malcolmlondon2

April is National Poetry Month, and TeacherPop is celebrating every Friday by featuring four poetry selections from teachers who have participated in Teach For America’s Poet Warriors Project. Interested in getting your class involved? Email for details!

I had the privilege of teaching poetry to a wide range of high school students this year, from those who had scribbled poems all over their binders to others who vehemently denied having ever written a single line of poetry. Here are the four poems that engaged my students, no matter what their comfort level with the form:

1. Anything by Sandra Cisneros

So many of my students could access Cisneros’ informal, playful, and deeply personal language. I had students write about how they got their own names after a close reading of her vignette “My Name,” which turned out to be a wonderful assignment to start the year and introduce themselves to the class. More often than not, the assignment sparked good conversations at home, and the students end up learning something they didn’t know about their names (I know I did!).

2. “High School Training Ground,” by Malcolm London

If your students are anything like mine, they have a lot to say about how a school should be run. Listening to and watching the poet Malcolm London speak about high school issues piqued the interest of some of my most disengaged students. As a class, we looked at his purposeful use of repetition to convey a message. We then traced his words to actually locate the speaker as he walks us through a typical school day. Kids love responding to the poem by writing about their own high school experience—it really forces them to be intentional in examining and drawing conclusions about the building they enter every day.

3. We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Not only do Brooks’ unique line breaks spark discussion around the purpose of enjambments and rhythm in poetry, but the poem also speaks to her own views of the community around her. Students tend to become more intrigued when they hear Brooks actually reciting the poem on audio, and a great follow-up assignment—one in which students write about members of their own community—often results in some fascinating insights. Take Gary’s poem, for example:

Iron Gut
by Gary Carter

They call him Iron Gut

with his overpowering demeanor
and scruffy beard
under his dark piercing eyes

I think he was in the war or got shot in the stomach or something

He just sits upright on his porch
in his dark wooden chair
with a blank stare

And still to this day I wonder why

they call him Iron Gut

4. This Is Just to Say,” by William Carlos Williams

This poem has always been a favorite to teach because of its brevity and ability to provoke discussion. Students have fun analyzing it and coming up with their own three-stanza parody. They often end up competing to come up with the most biting parody, like the ones below:

Forgive Me
by Hugh Conway

I have knocked
down the
apple tree you’ve
been growing forever

and which
you were probably
saving for
an apple pie

forgive me
I used the
wood so that my house
can stay warm

and

Chrome Spokes
by Jovan Diggs

I have taken
your bike off the porch
the one you really like
with the chrome spokes

which I took to the store
where I sold it for 55 dollars

Forgive me
I needed a new game
I’ll give you 5 dollars though