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Using a Daily Poem to Jump-Start High-School English Classes

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “4 Reasons to Start Class with a Poem Each Day” by Brett Vogelsinger in Edutopia, March 11, 2016,
In this Edutopia article, Pennsylvania teacher Brett Vogelsinger says that for several years he’s started his ninth-grade English classes with a poem – among them, poems by Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Robert Pinsky, Rumi, Basho, Shakespeare.
“These voices, contemporary and classic, have helped define my classroom culture to such an extent,” says Vogelsinger, “that on the rare occasion when I postpone the ‘Poem of the Day’ until later in the class period, my students interrogate me about it. I confess that it makes me smile.” Here are four reasons he believes this is a valuable classroom routine:
• Poems can pack a lot into a few lines. It takes just a few minutes for students to read a short poem twice and dissect and analyze it. Some options:
- Filling in a sentence frame: When the poem says _______, it suggests that ________.
- Discussing the choice of words and the mood created by a poet;
- Having students change the mood by changing just five words and the title.
Vogelsinger suggests these poems:
- “Fog” by Carl Sandburg
- “Wild Geese Alighting on a Lake” by Anne Porter
- “Keeping Quiet” by Robert Bly
- “The Balloon of the Mind” by William Butler Yeats
- “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
He also recommends several books of haiku (Amazon links in the full article).
• Poems are intense. Unlike novels, which can take hours to forge an emotional link with students, poems can do so in a few minutes. “Even reluctant readers can be captured quickly by the right combination of words arranged into a powerful rhythm,” says Vogelsinger. Some suggestions:
- “Tariff” by Michelle Boisseau
- “The Terrorist, He Watches” by Wislawa Szymborska
- “Speak with Conviction” by Taylor Mali
• Poems connect to other reading. For example, a teacher might have students read “We Real Cool” by Gwendelon Brooks to introduce underlying conflict in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. The 13th century Persian poet Rumi has written verses that presage specific lines in Romeo and Juliet: “Incorporating writing from a completely different culture that speaks to the same aspect of the human condition sends a powerful message about inclusion and diversity,” says Vogelsinger. He’s also used a haiku about a falcon by An’ya, a reclusive poet from the Pacific Northwest, to make a comparison with Atticus Finch’s treatment of his children in To Kill a Mockingbird.
• Poems inspire writing. “When we share poems with students and invite them to respond with their own ideas and musings while imitating the writer’s form or style,” says Vogelsinger, “we empower them to develop a voice, to work at something that will eventually become their own.” When students read Elizabeth Coatworth’s poem “Swift Things Are Beautiful”, they’ll be off and running. The same might be true of “Shake the Dust” by Anis Mojgani Vogelsinger also suggests “Words That Make My Stomach Plummet” by Mira McEwan and “What I Like and Don’t Like” by Phillip Schultz to get students’ writing juices flowing.

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