Introducing Students to Poetry through the Work of Emily Dickinson

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

[Emily Dickinson, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right]

[Emily Dickinson, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right]

Sometimes just the look of a long poem intimidates students. One way to ease their misgivings may be to present poems that are visually brief, but rich with poetic language and insights. One prolific American poet, who wrote many poems that fit these criteria, is Emily Dickinson, one of my personal favorites. The website of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts has a wealth of information about the poet and her work which you can use to introduce her to your students.

Consider beginning with a selection of poems, perhaps two of three with similar topics or themes, to work with as a class. If you use a textbook it may offer choices that are straightforward for all of your students to access. Read and discuss the poems in as much depth as students require to gain some facility in working with Dickinson’s poems.

One way to help students access the poems is through listening. On December 8, 2014, in honor of her 184th birthday, the Library of Congress’s Poetry and Literature Center hosted a marathon reading of Dickinson’s poems from 8am-5pm. One Dickinson poem I especially like and have read many times with students is “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”, the recording of which can be found just after the 1:37 minute mark in Part I of the reading. There is also a transcript to make it easier to find recordings of other poems you may wish to share. The Library also has a number of items of notated music that set Dickinson’s poems to music and could perhaps be performed by students in your class or the school band or orchestra.

Once students have had some experience with the idiosyncrasies of Dickinson’s free-verse it may be time to ask them to interact with a poem on their own. For many years each student in my American literature class worked with one poem. Possible methods for matching students to poems include:

  • Asking each student to choose a poem based on the first line, which also serves as the title
  • Assigning a poem to each student. I did this in the winter of the school year after I knew my students well. I would choose a poem I felt would speak to each. Often I did this well, but not always. Offer students the opportunity to choose a different poem if the one assigned does not resonate with him/her.
  • Asking students to pair or work in small groups to choose a poem for each to explore

I asked students to grapple with their poem and produce three elements:

  1. Something written about their interpretations of the poem and its meaning
  2. Something visual to bring the poem to life
  3. Something oral,* usually in the form of a reading or recitation of the poem, as well as sharing their visual element and discussing their interpretation

Consider using the poems of Emily Dickinson as an entry point into poetry because of what they offer with their richness of language, meaning, and effect.

*Provisions can always be made for students who are reluctant to speak in front of the class. However, working with them individually to prepare can often alleviate many of their fears. Additionally, as a former public speaking teacher I think it is important for students to work toward becoming comfortable speaking to a group. If this is not feasible for individuals or the group as a whole, alternatives can include students recording the presentation or creating a video that may also serve as their visual element with a vocal message.


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