Kathy Riordan

Kathy Riordan
Florida, United States
April 27
One woman's view of life and the universe. Follow @katriord on Twitter.


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APRIL 7, 2010 9:44AM

Poetry for Middle Schoolers

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When I was in the 8th grade, our language arts teacher in what was then called junior high school had us memorize our first real poem, "In Flanders Fields."  

Adolescence is a complicated enough time for those passing through it, and generally coincides with a student's first serious introduction to the concept of poetry beyond the Dr. Seuss books of childhood.  Unfortunately, it can also become associated with unpleasant aspects of school life, including occasionally bad teachers, and teens develop a skewed perception of the literary form and even an aversion to poetry itself.

A savvy teacher will associate the popular lyrics of the day with the introduction of poetry to middle school students, and not just rely on the time-worn opportunities to memorize a piece like "In Flanders Fields," which for all its power and sincerity is far removed from the realities of today's teen.

Middle school students should be exposed to poetry in a way that energizes and excites them and helps them see the association to song lyric as a way to communicate something in distilled form.  They should learn the joy of the sound of words and not just stumble over the complication of words.

Here are some of my favorite poems appropriate for introducing middle schoolers to the form, grouped in categories that have relevance in contemporary life.



woman self esteem


"I'm nobody!  Who are you?  Are you nobody, too?"   Emily Dickinson's famous lines reach out to the outsider in all of us and assures it's okay to be different, to not be part of the in crowd.  Yeats takes a student through a lyric daydream in a boring classroom to a "brightening glance.  How can we know the dancer from the dance?" 


I'm Nobody - Emily Dickinson

Provide, Provide - Robert Frost

The Silken Tent - Robert Frost

Among School Children - William Butler Yeats 



Fragility of life:

Most students will understand by adolescence that life can be taken in an instant.  They will know about 9/11 and Columbine.  Maybe they've lost a friend or a family member.  Stevie Smith's famous "Not Waving But Drowning" is an excellent piece to have students at that level memorize.  Millay's bittersweet sonnet has been set to music, a good find if the teacher can locate it. 


Out, Out - Robert Frost

Not Waving But Drowning - Stevie Smith

Ozymandias - Percy Bysse Shelley 

If I Should Learn - Edna St. Vincent Millay 



Fragility of the planet:

Teens are also keenly aware of current issues like global warming and the concept of world community in saving the planet.  Hopkins last stanza of "Inversnaid" should go past the wonderful sound of the words to something very real for them:  "What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,/O let them be left, wildness and wet;/Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet." 


Fire and Ice - Robert Frost

Inversnaid - Gerard Manley Hopkins

For Whom the Bell Tolls - John Donne 



Still Life:

In poetry as in art, sometimes a piece is just a snapshot of life, an illustration of an image, whether it's longing for home in England in April, the stirrings of bedtime, the contents of a refrigerator, or a spider web. 


This Is Just to Say - William Carlos Williams

Home Thoughts, from Abroad - Robert Browning 

This Englishwoman Is So Refined - Stevie Smith 

maggie and milly and molly and may - e.e. cummings 

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock - Wallace Stevens 

(The Silken Tent - Robert Frost) 



 poetry magnetic pieces


Students should be taught not to be afraid of poetry, but to use it like just another tool at their disposal, like their digital camera, their smart phone, their laptop.   Snyder's "How Poetry Comes to Me" captures perfectly the tentative introduction "over the boulders at night. . .frightened outside the range of my campfire,"  and Parra's poem brings it all home:  "In poetry everything is permitted.  With only this condition of course, You have to improve the blank page."


How to Eat a Poem - Eve Merriam

How Poetry Comes to Me - Gary Snyder 

Young Poets - Nicanor Parra 

(This Englishwoman is So Refined - Stevie Smith)  



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wonderful recommendations, Kathy!
What a unique and creative post! I noticed that you listed some of my favorite poets....Robert Frost, probably being my favorite! His poem, "The Road Not Taken," would also be an excellent one for teenagers and adults. Thank you, Kathy.
I think I'll be going back to read these either for the first time or again. Thank you!
Since I'm only familiar with a few of them, I'll search for these. Thanks for enlightening us.
Kathy, my fifth grader is about to start the "poetry" lessons in school. They are having a "poetry fest" on April 30th and his is worried. His will be graded on alliteration, personification, simile, metaphor, acrostic poem, shape poem and tone and mood....SHEESH, now I'm worried too. I say all this to say thank you.

I think Emily's will be a great introduction for him... printing now...
Amanda, all I can say is--FIFTH GRADE? What on earth. To grade on alliteration, personification, simile, metaphor, etc. at that point is ridiculous. They should just be getting kids to love it at that stage.
Nice Kathy, very nice. I am very much a fan of Robert Frost. I want to kiss that man. Emily Dickinson, not so much anymore. I used to be a fan of her -- but then I learned every single one of her works can be sung perfectly to the tune of The Yellow Rose Of Texas. I hope that doesn't ruin it for you. Or if it does, that it's even more fun than taking her seriously. It has been for me. Nothing gives me the sort of hoot that that does -- singing Emily to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas at a party. Seriously -- way better than Karaoke. xox
Kissing, really, that's brilliant. Yellow Rose karaoke could be a very effective teaching tool. And yeah, that could kind of put Emily in a whole different light.
Well done, well said. After such as this, a cup of tea, then bed. Rated.
Good advice. My horror story is that our junior English teacher made us memorize 200 lines of poetry--over spring vacation. If there's anyone in my high school class still interested in poetry I'd be shocked.
But Con. . .you still like Stevie Smith.

That teacher should be tarred and feathered.
Ah, with this list it is impossible not to fall head over heels for this sparse and vivid form of expression. All of these must touch such a chord with these fresh, young things. Even with those of us not still so young, or particularly fresh. I think I'm going to reread some immediately. Thank you!
Rating system's not working. I have really tried to rate this. Will come back later and see what happens. Gosh!
Excellent recommendations, Kathy . . . many of those you've named are favorites of mine, including Emily Dickinson, for whom I had a real affinity in High School.
Having taught poetry to middle and high school kids, my first thoughts have always been to lessen the fear factor and allow for joy. When I was first teaching poetry, I think my kids were the ones who asked if they could read and discuss song lyrics for their presentation. If we listen to our kids, we will always find much to learn.

My first thoughts about poetry and junior high came from my mother whose English teacher at that time would simply read poetry to them one day a week. My mother loved those classes and from what she said, so did everyone else. Miss Grenier. Nice memories flooding in. Thanks.
Thank you, Kathy! I'm happy to say that some of the poems you've mentioned are already on my list - and others I will give serious consideration to including. My 6th graders are memorizing "Ozymandias"; 7th and 8th are memorizing "Loveliest of Trees" (8th grade is currently in Washington, D.C. - oh how I hope the cherry trees are still in bloom!). I used Jim Holt's NYT essay from April 5, 2009 - "Got Poetry?" as an introduction. I've made a few converts over the course of the year - here's hoping I get a few more with your excellent suggestions!
cominghome, I'm dying to know which of these were already on your list. And, for what it's worth, if I had been told to memorize "Ozymandias" as a sixth grader, I'd have committed hara-kiri.

I'm sure you're a great teacher.
Oh - and in addition to Emily Dickinson's poems working with "The Yellow Rose of Texas", you can also sing them to the tune of "Gilligan's Island".
all of these are wonderful suggestions!

ANY poetry that can inspire or excite a child to words is a good thing.
edited to add: cominghome, one of the things my husband and I have in common is a fondness for memorizing poetry. He can't tell you what he had to eat yesterday, but he can recite hundreds of lines of poetry. I used to memorize poetry on long car rides in college as a way to pass the time, starting with pieces like "Windhover" by Hopkins and "Provide, Provide" by Frost. Of our nine grandchildren, we have only one who has followed in their grandfather's footsteps of memorizing and loving poetry, sadly, so the three of us look fairly oddball to the rest but can have an entertaining time doing it.
Kathy - you and your husband will LOVE the Jim Holt essay. As to what we've done from your list thus far: Robert Frost - "Out,Out"; "The Road Not Taken" (they had to memorize that one);"Ozymandias" (I misspoke earlier in that the 6th grade doesn't HAVE to memorize it - it's extra credit if they do); "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (I love Donne - so the 8th grade also did "Death, Be Not Proud"). Today the 7th grade is doing "God's Grandeur" (you know you are teaching 7th graders when they laugh at "reck his rod" - sigh) and "Hope is the Thing With Feathers " . 6th and 8th grade have a few weeks before I start the final poetry unit with them. I try and sprinkle poetry through out the year.
Recommendations to take to heart.

I remember discussing Ozymandias with my eighth grade ESL students (really an EFL class.)
I always get choked up at the end with this one. My students think it's the funniest thing, not the poem, but the teacher getting all teary-eyed!!!
cominghome, interesting choices, and some close parallels. I personally like "Windhover" and "Inversnaid" better than "God's Grandeur" for the Hopkins selection; "Windhover" does to words what nothing else does. "Hope is the Thing With Feathers," another great Dickinson. Personally, if I was teaching "Ozymandias," I'd compare to lines I prefer from Eliot in "The Waste Land" (IV. Death by Water): "Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,/Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/And the profit and loss. . . Gentile or Jew/O you who turn the wheel and look windward,/Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you."
Oh, and cominghome, I'm familiar with the Holt essay. Don't you think it's above the heads of most middle schoolers? I'd have to translate that essay into middleschoolese if I was teaching it. "Are there cognitive benefits? I sometimes feel that my mnemonic horsepower is increasing, but that's probably an illusion."

Nope. You've got some pretty sharp 6th-8th graders if they understand that.
Excellent piece Kathy - I couldn't agree more! I didn't find the confessional poets, which I needed at one time in my life, until I was well over the hormone ridden years of sullenness. Had they found one that was age-appropriate, wow I could have had a channel.

I was lucky enough to have a junior high teacher who KNEW how to teach Shakespeare. I will thank her until the end of my days.

Excellent piece and recommendations. Thank you!
Sparking, now you've gone and made me think of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," which was at least partially an inspiration for my own and very young Daddy Did You Dream Me Up
Oh, I don't expect them to get the Holt essay without a lot of help - we read it aloud, and they raise their hands any time they don't know a word. I then define the word and we talk about the sentence - it's tedious, but they've really become quite good at figuring out words through context. I've done the same with essays I've brought to class when teaching rhetoric.
If they get that learning poetry is good in and of itself, I die a happy woman. I will admit here to thinking that most curriculum pitched towards middle schoolers tends to be, imho, "dumbed down". It's work, but the students really get excited when they "get" a difficult word or poem.
I agree with the "dumbed down" stuff. I'd just be comparing it all to memorizing the words of a song, which really is the same thing. Hear it enough, and you internalize it, and it becomes a part of you. Dylan did us all a favor with the video to "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
Suggestions I'll be incorporating:
"Home Thoughts, from Abroad"
"Fire and Ice"
"Not Waving, But Drowning"
"Among Schoolchildren"
"I'm Nobody"
"How to Eat a Poem"
"Young Poets"
- others if I get time. Thank you again!
By the way, for those of you who aren't aware, cominghome has this posted as an open call on her blog, here: Open Call - Poems for Middle School Students
This is so interesting. I taught high school English for one year and remember the power of good poetry that caught the mood of the students. We all would benefit from reading your list.
Great post, Kathy! I'm at the stage, with a 4th and a 6th grader, of just making sure they love it. Silly poetry is best for us at the moment... Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss. At the moment, they're fascinated with a bit of poetry out of a book called Arabat by Clive Barker (highly recommend it). In an homage to Alice in Wonderland section, the characters sing the following to the tune of "O Christmas Tree":

Oh woe is me, oh woe is me
I used to have a hamster tree.

But it got eaten by a newt
And now I have no cuddly fruit.

Oh woe is me, oh woe is me
I used to have a hamster tree.

(Note to self: don't let kids read this just before a long road trip).
Very good. I would add Langston Hughes and Robert Service to this age group.
My fourth grade teacher loved Robert Frost and she read them to us -- one or two a day. I still remember "blueberries as big as the end of your thumb." Teachers can make poetry fascinating. Or not. (I'm sure cominghome does it right.)

My personal favorite is Anyone lived in a pretty how town. "Down they forgot as up they grew..."
Bellwether, "anyone lived in a pretty how town" almost made this list, a wonderful choice.
"This is just to say" is a favorite of Mrs. P's--with reason. "maggie and millie ..." one of mine. I'm partial to Hopkins: I've always thought "Pied Beauty" was magnificent.

And, of course, the kids aren't old enough to handle Donne's "The Flea." But it's an inspired and brilliant poem.
Great list. It's frustrating to me that I, a lover of poetry, have a son who doesn't like it. It may have to do with the 4th grade teacher who made the class write poems, and told him that his (which i kind of liked) were "wrong." I'm still wondering about the criteria for a "right" poem, if one is not working in some strict form. I think we'll take a stab at this poetry thing again...I'll let you know what happens.
Pilgrim, "The Flea" crossed my mind. Briefly.

Ann, what kind of teacher makes 4th graders write poetry and then tells them it's wrong? Poetic form, rhyme, meter, structure, should never be coming at that age. High school, advanced middle school, maybe, unless they want it sooner. I would say, again, it comes with the ardent listening to and study of music to help with structure. Kids do eventually need to understand structure and poetic devices in the study of poetry. . .but not at that age.

Catherine, patricia, Terry, Cranky, thank you, too, for your kind comments. I hope those of you who found unfamiliar poems, or poems you'd forgotten, will (re)discover them.
LOVE your choices. We had to memorize not only Flanders Field, but the Courtship of Miles Standish. These are so much better!
While I encourage my students to write poems and enter contests, I do NOT have them write poems for grades because they are all of the adolescent angst school of poetry writing, and I can't bear to stick a red pen in their still-beating heart when they present it to me on a silver platter!
the best thing an english teacher did for me -- and the rest of our class -- was ask us to find the poetry in music. our music. he said poetry was all around us. and in every song we listened to. he had our attention. and as i dissected jim morrison and ian anderson and yes ... i fell in love with emily dickenson and, most of all, ee cummings. if he wasn't dead, i'd have already personally thanked him. and thank you kathy. i'm in just the sort of mood to check out your suggestions.
Love your topic and choices. :)
I CANNOT believe this! Forty-three comments, and nobody mentioned Alfred Noye's The Highwayman nor Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Those were my favorites in the eighth grade. They seem to be perfect for identifying similes, metaphors, alliterations and cadence as poetic elements (even if only unconsciously absorbed by the reader). Of course, I am prejudiced with The Highwayman. I memorized 24 verses for an eighth grade assignment in Ohio. The next year, I movd to California and offered the same poem in the ninth grade. I got two A's for the price of one.

In college, the poem that hit me in the gut was The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarell. His imagery was morbidly effective. (Obviously not a middle school assignment.) I was prejudiced here because one of my functions in the Navy Air Corp was as a waist gunner.

You have two comments regarding a fourth-grade experience with poetry -- one positive and one negative. I think that, if done right, elementary school would be a fertile field for teaching poetry.

I get the impression that there will be a lot of poetry reading this evening -- thanks to you.
I wish every English teacher could receive a copy of this post and of course, put it to good use. Great recommendations!
I recently wrote about finding my connection to poetry as well. That first connection - well - it hurt. It was devastating, emotionally painful, over-whelming. And yet, incredibly comforting--The realization that I was not alone in my feelings.

Until I found that one poem that connected to my soul I hated poetry. Once that first connection was made I wanted more. I felt bitter for not ever having one teacher who really tried to help me understand, or who never reached beyond the syllabus to guide us by feeling alone.

I love the ideas you've expressed here. What an amazing thing it would be to see teachers using such a guide, reaching teenagers by finding the words that will connect with them.

I'll slip you a note when I publish my experience. I think you may be one of the few who will understand the connection that I was speaking of. At least I hope you will. No- you will. I feel positive of it. As they say... it takes one to know one.
Our 8th grade teacher had us memorize poems every week. I didn't "get" it then, but I sure do now. Like most things that parents and teachers forced down our (then) gagging gullets, I am grateful beyond words for them now and still recite and ponder on their beauty and wisdom. Abou Ben Adam (may his tribe increase); O Captain, My Captain; Thanatopsis (we were getting lesson in vocab, too, I think :-); The Chambered Nautilus; Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, the Highwayman. She sure didn't cut us any slack, but she helped us see beyond the insularity of North Dakota in the 50's and 60's.
I will share this list with my 6th grader who is currently doing a poetry unit at school! :) Thanks!
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