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How to Teach Poetry Analysis: 6 Easy Steps

    how to teach poetry analysis

    Are you looking for help around how to teach poetry analysis? Many students have an aversion to poetry, already viewing it as complex and confusing. Helping them understand how to analyze poetry is a great way to change that. These 6 steps can help.

    If you’re looking for tips around how to teach poetry analysis, I get it. Afterall, students typically have a special aversion to poetry.  (Sigh.)

    But the truth is, our students often don’t know how to analyze poetry. And if you don’t know how to read and analyze poetry, the genre can be intimidating. Afterall, it can break all the rules of conventional English that we teach all year long. The rich figurative language and reading between the lines that say so little yet so much can be a challenge.

    So, before you dive into teaching poetry, make sure you are taking time to teach how to analyze poetry. Once your students know how to analyze poetry, it can change the game – and reduce the moans, groans, and overall resistance to this beautiful form of literature.

    The Importance of Teaching Poetry Analysis

    We’ve all been there – facing twenty sets of eyes blankly staring right through us. However, when we simply tell students the answer– our thoughts on the poem– we’re denying them the opportunity to fully experience the beauty of poetry. If you don’t begin by teaching how to analyze poetry, students will feel defeated from the beginning. Teaching poetry analysis helps lay a foundation of understanding and strategies to help them before they shut down, deeming poetry as “pointless” and “pretentious.” 

    How to Teach Teach Poetry Analysis: 6 Steps to Help

    1. Redefine Poetry

    Students typically have a preconceived notion about poetry before entering your classroom. It’s complicated and confusing, they claim. I’ve even had some students call it “boring” or “stupid.” As teachers, we know poetry is a creative medium for expressing emotion and perspective. It’s an enriching way to explore various literary movements. However, Instead of jumping right into the genre, stir up some interest in a way the students can resonate with. My secret weapon? Music.

    Afterall, lyrics are simply poems accompanied by musical instruments, right? Spend a day unpacking well-known song lyrics. Discuss language, structure, tone, and impact of the lyrics. Point out well-known literary devices, like metaphor and simile. Hint at ones you’ll dive into later. Just let students experience the wonder of poetry without the pressure of analyzing a complex string of abstract ideas and images.

    When you’re ready to introduce a more “traditional” poetry example, consider using Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.” It’s meta yet accessible. Students are able to understand, analyze, and (dare I say?) typically enjoy it as well. Plus, it’s a great segue into a discussion about poetry analysis. (Mission accomplished.)

    2. Focus on Teaching Skills, Not Poems 

    It can be tempting to want students to understand the meaning behind acclaimed poets or your favorite poems. Is it really about students knowing what Poe had to say about the human psyche? Or Frost’s views of the American experience in the 20th century? Of course not. It’s more about providing students with a toolbox to help them interpret written text, right? Therefore, when you teach poetry analysis, anchor your lessons in the skills rather than the poems themselves. 

    Instead, focus on teaching word choice, figurative language, and poetic devices. Understanding word choice, or diction, helps students understand how words hold both literal and implied meanings. Similarly, figurative language helps build meaning by creating strong images and giving words more punch and power. Finally, teaching poetic devices helps students understand how poets create rhythm and flow, deepen a poem’s meaning, or enhance a specific tone or emotion.

    Teaching these skills ensures students have a toolbox they can pull from (and elements they can look for) as they analyze a poem. Trust me. It’s much better than the blank stares and “I don’t knows” you might be used to getting. Once you’ve taught the skills, then you can assess their ability to analyze a poem on their own. Afterall, you can confidently say they have the tools they need to do so.

    3. Play with Line Breaks

    One of the most intimidating aspects of poetry is that it looks different from what students are used to reading. So, after teaching specific poetic devices, give students a chance to play around with line breaks. This time to “play” helps students understand the power of the line break and overall poetic structure. It allows them to see how line breaks enhance meaning, create a rhythm and flow, and add to a certain tone or emotion.

    There are several ways you can play with line breaks. You can begin with a creative writing prompt. Then, after a brief free write, have students turn their response into a poem by playing around with line breaks. Alternatively, take the same approach with an excerpt from a well-known text. Or have students adjust the line breaks in a poem itself. Then, you can discuss why the author made the choices they made and how adjusting the line breaks changes the reader’s experience.

    4. Chunk It Out

    Another way students are overwhelmed by poetry? Having to put their skills to practice on an entire poem. While that might sound a bit ridiculous, hear me out. Some of the poems we ask students to analyze are jam-packed with figurative language, powerful word choice, and skillful employment of poetic devices. We understand their beauty. However, for our students, it just looks like a foreign language.

    Don’t just hand them a poem and set them loose. Instead, as you introduce new skills and poetic devices, consider practicing putting them to use with parts of poems. For example, instead of looking at a six stanza poem, take it one stanza at a time. In some cases, you can take a poem line-by-line. Identify devices. Dive into imagery. Unpack meaning. Then, you have students reread the whole poem, look back at their notes, and then express their full analysis.

    Another way to chunk out a poem is to focus only on one or two aspects at a time when reading a full poem. Instead of asking students to employ an entire toolbox of skills, begin by identifying metaphors or recognizing the overall tone. Or you might ask students to listen as you read a poem aloud and have them pay close attention to the structure and flow as they follow along. Regardless of how you break down poetry analysis, it’s an easy way to prevent students from feeling overwhelmed while building toward a more holistic analysis.

    5.  Work Your Way Up to Independent Analysis

    When you’re ready to put it all together, start by modeling the process of how to put newly learned skills to use when analyzing a poem. It’s a great opportunity to address any lingering student questions. Read a poem as a class and then walk them through your analytical process aloud. I find annotating a poem on the board or projector helps students see the process, emphasizing everything from how many times you reread the poem to how you think about it. My annotations include devices I notice, thoughts I jot down, words I define, and questions I have.

    Next, I encourage students to work together to analyze a poem. Opportunities to collaborate as they learn how to analyze poetry is a step toward independence. Rather than being led by the teacher, they can help each other through the process. Leading up to independent poetry analysis in this way helps solidify their skills while building confidence. It’s also an opportunity for you to observe and note where students need more assistance before moving on.

    6. Scaffold Analysis by Asking the Right Questions

    Whether students are working in groups or on their own, you might be making things harder than they need to be – without even realizing it. One of the questions teachers often ask students is, perhaps, unintentionally overwhelming them in a big way. “What is this about?” We ask. The students? They freeze. Truthfully, that’s a big question to tackle.

    So, rather than asking them what a poem is about, lead them through analysis by providing guiding questions. The depth and amount of questions you provide may vary depending on the poem’s complexity.

    Have the students read the poem once before answering the following questions:

    • Who is the speaker of the poem and what do you know about them?
    • What is the topic of the poem?
    • What is the overall mood or tone of the poem?
      • Can you find two pieces of evidence to support your answer above?

    Then, after reading the poem a second time, have them answer these:

    • What images does the poem stir up? Feelings?
      • Can you find a piece of evidence to support each of your answers above?
      • What do these images and feelings represent?
    • How does the poem’s structure (i.e., stanza, line breaks, rhyme, etc.) impact the poem?
    • How does the speaker feel about the subject of the poem? How do you know?

    Finally, have students read the poem a third time. Then, they can use their answers from the questions above to write a short paragraph answering this:

    • What do you think the speaker is saying/implying about the topic of the poem?

    Trust me. I know it can be discouraging when your students are resistant to poetry. Just remember, their resistance is often rooted in a lack of understanding. That’s why it’s important to step back and understand how to teach poetry analysis.

    By providing the proper how-to guidance and following my advice above, you’ll notice a positive shift in your classroom. Here’s to reducing the poetry-induced moans and groans one step at a time!

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