

  • Hand each student one or two lines line from a poem, depending on the length of the lines.
  • Mix a few short poems through the class or give everyone an excerpt from the same long poem. (Students should not know how many different poems have been distributed.)
  • After reading their line(s) and recording one or two sentences of reaction, ask students to move around the room to find someone else with lines from what they think is the same poem.
  • They should sit together to discuss reasons why they believe the lines come from the same poem.
  • Inevitably, unless everyone in the class is working with the same poem, some students will partner with someone with lines from a different poem. They may or may not figure this out after taking a closer look. However, the most significant outcome of the activity is that students are discussing poetry in a meaningful way.
  • Put the poems from the activity in a book for students to access in the classroom.

3) Daily Sharing

  • Ask one student a day (or every other day) to bring in a poem to read aloud to the class. These can be original work or that of another poet.
  • Spread these readings throughout the year so students are regularly hearing and sharing poems.
  • Place the poems in a book. By the end of the year you will have a collection of “Most Loved Poems of Ms. Teacher’s Block 1 Class.”
  • As an added way to interact with the poems, ask students to illustrate them with drawings, photography, or another art form.

How do you regularly engage students with poetry in your classroom?

Visit the “Teacher’s Corner” next month for a follow-up post, “Writing Poetry in the Classroom: Bell Ringers.”

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