A Suggested Four-Week Unit of Study in Poetry: Grades 3-5
Many of the following instructional ideas are inspired by the writings of Georgia Heard
and Lee Bennett Hopkins.
Introduction: Poetry Can Be Empowering
Poetry can be an intimidating genre to read and write, and for some teachers, it can be
intimidating to teach. However, because of poetry’s freedom from many of the
conventions of other forms of writing, it can be an empowering unit of study for students.
Student poets have a lot of choice as to the length, shape, sound and rhythm of their work.
Children are able to revel in that freedom. When students feel comfortable and safe
experimenting and taking risks in their writing, they are able to get a lot of enjoyment
from the reading and writing of poetry.
WEEK ONE: WHAT IS A POEM? WHO IS A POET?
It is important when studying any literary genre to immerse the students in that genre.
Poetry is no exception. When you begin your study of poetry, make sure to have a
variety of poetry texts in your classroom. These texts may be in the form of anthologies,
picture books, or single handwritten copies of poetry. The Classroom Libraries are a
good source for third grade teachers for some of these texts. You should also refer to the
attached list for additional poetry anthologies, collections, and teacher resources.
During this unit of study, upper elementary students in Grades 3-5 move beyond fun
rhyming poems (although these could still be celebrated) to other and more diverse forms.
There are several wonderful anthologies for children such as Reflections of a Watermelon
Pickle, edited by Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders and Hugh Smith. This collection is intended for children, but there are also poetry collections not originally intended for
children which are accessible to them, such as the work of some of the Beat poets. The
poetry should be placed in readily accessible baskets and attractively displayed. Students
should be introduced to the books in these baskets and encouraged to browse through
them during their independent and partner reading time as well as any free time they
Read Poetry During Read Aloud
As part of immersing children in the sound, look and feel of poetry, you will want to
dedicate a good part of your read aloud time to poetry. There are some wonderful picture
books written in poetry form that are perfect for this purpose. Come on Rain by Karen
Hesse, City Dog by Karla Kuskin and Harlem: A Poem by Walter Dean Myers are just a
few beautiful examples. There are even some excellent short novels written in poetry
form, or as a collection of poems: Love that Dog by Sharon Creech; Out of the Dust by
Karen Hesse; and Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson are just a few examples of novels
written in verse that make excellent read alouds.
Investigate: What are the Qualities and Characteristics of Poetry?
? By upper elementary school many students have their own ideas about what poetry is.
Elicit from your students their definitions of poetry and record them on a class chart.
It’s important to leave this definition open to many interpretations. Students’ answers
might range from “it’s short writing” to “it rhymes” or “there’s a beat” to “it’s a rap.”
These varied responses add richness to the discussions that will follow during the
course of your study.
Read, Read, Read Poetry
? Read your favorite poems to the class and talk about what draws you to these
particular poems. Ask students to bring their favorite poetry, or even the favorites of
family members, and add them to the class collection, perhaps setting aside a basket
labeled “Favorite Poems” or “Poems we Love.” Give students an opportunity to
share these poems with the class or in small groups, and to talk about them.
? Over a few days, read aloud several poems that are quite different from each other in
style, voice, shape, or in rhyme or rhythm patterns, or in the choice of topic, imagery
and language. Either write the poems on charts, or display them on the overhead so
students can notice the appearance as well as the words, and the variety that exists in
poetry. Give students an opportunity to talk about what they are noticing.
? Have students work in partnerships reading poetry together. Students can then
discuss what they’re noticing about the poems, how they feel about them, etc.
Read about Poets
? Read a few short biographies of poets, such as Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life
by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Another good choice is Love to Langston, a picture
book/biography written in verse, of Langston Hughes’ life. Ask your students to
discuss what it might mean to “live like a poet.” Begin a chart in the class of ways
poets live their lives that help them write poetry. Students can add to the chart as the
study goes on. As part of your students’ homework for the next few weeks they
should try their hand at living like a poet. As they live in this “new” way they can
collect any ideas, observations, poetry or anything else that occurs to them in their
Read Advice about Writing Poetry
? Seek out advice from published poets to share with your young writers. You might,
for example, read the poetry advice given by poets Jack Prelutsky, Jane Yolen or
Douglas Florian among others, in Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration
for Young Poets compiled by Paul B. Janeczko. Ralph Fletcher also offers practical
advice to poets in his handbook, Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out,
a great classroom resource.
? Give students time to closely observe some common objects with all of their senses
and jot down their observations in their writing notebooks. For inspiration, read one
or more of Valerie Worth’s “little” poems – “coins,” “marbles,” or “safety pin” –
from her collection all the small poems and fourteen more. Have the students imagine
how this exercise fits into “living like a poet.” Help students envision how their
observations can be turned into poetry.
? Set up a bulletin board in the class for “found” poetry. Discuss how poetic language
and poetry can be found anywhere. Students should be encouraged to write their
pieces of found poetry on sentence strips or index cards and pin them on the bulletin
board. Be sure to pin your “finds” to the bulletin board as well. Use your own found
poetry as an example and discuss how overheard conversation, song lyrics, even a
newspaper clipping might be great places to find a line or two of poetic language.
Later in the unit, you’ll want to model how you’d use this found piece of poetry in
writing your own poem, and encourage students to do the same.
Read Poetry Aloud/Perform Poetry
? Poetry is meant to be read aloud. Students should have opportunities to “perform”
poetry for their peers. There are a variety of ways this can be done. Students may
practice reading aloud poems for two voices. A good place to start would be Paul
Fleishman’s poetry collection Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Students might
also work in small groups to dramatically interpret a selected poem with sound and
movement. The class as a whole might then compare each group’s interpretations of
the same poems. Students might also practice reading poems with percussion
instruments or snapping fingers to the poem’s beat. ? During this week, be sure to give students time to write freely in their writing
notebooks, whether while sitting in class listening to music or taking a walk to a
neighborhood park or just around the block. For inspiration before your walk, you
might turn to Ralph Fletcher’s Poems from a Walk in Early Spring. On this walk,
remind students to collect as many images and sensory experiences as possible. Ideas
for poems can come from anywhere and these entries will be good raw material for
the drafting of poetry to come.
WEEK TWO: POETS VIEW THINGS DIFFERENTLY
? Continue immersing students in poetry.
? Begin by having students read a poem like Nan Fry’s poem “Apple.” It should be
written on a chart. Ask the students to use what they know about how poets live to
try to build a theory about how Nan Fry was living like a poet when she wrote that
poem and what she might have been thinking.
? Discuss how poets see the extraordinary in the everyday and how they often write
poetry about the most ordinary things; things we might take for granted. Students can
brainstorm as a class or in their writing notebooks about things that they might be
able to look at differently with their now wide-open poet’s eyes.
Learning about Imagery
? Tell students that good poems help us make pictures in our minds. Read a poem to
your students while their eyes are closed. Valerie Worth’s poems “chairs,” “clock,” or
“key” in the collection mentioned above, will inspire a variety of images. Afterwards,
students may be asked to make a quick sketch of the images in their minds. Students
should share what they pictured while you were reading and notice how what one
student imagined might be very different than another’s and why.
Learning about Line Breaks
? If they aren’t already familiar with the term, introduce the idea of line breaks. Choose
a poem with interesting line breaks – William Carlos Williams’s poem, “This is just
to say” – is a good example. Type up the text without the line breaks. You might
even choose to experiment with one of your own “poems in progress” or with one of
your student’s poems (with permission, of course). Have students experiment with
where to place the line breaks by working with a partner and re-writing the poem a
few times, each time changing the way the line breaks are used. Students should read
the poem aloud to each other after each change to notice how the sound of the poem
differs. After the experimentation is done, show them the “published” poem (with the
line breaks the poet intended) and discuss the poet’s choices and use of line breaks for
his particular purpose(s) in the poem.
Learning about White Space
? Do the same exercise as above this time using white space, making sure the students
understand how white space differs in purpose than line breaks, and how white space
can change a poem’s tone, pace and look.
Getting Ideas and Getting Poems Started
? While some students might have already begun drafting poems before this time, all of
your students should try to draft a poem now. As they do, make sure to circulate
throughout the room and confer with them about their work. When appropriate,
remind them about line breaks, white space and sensory details. If students have a
difficult time coming up with ideas to write about, encourage them to look through
their entire writer’s notebooks and to refer to the chart about living like a poet. Or
use a poem as a model to get students jump-started. For some classrooms it might
make sense to have an “inspiration center” where photographs, objects, scents, etc.
are kept for students who could use more support for getting ideas.
? Whenever students are given an opportunity to write, make sure that you confer with
them and as you do, name what you notice them doing. For example, you might say,
“Look, Tyrone is writing about water and his poem is in the shape of a waterfall,” or,
“Wow! I never would have thought to write about that before. What a wonderful
topic for a poem.” Encourage students to do the same as they share with their peers.
? If you notice a student or two doing something wonderful in their poetry-drafting
work, make sure to point it out to the whole class and mention all of the particulars of
what makes that poem noteworthy.
Poems Have Many Meanings
? Poems can have more than one meaning. Upper elementary students are ready to
interpret poetry. While reading poetry with students, begin to notice any symbolic
imagery and identify it as such. Begin to use words such as metaphor and simile.
Elicit definitions for these terms using lines of poetry as models. Choose a poem that
students might find easier to interpret, such as “Apartment House” by Gerald Raftery,
and work with students to “explicate” or explain the poem. Some students find
sketching pictures or creating diagrams helpful in trying to understand what the poet
might be trying to say.
Students Examine Poetry Anthologies and Begin Writing
? If it has not already come up in conversation, introduce the idea of an anthology of
poetry and that poetry anthologies are often arranged based on a common theme, style,
or idea. Use poetry anthologies such as Winter Poems by Barbara Rogasky or Canto
Familiar by Gary Soto as examples from which to teach. Let students know that you
expect them to write a poetry anthology of their own (with at least 3-5 poems) and
that they might want to consider a cohesive idea to keep in mind as they draft their
WEEK THREE: POETS CHOOSE WORDS VERY CAREFULLY
While continuing to immerse your students in poetry this week, you will want to choose
poems that have particularly obvious beautiful language, imagery and metaphor.
? Weak vs. Powerful Words: Most older students already know that there are boring
words and there are fancier words. However, many of them still use words such as
“nice” when writing. Remind them that the poets they have been reading chose
powerful words which helped to put wonderful pictures in their readers’ minds. Post a
chart with a draft of a poem you have written using boring words. Next to your poem,
post a “t-chart” in the class with one-side for “weak or tired” words, the other side
for their “powerful” or exciting counterparts. Have students point out “weak” words
in your poem. Circle those words and add them to your t-chart. Then ask students to
come up with powerful alternatives that are more exact and paint a stronger picture in
the reader’s mind. For example, under the “weak” column you might have the word
funny and under the “powerful” column, students might have suggested hilarious, or
Million Dollar Words
? Create a new chart or bulletin board for students to record fabulous or million dollar
words they encounter in their lives. This might be a good time to introduce a
thesaurus if you think it would be helpful for your class.
Creating Metaphors and Similes
? Lead students through an exercise in creating metaphors and similes. Remind them
that poets often see the world in unique and interesting ways. Metaphor is a
wonderful way to express that. In defining a metaphor, describe a personal
experience that students can relate to and create a metaphor describing it. “The
students were howling like wolves when they heard the field trip was cancelled,” for
example, or the “soothing words my friend offered were like the sun’s rays breaking
through the clouds.” Give students a chance to try to describe something ordinary in
a new way. If they are having a hard time coming up with something, remind them to
refer to their writer’s notebook, or even to think about what has happened to them just
? Encourage students to go back to the poems they have already drafted and revise
them with the idea of replacing boring words with powerful ones, and experimenting
with metaphors in place of some more obvious lines. Refer students to other poets
and suggest they use their work as models. Encourage students to choose a mentor
poet or poetry collection that will inspire their own poetry. (For more ideas about
how writers learn from other writers, see Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray.)
? Student collections of poetry drafts should be growing by this point. Remind students
that they will be creating their own anthologies and that they should begin to look for
connections between their poems if they are not already obvious, or if they haven’t
already discovered or selected a unifying “theme.”
WEEK FOUR: PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER AND
CELEBRATING OUR CLASS POETS
Studying Poetry Anthologies
? Spend some time looking at different types of poetry anthologies and pointing out
their characteristics. Do they have illustrations? A Table of Contents? Are there a
certain number of poems on a page? Students should choose the type of anthology
they want theirs to resemble and then create it. Make sure students have access to
plenty of paper and various art supplies as they craft their finishing touches.
Creating Poetry Anthologies
? If they haven’t already done so, students might want to make a reading anthology of
their favorite poems from various published poets that they read and enjoyed over the
course of the study and illustrate these poems.
? You might want to start a collection of each student’s favorite poems and publish
them together in a class anthology.
? Finally, have students spend this week compiling their own personal poetry
anthologies with the 3-5 poems they’ve written. Students should make their final
revisions and edit for any spelling errors. When they’ve completed their collections,
they may want to create a special cover for a classroom display on a bulletin board or
to store in a special poetry basket.
Have a Poetry Celebration!
? Have a poetry celebration, a poetry café or a reading. This should be a very special
day. Students’ work should be showcased. Students might want to spend some time
learning how to “perform” and rehearse their own poetry and then give a performance
on that day. You might want to have students perform the class’s favorite poem or to
choral-read a group poem written by the class. You might want to have students do a
reading in the tradition of the Beat poets, complete with snapping fingers instead of
applause. Invited guests might include family members, friends, administrators,
another class, younger reading buddies and teachers.