A Poem A Day: 30 Poems for Secondary Students During National Poetry Month (or Any Other Time of Year)

April 01, 2016

Looking for new poetry for your middle school and high school students? These 30 poems, recommended and tested by secondary ELA teachers in their own classrooms, are sure to engage and inspire your students during National Poetry Month or any time of year.
As an English teacher, I have always loved teaching poetry. I used to confine it to one unit every winter as a way to engage students after winter break, but recently shifted to starting my year with poetry. Why wait to get into the good stuff?

My thinking was confirmed by Edutopia's recent article, 4 Reasons to Start Class With a Poem Each Day, by ninth grade English teacher Brett Vogelsinger. His four reasons are:
1. Poetry is short so you can have a rich discussion after spending very little time reading.
2. Poetry is intense, allowing students to connect with emotions immediately.
3. Poems connect to other readings, both fiction and nonfiction, and can serve as an entry point to themes or ideas in a longer text.
4. Poems inspire writing; their form or ideas can easily be imitated by students.
Vogelsinger's article incorporates a multitude of poem suggestions and ends with a challenge for teachers to try starting their own classes with a poem a day, at least for National Poetry Month.

To help you accept this challenge, either now or at any other point in the school year, I've put together a list of 30 poem recommendations, some from myself and some from other middle and high school English teachers. These are poems that our students love and we hope yours will too.

1. Introduction To Poetry by Billy Collins
I love to start my poetry units with this particular poem because it usually kicks off a great discussion about how students have interacted with poetry in the past.  Sometimes, as teachers, we spend so much time teaching students how to analyze, break down, and decode poetry that we forget to teach them how to appreciate the beauty of the words and the message.
*Recommended by Presto Plans
Looking for new poetry for your middle school and high school students? These 30 poems, recommended and tested by secondary ELA teachers in their own classrooms, are sure to engage and inspire your students during National Poetry Month or any time of year.
2. How to Eat a Poem by Eve Merriam
This poem is short, uses highly accessible language, and is full of imagery. I love to ask students what they think the poet is comparing a poem to and to draw what they imagine (many think of a fruit, but I've also gotten response like a cheese steak). After reading, have students write their own how to poems, either for concrete actions, i.e. how to ride a bike, or for abstract ideas, i.e. how to catch a star.

3. I Am Offering this Poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca
Before reading anything by Jimmy Santiago Baca, I like to share some brief biographical information about him with students. He was abandoned by his parents at a young age and at 13 ran away from the orphanage where his grandmother had placed him. He was convicted on drug charges in his early 20s and spent five years in prison. There he learned to read and began writing poetry. I share this information with my students to show them that beauty (like this poem) can come from great hardship and that one doesn't necessarily need a traditional education to become a great writer. This poem is packed with amazing figurative language for students to analyze but also a powerful message about the most meaningful kind of gifts we can give to each other.

4. Mr. Nobody by Anonymous
Not all poetry has to be serious. Have some fun with students as they read about all the trouble that Mr. Nobody causes. I'm sure they can easily create a list of all the mischief he is responsible for in their own homes. Students could write poems about "Somebody," "Anybody," or "Everybody."

5. The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
Talk about playing with language! This is a great poem to use to teach students about the flexibility of language.  The interesting thing about this poem is that students can understand what is happening, even though there are nonsense words like "vorpal" and "uffish." A monster called a "bandersnatch"  will capture your students' imagination.  Lewis Carroll uses portmanteaus to create new words -- a fun challenge for your own students to try.
*Recommended by Marypat at Just Add Students

Looking for new poetry for your middle school and high school students? These 30 poems, recommended and tested by secondary ELA teachers in their own classrooms, are sure to engage and inspire your students during National Poetry Month or any time of year.
6. First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay
This is a poem that I love to let students "chew on." I just give it to them and wait. My students sit with this one a while and I'll assign a freewrite about it. After some minutes to ponder, students have an "ah-ha" reaction to it. Candles are pretty rampant symbols in literature, but I've always loved how Edna St. Vincent Millay subverts our expectations in this poem. Students describe feeling proud, sad, hopeful, and a little disoriented. I love that these four lines pack such a punch!
*Recommended by Danielle Hall @ Nouvelle

7. There is no frigate like a book by Emily Dickinson
I love this poem because it is excellent advice: reading can let you travel where your wallet can't. Dickinson's sparse style a weird punctuation are fun to play with, and let's face it, the word "frigate" is entertaining!
*Recommended by TMC Saunders, Gas Station Cappuccino

8. Women by Alice Walker
Walker's voice is commanding and fierce in this poem though the lines are short and the vocabulary simple. Poems like this one show students that poetry doesn't have to be fancy or complex to carry meaning. After reading, students can analyze the symbols in the poem (the "doors" they battered down and the "mined fields" they crossed). The poem could also easily be incorporated into a unit on Civil Rights.

Looking for new poetry for your middle school and high school students? These 30 poems, recommended and tested by secondary ELA teachers in their own classrooms, are sure to engage and inspire your students during National Poetry Month or any time of year.
9. Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost
If your students read The Outsiders, you know how powerful this little poem is.  If they haven't read it, this poem is still a gem.  As short as it is, this is a powerhouse of meaning about life and death.  Use this poem to teach symbolism and word choice.  A plus for teaching this in the spring when you can look out your classroom window and see nature's first green!
*Recommended by Marypat at Just Add Students

10. Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas
This poem, which also deals with the themes of life and death, is perfect for teaching rhyme scheme and is filled with personification. It's one I can still remember reading in high school. Ask students to imagine that they are at the end of their days and write advice to the young about how to live their lives.

11. A Day by Emily Dickinson
I love this poem for so many reasons!  Anyone who has seen the sun rise or set can relate what is happening in this poem.  Even though we may see the sunrise as an ordinary event, in this poem, the speaker describes it as something extraordinary.   Wonderful metaphors and vivid imagery help readers visualize the speaker's experiences.  I have my students write a "companion" poem that describes something that is ordinary as extraordinary.
*Recommended by Marypat from Just Add Students

12. Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
This book is a free verse piece that gives a voice to students' general aversions to poetry (it's "just" for girls, there's "nothing" to write about, poems are confusing and hard to understand, etc.) but then goes on to show that writing and reading poetry is not only enjoyable but can also be a good way to deal with painful emotions and memories.  It's a very powerful read and includes other famous poems along the way but makes them relevant to today's middle schoolers.
*Recommended by Mrs. Spangler in the Middle

Looking for new poetry for your middle school and high school students? These 30 poems, recommended and tested by secondary ELA teachers in their own classrooms, are sure to engage and inspire your students during National Poetry Month or any time of year.13. Love That Boy by Walter Dean Myers
One of the novels I LOVE to read with my 6th graders is Love That Dog by Sharon Creech.  Upon first look this appears to be a very simple novel, but with a journaling assignment from the teacher's perspective and poetry analysis, this is the perfect novel to share with 6th graders.  One of the poems that we analyze during this read is "Love That Boy" by Walter Dean Myers.  I adore sharing this poem because I have two boys of my own that I treasure, but also because it incorporates simile, metaphor, repetition, and rhyme in a way that is relatable to my students.  In the poem Walter Dean Myers is writing about his boy and the traits and ideals he loves about him.  My challenge is for my students to reflect on the poet's words to identify: one simile, explain why so much repetition was utilized, identify rhyming words and their purpose, and the meaning of the two metaphors, "He got long roads to walk down before the setting sun." and "He'll be a long stride walker." Once we have analyzed the poem, I find that my students are inspired to write their own "Love That..." poem that incorporates a topic they LOVE and feel moved to write about.  This student poem includes: simile, metaphor, repetition, and rhyme.  The students can't wait to share their own work, but hear the poems created by their peers that connect to Walter Dean Myers' incredible writing.
*Recommended by Erin Beers from Mrs. Beers: A Language Arts Classroom

14. Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden
When tackling challenging poems like this one, I like to use the pre-reading strategy modeled in this video where students focus first on individual words from the poems, looking for patterns, before examining the poem as a whole. You'll be amazed at the meaning students are able to draw out of the poem before they see it in it's entirety. The other reason I love this poem is because of its connections to art, much of it focusing on Pieter Brueghel's painting of The Fall of Icarus. Have students match lines of the poem to aspects in the painting.

15. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams
As a comparison to Musee des Beaux Arts, or for an easier read on the same topic, use this William Carlos Williams poem. It also focuses on Pieter Brueghel's painting of The Fall of Icarus. I like to show students how other artists have painted or drawn the same scene and then have students write a poem based on their favorite painting or drawing.
Looking for new poetry for your middle school and high school students? These 30 poems, recommended and tested by secondary ELA teachers in their own classrooms, are sure to engage and inspire your students during National Poetry Month or any time of year.
16. The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service
This poem is set in the Alaskan/Canadian snowy wilderness. First off, it's a super interesting poem that includes a dying person, supernatural encounters, the hazardous terrain, and survival...Students love this stuff. It also allows an easy study of rhyme scheme and meter because it so skillfully follows its own pattern. It allows easy integration of non-fiction resources about the Northwest Territories and the Yukon and gold mining hazards. It's a short poem that lends itself to a 2-4 day engaging study.
*Recommended by Jonathan Stephens, Created for Learning

17. Hope is the thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson
This is such a beautiful poem.  I never get tired of it!  It is poem for teaching extended metaphor and imagery.  The poem is easy for students to understand and relate to, yet the theme is complex enough to challenge their thinking about abstract terms.  How do you describe hope?
*Recommended by Marypat at Just Add Students

18. Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I teach transcendentalism we delve into the glorious essays. Emerson's "Self Reliance" and Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." These are fantastic texts to really analyze, and compare to modern songs or news articles. However, my favorite is to show students a different side of Emerson. Rather than start with the essay, we start by the poem of the same name, "Self Reliance." We get into the ideas of transcendentalism and introduce students to the style of Emerson. We can annotate the heck out of it in less than a class since it is so short. We can also bring in non-fiction to analyze why he would have included the date and to use quotes of him discussing compasses as a source to support their opinions of the symbols.  Once they really understand the poem, students use their own figurative language to write their own poems about the voice inside them. Once I started teaching this poem BEFORE the essay I found students enjoyed the essay more and really understood the skills I wanted them to use when annotating AND the ideas of the transcendental movement. With so many influences in their life I enjoy having students focus on listening to their inner voices and doing what they know to be right instead of what others tell them is correct.
*Recommended by Carissa, The mELTing Teacher

19. To Look at Any Thing by John Moffitt
“To Look at Any Thing,” by John Moffitt, is a short poem that works its magic with students! It opens their eyes to the idea that just giving something a quick glance is never enough to make a judgement or call yourself experienced.  The speaker’s voice is commanding: “You must look at it long,” “You must enter in,” “You must take your time.” I love the poet’s use of repetition here, by which he insists that we actually become what we see and step into the nuances within. Besides repetition, we find imagery, metaphor, and alliteration. I use this poem as the opener in a packet of poems I have titled Perspectives. I ask students to discuss how this poem might relate to other topics beyond the examples of nature the poem contains. As a reflection, students write their thoughts on how they interpret the message of the poem. Is it purely about nature, or is the poet addressing our perspective on other things as well?
*Recommended by Joy Sexton

Looking for new poetry for your middle school and high school students? These 30 poems, recommended and tested by secondary ELA teachers in their own classrooms, are sure to engage and inspire your students during National Poetry Month or any time of year.20. Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson 
The twist at the end of this poem should lead to interesting conversation about how we perceive others. How could a man like Richard Cory, who "we thought that he was everything / To make us wish that we were in his place," go home "one calm summer night...and put a bullet through his head?" The poem could be used as an entry point to a unit on depression and other mental health issues.

21. How to Write the Great American Indian Novel by Sherman Alexie 
Alexie's poem also deal with how we judge other people, specifically stereotyping American Indians, but could serve as the beginning of an examination of how the "other" (anyone not white) is portrayed in literature, film, music, etc. Have students compare the poem to Disney's "Pocahontas" or the recent remake of "The Lone Ranger" featuring Johnny Depp, and then move on to other cultures' current depictions in the media, i.e. Black and Asian stereotypes in the TV series "Rush Hour."

22. Hanging Fire by Audre Lorde
While all teenagers can relate to many of the speaker's woes, this poem resonates most deeply with my African American female students. The repeated line, "and momma's in the bedroom with the door closed," reflects the impasse many teenage girls feel in their relationships with their mothers. Reading this poem can lead to rich discussion of students' fears, large and small, as well as their relationships with parents.

23. Daddy by Sylvia Plath
Like "Hanging Fire," Plath's poem deals with a strained relationship with a parent. This one is a bit darker and uses allusions to Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust to convey the speaker's perceptions of her father and feelings about how he treated her. The poem could lead to discussions about abusive relationships, both physical and mental, and the long lasting effects they can have on children.

24. The Secret Heart by Robert Coffin
This tender poem addresses a child's perceptions of his father.  It's a wonderful poem to teach imagery and symbolism.  It can be difficult for students to initially grasp what is happening in the poem, but they can almost act out the events of the poem to help them "see" what the speaker sees.  This poem shows how poetry can be used as a tool for the speaker to reflect on life.
*Recommended by Marypat at Just Add Students

25. Abuelito Who by Sandra Cisneros
This poem, an ode to the speaker's grandfather, is full of both love and sadness. Allow students to identify the shift in the poem and discuss the images created by the figurative language. Students may have different interpretations about what has happened to the grandfather by the end of the poem (he is very sick versus he has died), but as we all have loved ones who are old or failing, it is sure to tug on some heartstrings. The poem is the perfect lead in to writing about loved ones or getting creative with figurative language.


Looking for new poetry for your middle school and high school students? These 30 poems, recommended and tested by secondary ELA teachers in their own classrooms, are sure to engage and inspire your students during National Poetry Month or any time of year.
26. Where I'm From by George Ella Lyons
For the past three years, I've used this poem during the first few weeks of school to teach the process of close reading, introduce how word choice creates mood and tone and to help build a cohesive culture in my classroom. This is always the first text we read, and I enjoy the poem because the theme is accessible, but the images are such that students really have to read closely to truly get it. I have students spend a day analyzing the poem, and writing about the picture of childhood it paints for the reader. We then spend a day or two creating our own versions of "Where I'm From" poems, workshopping them with three sets of partners and then presenting them to the class. My students are always pleasantly surprised that they have more in common with their classmates than they initially realized, and I've found this poem to be a great way to get students excited about analyzing, writing, and sharing poetry.
*Recommended by Sara Nelson, GritGrindTeach

27. Ego-Tripping (there may be a reason) by Nikki Giovanni
This poem is all about how "bad" the poet thinks she is and is full of allusions to the reasons why being black and female is so great. You may want to have students listen to a reading of the poem by the poet to truly give it justice. After reading, have students identify, and if needed research, some of the references in the poem. They can also write their own poems using allusions to show how "bad" they are.

28. Naming Myself by Barbara Kingsolver
Although the lifestyles of teens may change over generations, their search for a better understanding of themselves remains the same no matter the year. Their constant search for identity makes Barbara Kingsolver’s poem, “Naming Myself,” a compelling read in the secondary English classroom. The poem’s themes about family, heritage, and individuality engage students and help them pose questions that are relevant to their lives: What is the meaning of a name? Why do women take their husband’s names? Is it acceptable to marry someone from a different ethnicity? No doubt, this sophisticated poem will captivate your students and provide a meaningful learning experience.
*Recommended by Kim Patrick, OCBeachTeacher

29. Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare
If you want to recognize Shakespeare's 400th birthday, this sonnet is a great way to do so.  I love this sonnet because it sounds like a teen wrote it!  By teaching the sonnet form, you will address rhythm, rhyme, iambic pentameter, couplets, quatrains, and the turn.  While these are all very technical aspects of poetry, the approachable nature of this poem makes it fairly easy to understand, so teaching the form is easy to do...and, of course, who doesn't need a little more Shakespeare??!!
*Recommended by Marypat at Just Add Students

Looking for new poetry for your middle school and high school students? These 30 poems, recommended and tested by secondary ELA teachers in their own classrooms, are sure to engage and inspire your students during National Poetry Month or any time of year.
30. [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in] by e. e. cummings
Perfect for comparison with the uplifting power of love described in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 29," this poem also shows students that the "rules" of poetry are meant to be broken. cummings plays with punctuation, ignores capitalization, and breaks lines where ever he darn well pleases, and yet his poem is still a thing of beauty. Use this poem to encourage your students to abandon any ideas they might have about what poetry should look or sound like.

Get daily reminders of these poems during National Poetry month this April by following @theliterarymaven on Instagram. You can also view all of the poem images in this slideshow.

For more poetry lesson ideas and resources:

You Might Also Like

3 comments

  1. What a great list! Thank you for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Love this list! I really do encourage teachers to check out if the author they are studying has written any poems. Often they are about similar themes as their short stories or essays and give students another medium in which to embrace the written word!!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This post is amazing, thank you! I'm a literacy coach in an elementary now but I'm going back to middle school next year and getting a demonstration class - these are perfect, thank you so much!! :-)

    ReplyDelete