Top Tips for teaching poetry

We asked our Teacher Trailblazers for their top tips for teaching poetry. Here’s what they came up with. During 2020-21, we’ll also be regularly publishing short exercises, created by Teacher Trailblazer Gareth Ellis. Check these out here.

Tips from 2019 Teacher Trailblazer Gagandeep Chaggar 

  1. Draw on your students’ real life experiences – use their own experiences and memories as a springboard for detailed imagery and emotions. They may think they don’t have an exciting life but poetry can be about little moments that create strong emotions and they have all definitely felt strong emotions at some point. I always include a lesson where students write an autobiographical poem using the sentence stem  ‘I am…’ and model this with a poem I have written myself in that style about my own self and life.
  2. Pick a theme for the lesson – this will help the students who tend to get carried away with their ideas. It will ground them and allow them to concentrate on concrete details and ideas in their poems. Depending on the theme, use as many visuals as possible to inspire students.
  3. ‘Close your eyes’ – I used to write with an author in a First Story workshop and he used to tell us to close our eyes when we were recalling memories or conjuring ideas for imagery and poems. It ended up being the name of our anthology when we published our work and has always stuck with me. The calm and individual space this simple instruction can create is invaluable when teaching poetry.
  4. Teach students the importance of a drafting process – I usually write a poem which is an acceptable (but not exceptional) standard but then spend some time getting students to work together to improve it. You could even explain how students should improve it. For example, one group vary the punctuation for effect, one group upgrade the vocabulary, one group extend the imagery and so on. This will hopefully give them ideas of what to look out for when trying to redraft and improve their poems. See below for how to use free writing in the drafting process.
  5. Free writing – allow students opportunities to just write and not think too much. Use the ‘Close your eyes’ method, a theme and/or visuals to build ideas and vocabulary then challenge them not to take their pen off the page for longer than a few seconds and just write for a set time. Even if they are just writing reams of nonsense, this approach can help convey pure emotions and images which they can then pick out to develop in the redrafting process.
  6. Model poetry writing using some of your favourite as well as least favourite poems – it is really important to expose students to different voices, themes, styles and vocabulary with the hope that they will be inspired by at least one of them. I always try and ground the poems in experience. For example, I start the unit with a poem called ‘Rainbow’ by John Agard and before reading, I explain where I was when I first read it and why it is so important to me. This helps students realise that poems can be about the experience of reading as well as writing them. You could ask them what kind of experience they want their reader to have.
  7. Enjoy it! Get students to experiment with ways of expressing themselves. Use smells as stimuli. Use videos of experiences as stimuli. Use detailed pictures as stimuli. Use the space of the room and get students moving around. Use musical instruments to create rhythm. Use different forms of poetry to write. Use different poets to model poetry writing.

Tips from 2018 Teacher Trailblazer Lyndsey Chand

  1.  Set time limits – and stick to them– I tend to give students no more than eight minutes per task. This forces them to write SOMETHING and, in a strange way, removes the pressure – after all, no one can write a masterpiece in eight minutes. It’s amazing what students can come up with in this time, though
  2.  Set a warm up exercise– No P.E. teacher would expect students to play a match without warming up, and minds need warm up time too! I often set an automatic writing exercise, giving students a prompt phrase or word and three minutes to write about it. It doesn’t matter what they write, and if they run out of ideas, they can just write the prompt word over and over – the only rule is that they can’t stop writing. I like to then ask each student to read out a word or phrase they have written, to build up their confidence in sharing their work.
  3. Write with your students– If you set them a task, complete it yourself at the same time. If you expect them to read their work at the end, read yours as well – and talk them through it, pointing out the bits that you found difficult or still aren’t happy with. It’s also great to visually show them your writing so that they can see where you have messily scribbled ideas, or edited as you were writing.
  4.  Teach students to draft and redraft– If possible, arrange one-to-one or small group tutorials to give specific feedback on their work. Model the drafting progress (using your own writing, if you feel brave!)
  5. Expose students to great poetry– Use this to inspire and stimulate their writing. Show them a range of poems, including those you think are ‘too hard’ for them. Include a variety of forms, genres and poets. This will encourage students to raise their game and broaden their poetry toolkit (as well as being enjoyable!!)
  6. Celebrate students’ work-This might take the form of praise after a reading, or a school poetry anthology. Perhaps students could read their work at a school event, or have some published in a school magazine. Show them that poetry is important and worthwhile within your school community!

Tips from 2018 Teacher Trailblazer Fran Pridham

  1. Research isn’t cheating – If you want to include a snake in your poem use the internet to find pictures and facts on snakes. Find a snake in a local zoo and take notes.  All these things will improve the specific detail in your poem.
  2. Ask a friend to read your poem aloud – so you can hear what it sounds like.  If it doesn’t sound right, change it.
  3. A poem evolves –  After writing put your poem away for a time and then review it later with fresh eyes.
  4. Join a writers’ group – If you’d like other people to read your work, whether this means being published or winning a competition, ask others for honest feedback. 

Tips from 2017 Teacher Trailblazer Joanne Bowles

  1. Don’t keep poetry in the classroom. Use everyday spaces such as corridors, toilet doors and even outside spaces.  Keep it fresh and relevant by updating the poems on display.  Use a variety of poems past and present.  Engaging students with witty, short poems is just as relevant as exposing them to Sassoon and Keats. Display poems written by your students in eye-catching attractive displays.  Think outside the box in how the poems are displayed.  Use props to engage all the senses.
  2. Create poetry bookmarks which you can give out during poetry week.  Every time someone borrows a book from the library give them a poem – link this to the theme of National Poetry Day, or some of your ‘school themes’.
  3. Open their eyes to what poetry actually is. Many students will recognise rap and grime and find this accessible.  The same applies to song lyrics. Give them the current number one with the title missing and read it aloud as a poem.  Once you have got students listening to this and beginning to break it down and analyse it, then you have them hooked and more willing to tackle ‘heavier’ works.
  4. Be honest yourself and be prepared to share your tastes with the students.  Hold a poetry reading during lunchtime and invite staff members and students to read aloud their favourite poems.  Get them to say why this poem is their favourite.

Tips from 2017 Teacher Trailblazer Kate Brackley

  1. Write with the students. Teachers always say how easy it is to write a poem, so complete the task with your students and be the first to share. 
  2. Use poetry to get to know your students. The first thing I ask my Year 7 class to do is write a Furniture Poem about themselves. It gives you a real insight into the new students in front of you and allows them to see more than one side of you if you take part too. 
  3. Use poetry in every scheme of work. Haikus are great for focusing descriptions, and a villanelle in the voice of Ophelia, for example, develops an insightful understanding of the character. 

Tips from 2015 & 2016 Teacher Trailblazer Donna Kedward

  1. Read poetry for pleasure. Don’t always introduce poetry into the classroom as a form of ‘work’. Start or finish the lesson with a poem that has recently caught your attention and explain to the students why. I always find that standing at the front and performing poetry engages the students and they see it as fun and entertaining.
  2. Create displays. Always display a variety of students’ poetry around the classroom and in corridors. Use vibrant images to put alongside them and soon enough, you will find people reading them and commenting on them. You could create a space for comments; naming the poems they like and why. When students see people praising their work, they will enjoy the success and it will encourage them.
  3. Use visual stimuli. This is particularly helpful if your students find it hard to think creatively. Often, I display an image on the board.  Encourage students to mind-map words, feelings and emotions the images create and when they have a page of effective vocabulary, the thought of writing poetry becomes less daunting. Additionally, use objects that the students can touch and smell and encourage them to focus on the senses.
  4. Create a certain atmosphere. Try playing music and soft sounds in the classroom. I often play music when the students enter and they immediately engage with their surroundings. When writing poems with themes of nature, play sounds from forests, the sea etc. Get the students to close their eyes and put their head on the desk and allow them to listen carefully. They become more involved and often, effective phrases and vocabulary come to their minds and they become excited by this.
  5. Be passionate at all times! Students thrive off your passion. If you are keen and excited by the words that you read – they will too!
  6. Experiment with structure. This is important as it seems to be what students find more challenging. Introduce poems that have interesting structures and explore the reasons behind enjambment, caesura and the forms they are written in. I use a bell that students ring for every punctuation mark when I read the poem out loud. Link this to pace and speed and how it can represent certain things in the poem. Students can then experiment with structure in their own poems.

Tips from 2015 & 2016 Teacher Trailblazer Ben Bransfield

  1. Poetry now. Expose your students to what is being published at the moment and give them, and yourself, syllabus pit-stops: get your department or library to order in a leading magazine such as The North or The Rialto, copies of the latest Foyle Young Poets or Forward anthologies, or find competition winning poems online that you like. Read them out loud, lots of them. Pause for students’ responses but don’t get bogged in dissection – read multiple new poems for pleasure in the precious time you have with them. Try shadowing the TS Eliot Prize with one of your sets or with just a few students.
  2. Written feedback. Isn’t it a delight to collect in a batch of poems rather than a stack of essays? We perhaps owe it to our students to be more concrete in our annotations, though, and to take their poems as seriously as their coursework: don’t be afraid to suggest line breaks, the removal of words that aren’t earning their keep, to challenge abstract nouns, lazy adverbs, where you think a poem might better start or end. Keep suggestions in service of the students’ own voice, pinpoint and praise imaginative leaps in sound and imagery. Not only will they appreciate your attention, but suddenly creative writing just got important: in fact, isn’t it as necessary to their toolkit as anything else? Deliver your feedback on a post-it, a postcard; suggest another poem to a student that he alone might enjoy – or attach it with a paperclip. Whatever you can make time for.
  3. Next draft. As students increasingly move through syllabuses at breakneck speed, returning to edit old ‘completed’ poems can be a fascinating reflective exercise that might initially be met with grumbles. As poets, we might leave first drafts alone for a month or more and yet as teachers we might unhelpfully be suggesting to students that all can be polished in one homework because-we-need-to-move-on; using a lesson to model the redrafting process on last term’s long-forgotten poem can help students to learn patience, to practise creative development, and to manage perfectionism.
  4. Marketplace. If you make students read out their own poems one by one – are they always actively listening to each other or just waiting in boredom or terror for their turn? Abandon pens, chairs, and let your students move freely around the space for at least twenty minutes to read peers’ poetry left on tables; participate alongside them, insist on silence, and you can effectively turn your lesson into an exhibition, an event. Open a discussion afterwards about what the students enjoyed; send them out of the room on that positive high.
  5. Share with your team. In department meetings, share poems that you have discovered, and poetry writing lessons that have gone well. Forward plan and dedicate some departmental time, perhaps even whole school INSET, to sharing best practice with your colleagues. If you champion creative writing at your school then other teachers might be inspired to follow your lead and ultimately more students will benefit. Ask your maths department to demonstrate the possible permutations of a sonnet as a starter, align your poetry stimuli for a week with the science syllabus: forge completely unexpected cross-curricular links to show students and to remind parents that poetry permeates everything.

Tips for 2014 from Teacher Trailblazer Katherine Whittington

My top three tips for establishing a culture of poetry in a school….

  1. Make the Library space and stock all about the students. Ask them what they like about it and what would make them use it more. Target some of the more reluctant students – they might just surprise you. Let them make stock recommendations, talk to them about their favourite poets. Act on your promises, make changes. And then plaster the walls in the students’ work – our Library is full of poems by our young writers, and these individuals are like celebrities within the school.
  2. Maintain momentum, however difficult that might sometimes feel. Our glorious English department run inter-House poetry competitions throughout the year, ensuring poetry is always a topic of discussion. And we stagger trips and events across each term, so creative writing is always on the students’ minds.
  3. Encourage every student to recognise they have a unique voice and a story to tell. Celebrate diversity and experience, or even lack of experience. If they speak another language, allow them to integrate it into their work.

Tips for 2013 from Teacher Trailblazer Helen Kanmwaa

“These are just a few ideas which have worked for me in a creative writing group at school…”

  1. Alter the space.  It is amazing to see how the physical layout of seating can positively affect the energy and atmosphere in a group. Try moving the furniture, or getting rid of it, if the carpet isn’t too unpleasant
  2. Alphabet soup. Get the students to write an alphabetical list of favourite words. Emphasise that it’s the sound they should focus on, not the meaning, and they don’t need to impress with polysyllables: dim is as good as crepuscular! Give them plenty of time, in silence, to do this, reminding them that they don’t need to do it in strict alphabetical order. When they have finished, they can devise a poem using as many of the words as they like, but no others. Repetition and punctuation can help them to create an auditory delight. The result will probably not mean anything, but might well suggest and evoke all kinds of things!
  3. Surprise subject. Coming up with a starting point for a piece of writing can be difficult. This is a good way in: Give the students three small scraps of paper each. On the first, they write an abstract noun, on the second, an adjective and on the third, a concrete noun. All the papers are put into three containers and shaken up, then each student takes one paper from each. From their combination of words, they are challenged to create a phrase which will then be the subject for their writing. Bizarre and evocative outcomes are inevitable, like The Passion of the Forlorn Photocopier or The Hostility of Quiet Rooms.
  4. Neologisms. Sometimes you just cannot find the right word; sometimes the solution is to invent one! Look at examples of new coinages in poetry (Hopkins is great for this) then let the students play! Their challenge is to invent a word for a thing that doesn’t have a name, like that feeling you get in your nose just before you sneeze..
  5. Everyday inspiration. Impress on your students how important it is to listen to the world around them and to read like a writer. Everything is research. Inspiration comes from the most unexpected sources. A Dulux paint chart provided some wonderful writing stimuli with colour names like Lunar Falls, Urban Obsession, Found Fossil and Favourite China.

More tips from 2012…

  1. Mind the gap Give your pupils gap-fill versions of the poems you study first – occasionally, they will chime with the poet and feel like a genius; other times, they will come up with an equally valid or even better choice for a gap. Either way, it will give them a taste of the supreme agency that comes of having the whole of a language at your command to choose from at any given moment.
  2. Plenty of poems Give your pupils a pack of several poems by the same poet or on a similar theme for one lesson. Then get them into groups to discuss individual poems before giving feedback as a whole class in turn. The one-poem-per-lesson model can get very boring and doesn’t really reflect how poetry is read for pleasure at all. 
  3. Use poems studied as stimuli Get your pupils to write poems based on the poems you study – it releases them from the responsibility of revealing themselves too directly and avoids the terror of the blank page. 
  4. The magic of poetry Get your pupils to learn poems off-by-heart – it gives them the sense that reciting a poem can feel a lot like casting a spell. It’s also a homework that you don’t have to mark!
  5. For the love of poetry Fill the spare two minutes at the end of a lesson by reading a poem without any work attached. Nothing gives us a better sense of the fact that poetry is about making a connection between people, not just making the grade in an analytical essay.
  6. Don’t Be Yourself Children can find it difficult to express themselves in poetry from their own point of view. They can get too bogged down in the literal and struggle to look awry at the world around them. Tell them to be a banana, a lost dog, a falling leaf, a neglected grand piano… Instantly, you will have opened up their imagination and they will have a whole new perspective to play around with.
  7. Share Your Enthusiasm When trying to inspire your pupils to write, stick to poems that you like yourself. It doesn’t matter why you like it. Even if a poem is obscure or you think that it may go beyond their full understanding, as long as you can convey your passion, your pupils will respond. Tell them who first introduced you to the poem and how it affected you then. Tell them why it still affects you now. They will be intrigued and will approach the poem with a desire to unlock the secret magic.
  8. Think Cross Curricular Don’t assume that ‘poetry’ and ‘English’ have to go hand in hand. Some of the best ideas for poetry can come from other areas of school life and be used in other subject areas. Open an atlas and you have a wealth of weird and wonderful words with which to find rhymes. Pi can be learnt to fifty places and beyond with mnemonics crafted into verse. The metre of assembly hymns that your pupils know already like the back of their hand can be used as a ready-made framework for metrical poetry. Using poetry in a totally unexpected context and for an unusual purpose will engage even the most reluctant poets.
  9. Use a visual stimulus The Pullitzer Photography Prize website is a great place to start. Rather than showing the whole photograph, why not ask students to be the zoom on the camera.
  10. Explore different perspectives Use Matt Madden’s ‘Exercises in Style’ to show students how exciting it can be to look at the relatively mundane through a new pair of eyes. The book is a worthwhile investment but Matt’s website is a good way in.
  11. Use the internet to your advantage The web is a way of life for your students and so use to engage them. Why not start with Eminem showing us how easy it is to find a word to rhyme with orange.
  12. Ask students to respond poetically to other poems For example, “Not a red rose or a satin heart, I give you a….”. If students struggle, give them a list of everyday objects to explore.

Tips For 2011

  1. Find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
    A good warm-up activity, to get students tuned in to their environment and to shake off the dread of writer’s block, is to ask them to write down everything that goes through their mind in a one minute spell. The real benefit, however, is to show that there are always interesting things going on beneath the apparent normality of the everyday. In short: the mind has a mind of its own and this can be a source of creativity.
  2. Make space for the imagination.
    Using images to give students inspiration for writing is commonplace. One angle is to ask students to think beyond the frame. What is not seen perhaps slowly becoming more important and leaving room for the imagination to take hold.
  3. Take risks with learning.
    That goes for teachers as well as pupils. Make space in the curriculum for reading poetry, even long narrative poems. Play games with poems, such as poetry charades or imagery Pictionary. Make students love language, enjoy its drama, its tension and they will not forget it.
  4. 4. Find the right pupils.
    Enlist the help of poetry confident young people, ideally leaders among their peers, the rest will follow!
  5. Tie workshops to national events.
    If you are asking a poet to come into the school,  make sure that the workshops coincide with National Poetry Day or World Book Day or another celebration of poetry or literature to enable them to see the wider benefits of what they are studying.
  6. Enthusiasm and determination.
    Your love for poetry must be clearly demonstrated together with the belief that this is their chance to shine and succeed. This will be a great motivator!

Timeless Tips for Teachers:

  1. Convince your Head Teacher to pay for you to go on an Arvon course.
    Keep copies of everything and ask the poets you work with to let you use their workshop activities.
  2. Become a voracious reader of contemporary poetry.
    Start to write your own poems or at least try writing with your pupils as they attempt the exercises you set them – and then model the redrafting process for them so they can see clearly how the ‘raw material’ produced by workshops can eventually become poems.
  3. Share all your tips with your colleagues.
    Then poetry writing becomes an integral part of the courses – and the ethos – of the whole department.
  4. Accept that writing poetry takes time.
    Persist; put the first draft in a drawer for a month and let the mind work on it at a subconscious level as the initial excitement dies away.
  5. As a teacher, do not seek to dominate.
    Be a prompt, a diversion, a raconteur or a source of jokes, but write with your students and show your vulnerability.
  6. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way recommends the ‘morning pages’.
    Write three pages of A4 to clear the brain of normal thoughts and patterns. Encourage this stream of consciousness writing at the beginning of the lesson. The students then discuss patterns they observe in their thinking. This leads on to fresher thinking for the rest of the lesson.
  7. Encourage the use of juxtaposition.
    Duffy’s ‘clever-smelling satchel’ from Mean Time is a good example of an image and the use of the unexpected. Juxtapose abstract with concrete images. Play with the senses: if you could smell joy what would it be like?
  8. Create the right atmosphere
    Good warm-up exercises include using music to create the right ambience or starting sessions with automatic writing. This exercise gets brains and hands ready for writing.
  9. Develop imagery
    One exercise which helps students develop their powers of imagery is to give students an object written on a card, such as the moon, a tree or the sun. Ask them to write three similes and pass their book on. Every child adds a simile to their class mates’ books for ten moves. The books are returned to the owners and then each student uses the images as a bank in writing their own poem.
  10. Follow the advice of great poets
    “Some of the most interesting parts of the best poems will be found to be strictly the language of prose, when prose is well written” (William Wordsworth, 1805). Try to write a piece of grammatical prose and cut it up into line-lengths.
  11. Use art, photographic images or a visit to the great outdoors as a stimulus for ideas
    Pupils love to select paintings to write responses to. The more detailed the images are the better and pupils should be encouraged to ask questions about the pictures and to map the results. What to write about is often a problem; works of art help the ideas to flow.
  12. Stop making poetry scary
    Too much emphasis is placed on poetry being ‘difficult’ or needing to have some profound meaning. Use simple workshop exercises to make poetry fun, accessible and part of everyday school life.
  13. Bring poets into the department
    There are some fantastic poets out there who are brilliant at teaching teachers to teach poetry.
  14. Imitate published poems, but write from experience
    Most students seem to be more successful when they write about something they have experienced which has had an emotional impact. They are usually adept at collecting words and phrases to express their feelings, but often need a structure on which to hang their words; therefore allowing them to model their poem on a poem they have already read, but which is written on a different subject, helps support their writing.
  15. Less is more
    Challenge students to prune their poems. Do they really need those articles and conjunctions that are disturbing the rhythm of their work? A comma or careful lineation can often be a good substitute. Do they really need all those verses, too? Every word should bring something to the poem and if it doesn’t they should remove it.
  16. Book yourself in for a writing course or workshop
    Seeing a teacher take creative writing seriously encourages students to value writing more, and the experience you get with your own writing will vastly improve how you teach it in class. More opportunity for teachers to work alongside writers would revolutionise creative writing in schools.
  17. Learning to draft is crucial
    Some poets rattle off poems in a few moments, but these poets are rare. Encouraging students to spend time on a single poem is valuable, as is making sure they keep copies of these drafts.