IN THIS POST: Find book recommendations, activity ideas, and poem suggestions to create a unit study about poetry in this post. Exploring and enjoying poetry can happen at any age, but the content here is designed for upper-elementary or early middle school age students.
What I Mean by Unit Study
Typically when I see unit studies they include a range of activities on one theme or topic and are designed to include multiple academic disciplines (for example, history, math, and science) for a pre-selected period of time. I apply “unit study” a bit differently.
For me, I stick with the pre-selected time boundary, but I don’t incorporate multiple disciplines intentionally. In other words, I pick a section of time to go deep on one subject. In this case, I did a unit study of poetry for six weeks. Included below is how we studied poetry within that timeframe.
Poetry Unit Study Structure
There were two overarching concepts that I wanted to cover with my third-grader and sixth-grader. First, I wanted to introduce and let them practice a few short forms of poetry. Second, I wanted to teach them a bit about how to approach understanding poetry.
Both these concepts could be discussed together when we talked about some of the forms of poetry, but I also set aside time to teach understanding poetry separately.
Choose Poetry Forms
Don’t try to cover everything at once! You know your students and you know what exposure and experience they need and can absorb at their stage.
For our study we did an “I am From” poem (which is more of a free verse style), haiku, acrostic, and concrete poetry. These are short and simple forms of poetry, but they created meaningful momentum and positive attitudes toward poetry. Win!
Find Your Sources
For each style of poem that we did I found a couple books geared toward younger children. As I introduced the poetry, I would read examples from these books.
I’ll include a section below with our book list. At times I incorporated examples from more literary examples as an introduction to longer, deeper poetry.
Make Your Outline
This is where your particular class situation will influence how long and how much you do for each unit. For our little group, I set aside 20-30 minutes each week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
The first day was to introduce the form. We read examples and talked about structure and content.
On the second and third days the girls tried their hands at whatever form we were studying. Sometimes they finished early. Sometimes they used one day for brainstorming ideas and we’d read a couple more examples and then they’d use the final day for writing.
In the end, they had four new poems.
I appreciated seeing their moaning and groaning turn to pride and enthusiasm each time they finished a poem and signed their name to it.
The second part of our outline was a chance to engage with more complex poetry. In these two weeks I didn’t ask them to write their own poems, but we did talk about how to understand poetry written by others.
Books of Poetry for Kids
Under each of these categories there are dozens of other books that are options for using with this unit. If you want additional recommendations, check out this list by a school librarian or this list of poetry anthologies ranging from funny to sweet.
For the most part these books were used as examples of the specific types of poems that we were studying. When we moved into the second part of the unit and emphasized understanding poetry, then we used an assortment of literary poems from various online sources. I will reference those poems in the section below entitled How to Understand a Poem. (The books are linked to available copies at BetterWorldBooks.)
Concrete or Shape Poetry
Poetry Activities by Type
A unit study about poetry, particularly in this age range, can include some engaging activities. Hands-on learning can be hard with language arts concepts, but these poetry forms are ideal for inspiring creativity.
I Am From poetry
To start the unit I introduced the girls to the “I am From” poem activity. We talked about how poetry doesn’t need to rhyme or be in complete sentences. I felt that tossing them into a “free verse” exercise would be a bit too open-ended, so the “I Am From” structure helped them to envision meaningful poetry that was more flexible. Plus, since “I Am From” poems are about yourself you don’t have to learn anything in addition to make it work.
The best overview that I found for the I Am From process is at a blog called Pen & the Pad. Jot notes about significant people, places, and things from your life. Plug into a repeating pattern about yourself. These poems are designed to introduce a person based on the self-selected circumstances of their life that define them.
Haiku poetry originated in Japan. For a look at its origin story, read the book about Basho, Grass Sandals, recommended above.
Three specific lines of poetry form a haiku. The first line has five syllables, the second line uses seven syllables, and the third line goes back to five syllables.
I was already familiar with the 5-7-5 structure and that haiku traditionally emphasized natural elements. What I learned from the title page of Grass Sandals is that haiku also include language that appeals to two of our five senses, or the additional sense of movement.
We read several examples and then I had the girls pick out something in nature to use as a topic. On the next day they sat down and started writing their own poems. It was the only assignment for this day – don’t cram too much in at once. Let them have space to create.
My eldest daughter jumped into doing two haiku; my youngest had enough after one. Since they are three grades apart, I had no problem with this distinction. Use your best judgement.
If you’re up for it: try it yourself! My best effort reflected an unfortunate nature problem we have in our basement – mainly, crickets (nature) in our basement (problem). So my attempt went something like this:
Cricket in the dark
Twitching on the basement wall
I twitch in the light
I confessed to my daughters that I grew up suspecting that acrostic poetry was something adults made up long ago to try to get young students interested in poetry. And while that does seem to be the direction of the form today, acrostic poetry did not start as a way to lure children to poetry.
I recalled the acrostic poetry of the Psalms, even though it does not come across in the English translation. That prompted some more digging, and I came across a brief and fascinating history of the form. Clearly, this is an ancient form and particularly useful in pre-literate and/or storytelling societies that used it as a memory aid.
Just like haiku, I spent the first day introducing the form and reading some examples. The next day we brainstormed ideas and started writing. Acrostic poetry generated more enthusiasm than haiku.
However, I was now aware of a growing pattern: the girls moaned and complained loudly about “poetry, ugh” before our first class and by the end they were brimming with ideas. Hang in there teacher!
I made a very similar confession to the girls about concrete/shape poetry. Surely this one was another ploy to convince children that word-play and poetry was fun?
If anything, they appreciate knowing that I can learn, too.
A quick google came up with a poem called “Altar” by George Herbert. The poem is written to fill in the shape of an altar, as seen from above. Clever!
I changed our approach for this one because there are two creative elements that need to be incorporated: form and content.
Day one: introduce and give example.
I read/showed a couple examples. Then, I isolated the form part. I pre-typed a couple poems from Wet Cement without the visual (just the words). The girls each took the poem I gave them and had to figure out how to represent it.
In the process they encountered some of the challenges of concrete poems – making words/lines fit, estimating spacial arrangements, coming up with a suitable shape to reflect the content.
I definitely recommend this approach when studying concrete poems.
Day two: choose a topic and create your own.
I told the girls, and they were expecting it by now, that they would be writing their own poems. I expected two days for this activity. But, the girls worked a bit longer and harder, and finished in a day.
They chose a topic, came up with some rhyming words, and set about writing their poem. Once they had a poem written they decided how to incorporate it into a shape.
Outlining and filling are two common ways to make a concrete/shape poem work. My eldest daughter had a flower and a church that she outlined with the words. My youngest daughter filled the belly portion of her drawing of our cat, Marbles.
I recommend Wet Cement for examples of outlining and A Curious Collection of Cats for vivid pictures of how concrete poems can be the shape of the poem.
For an outside-the-box poetry activity, older students may enjoy the challenge of book spine poetry. This blog post has the full details and some suggestions on how to use book spine poetry. To put it simply, pull books off of your shelves and arrange the titles as lines of a poem.
So much fun and definitely a lot harder than it sounds!
How to Understand a Poem
My hopes for the last half of our unit study was to provide a few observations and strategies for the girls to better appreciate poetry. I selected examples primarily from Poetry Foundation. From experience, I opted for this section to be mostly conversational style – we did have some formal instruction sneak in at the beginning though.
Overview of 3 Priorities
For this section, I had twin intentions of teaching strategies for going deeper with poems and also exposing my children to poetry to enjoy. This took on three steps which I will go into in the following passages. For now, here’s the headline.
Read the Poem Out Loud
Annotate a Poem
Enjoy and Appreciate
Read the Poem Out Loud
The first thing I taught, and the one thing I am most likely to ignore/forget myself, was to read the poem out loud. Two times. Conveniently, this gave each girl a chance to read the poem.
We started with a familiar poem from one of our earlier explorations of poetry: The Eagle by Alfred Lord Tennyson. This was a comfortable place for us to start, but it is an accessible poem to start with even if this is your first exploration.
We have talked about the poem scheme (AAA BBB) and line and stanza. Without meaning to, this moved us into a conversation about iambic tetrameter.
In addition, and particularly, these first couple weeks we talked about annotating poems. I asked the girls, after we had read out loud, to note any words that they didn’t understand or to make notes next to questions or underline favorite sections.
Annotating poetry was our primary emphasis for the next several poems. This is a great way to practice note-taking, get a conversation going, and introduce repetition, perspective, imagery, similies and other poetic devices.
We used the following three poems for these exercises:
“The Eagle” by Alfred Lord Tennyson
“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth and
“Who Has Seen the Wind?” by Christina Rossetti.
Enjoy and Appreciate
For the last couple days of our unit study about poetry we relaxed a bit. I knew the routine of annotating every session would get predictable and “boring.” I wanted to introduce a few more interesting poems before we finished and also find a way to encourage the girls to look for what they appreciated (regardless of what poetic devices had been used).
After much searching, I landed on four poems to hopefully accomplish this final goal. Two were in the book Hip Hop Speaks to Children and two I found at Poetry Foundation. For two days we read two of these poems and the girls recorded their favorite line from the poem. My youngest daughter loved the vividness of “Harlem” and went on to memorize it.
The two poems we read from Hip Hop Speaks to Children were:
“Harlem” by Langston Hughes and “Books” by Eloise Greenfield.
The other two poems we read were:
“Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant” by Emily Dickinson and
“My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson.
That was it. Nothing fancy. It was an opportunity to explore different topics in poetry and enjoy the creativity of the words.
More Unit Studies
This unit study of poetry builds on other poetry lessons that we’ve incorporated into our previous years of schooling. Nor will this be the last effort to engage poetry (much to the chagrin of my eldest daughter who is not entirely a fan).
What unit studies have you loved for your students?