4 poetry activities for language learners

Example of Blackout Poetry: “LONG-DISTANCE” by Austin Kleon https://flickr.com/photos/deathtogutenberg/3445022614 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

National Poetry Month is coming up in April (not that you have to wait for one month a year to engage learners in the awesomeness that is poetry!). In addition to the great National Poetry Month resources available on sites like poets.org, here are four poetry activities for World Languages teachers and others to try with your students.

A Book Spine poem by one of my Middle School students

Book Spine Poetry

For some language learners, having the language to create poetry is a barrier. If they don’t possess the vocabulary, creating poems is challenging. Enter Book Spine Poetry. This form of poetry creation involves stacking books from your classroom library in order to form poems.

Students select books with titles they understand. They then stack the books however they choose in order to create a poem (so students could create distinct poems even while using the same books). I suggest that the task include students giving their poem a title, explaining their poem and taking a picture (to share on the class website, instagram, GoogleDoc, etc.). If you have access to a color printer, printing out the poems can make for a great hallway or bulletin board display of student work. For students with enough language, a fun augmentation of this activity could be recording an artist statement and then adding a QR Code to the poster that links to their audio recording.

The poems won’t always be perfect and sometimes they won’t even make much sense, but that’s poetry, right?

Blackout Poetry

This medium also scaffolds supports for students whose poetry hurdle may be possessing enough language to write a poem. The way that I have used Blackout Poetry (there are various approaches you can employ, such as this paperless lesson shared by the great Eric Curts) is to tear out dozens of articles from magazines in the target language. I pass one page to each student and am sure to have many extras piled at the front of the room for students who want or need to trade. In addition to the magazine page, each student is given a marker.

Their first job is to use their maker in order to make the page look like a redacted, top-secret government document. (It helps to show an example!) I tell them to block out the entire document except for the words that they know and like. For a lower level speakers, reducing the page to only 10 or so words can be a good target.

Students now use these remaining words (that they chose!) to write a poem. Short, sweet and, most importantly, accessible because the words they have chosen to use to build their poems are comprehensible.

A challenging constraint to level this up for higher level speakers could be to maintain the order of the words from the magazine page.

In my personal life, I’ve used this technique to make a really cool gift for my brother. After I found a random paperback novel with his name in the title, I went through and made a multiple page Blackout Poem tribute to how great he is. I cut out or glued together pages with no blackout so the whole book was only a dozen or so pages. It might be the closest thing I’ve ever made to real art and my brother’s wife even let’s him display the book in their living room:)

Concrete Poetry (a.k.a. Shape Poetry)

Concrete Poetry involves creating a poem that is written in a shape, often one that compliments the poem’s theme. For example, a love poem in the shape of a heart or a boxing poem in the shape of a championship belt.

The hook I have found with Concrete Poetry is its appeal to student interest. In my experience, students choose their shape before their words. While the shape is, technically, a creative constraint, it can also be highly personal and safe. For students who are uncomfortable with poetry, starting with the shape they draw on their paper is comfortable. Filling the space that they created for themselves is all of a sudden different than filling a blank page. Their writing might just be describing their feelings about the image so they approach it with a prose mindset while emerging with verse.

“I am” Poems

At their most basic, “I am” Poems smell and taste like fill-in-the-blank or CLOZE worksheets. The finished products however, look and sound like poetry.

If you do a quick Google search (tip: also search for “Yo soy” poema), you will find templates like this that others have shared for you to use. Most templates have students complete phrases such as, “I am _____,” “I dream _____,” and “I cry when _____.”

“I am” Poems are personal and accessible for students of all language abilities. Be forewarned: they can also be very emotional! For teachers, these kinds of poems can be a portal to knowing our students and perhaps building relationships with them. They can also serve as pre/post writing samples to show growth if students create one at the start of the semester and another at the end. When used in this manner, they can be powerful measurements as a student’s growth is literally demonstrated through the lens of who she was and who she now is.

UPDATE: Additional Poetry Resources

  • Amy Burvall posted this amazing approach to using tech in order to create Dada inspired poetry. Lovers of puns and app smashing will delight in the glee Amy brings into your life. This is the coolest poetry activity I’ve ever seen.
  • More than a dozen links I’ve bookmarked with the National Poetry Month tag
  • I’ll add more as I come across them or others suggest them:)

What resources and strategies do YOU use in order to bring poetry into your students’ language learning? As always, please share your brilliant ideas as responses (even if you are writing to push back on my ideas!). And if you liked this post, please click on the heart to recommend it. It makes it easier for others to discover my writing and it makes me feel like a Concrete Poem in the shape of hearts and hearts and hearts.

Lastly, if you dig that Creative Commons citation of the photo at the top, I created it with Alan Levine’s handy dandy flickr creative commons attribution plug in. It’s free, easy to use, can be added as a widget to your browser to automate the attribution process and is available here.