Finding Inspiration in Nature: Reading and Writing Poems about Animals

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.

Text of William Blake's poem "The Tyger." A drawing of a tiger appears underneath the poem text.

Tyger, Tyger [ca. 1789]. Illus. in: William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience, pl. 42. “Copy C” with special title page dated 1789, printed from plates of the 1789 edition.

When thinking about some of my favorite companion poems, I revisit William Blake’s “The Tyger” and “The Lamb.” I like to pair poems, but these two were paired by Blake long before I began the practice. What I am thinking about now is how descriptions of animals can create beautiful images as well as be used as metaphors and symbols for human qualities.

Start by reading one or more of the suggested poems below, or others of your choosing, to engage students with depictions of animals that emphasize a variety of characteristics, from sounds and sights to movement and metaphor:

Ask students to read the poems as a class, in small groups, or individually, noting descriptions and word choice related to the animal in each poem. Offer the opportunity for them to react to the ways in which the poets have portrayed the chosen animals.

Next, introduce students to writing a poem about an animal. Invite them to brainstorm words, phrases, sentences, and questions about a favorite animal, insect, bird, or mythical creature. This activity may best be used with students who are already comfortable with writing original poems.

Consider using these prompting questions for inspiration:

  • What are its colors?
  • What does its outer layer look like?
  • What sounds does it make?
  • How would it feel to touch it?
  • How does it move?
  • How does it smell?
  • How does it communicate?
  • How does it behave with others of its kind? With strangers?
  • What is its habitat?
  • What is under its outer layer?
  • What is its personality? (Aggressive, docile, inquisitive, nurturing, intrusive, etc.)
  • Does it have a metaphorical or symbolic meaning?

Encourage poets to use words, phrases, or sentences to create a verbal portrait of their animal. Some may also choose to emulate William Blake to sketch their creature.

After students create a verbal image of their animal, offer the opportunity to partner or share in small groups. Ask thought partners to offer feedback about descriptions, ask questions, or make suggestions for how to turn connected ideas into a poem.

Also consider offering students a variety of poetic forms to use as models such as haiku, cinquain, or sonnet. (You can find examples of many poetic forms through the Poetry Foundation’s Glossary of Poetic Terms.) Students will differ in their preference for a strict format or free verse.

Once students have written a poem, ask individuals to share aloud or via a shared physical or virtual bulletin board.

How do you ask students to explore the natural world through poetry?

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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. In 2015, in one of my earliest Teacher’s Corner posts, I wrote about short poetry activities to use at the beginning of class, also sometimes […]

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Rebecca Newland, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, discusses the platform (“GRAB THE MIC: Tell Your Story”) of the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Jason Reynolds. She offers ideas on how teachers can extend Reynolds’ platform among students and the larger school community so everyone has an opportunity to tell their story.