One of my favorite ways to incorporate poetry into the context of your ELA curriculum is with pairings. Poetry pairings can go far in adding dynamic writing, divergent thinking, and diverse voices to your ELA lesson plans. Read on to get inspired with fresh poetry pairing ideas from poetry expert Lesa Smith.
Lesa Smith is a high school teacher from Toronto, Canada. While not a poet herself, her love of poetry knows no bounds and she is always on the lookout for ways to include more poetry in her classes. Read on for poetry pairing ideas, some expected and some unexpected, to add to your middle school or high school English classroom.
Poetry pairings and lesson plan ideas
Getting students to engage with poetry can be a challenge but the key to unlocking this challenge is to demystify poetry. Because it’s short and often open to wide interpretation this can be intimidating to students (and teachers!). I have found a lot of success with a few approaches that take a lot of the fear out of studying poetry.
The first approach is to use poetry throughout the school year instead of (or in addition to) a dedicated unit or only in April during National Poetry Month. Call it exposure therapy but, to me, more poetry in small ways can increase comfort. Think about how you might incorporate poetry into a short story or novel study unit. (Get 6 ideas for poetry and your next novel study). The second is to explore poetry as a writer and creator before jumping into the analysis (read more about this approach in this post). The final suggestion is to do poetry pairings to connect poetry with other forms of media that are familiar so students have a level of comfort in one type of text while exploring another.
Read on for 5 poetry pairing ideas that are sure to remove a whole lot of fear and add some joy to your ELA lessons!
Poetry Pairings Idea 1: Visual Art
Using visual arts – paintings, photographs, film – is an accessible way for students to begin with poetry pairings. Explore a selection of art from local or international art galleries (lots include their art collection online) or even try Google Arts & Culture where you can complete a search with specific parameters.
You can then use the collected artwork in a variety of ways:
- Focus on the colors in the paintings with a paint chip poetry activity. Tie it to a lesson on mood and tone with a novel study or short story unit.
- Create a collaborative poem based on a work of art. Display an image or view a short film (here’s a list of 12 short short films you could use) and have each student write a couple of lines inspired by the work. Tie it to a review of figurative language devices by requiring students to include similes, metaphors, hyperbole, etc. or use it to build relationships as well as collaborative skills.
- Research connections by having students brainstorm some descriptive keywords about the artwork or write a ‘summary’ of the work. Then go to the search page through the Academy of American Poets to enter those keywords to find poems. Pick a poem or a few – this is a fabulous option for a small group activity – and make connections to different lines, images, or themes that pair with the artwork.
- Examine ekphrastic poetry, which is poetry that vividly describes a work of art. My favorite to share with students is Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night” with Van Gogh’s painting of the same name. This Google Arts and Culture article contains more poems inspired by famous works of art. Tie this to a lesson about making connections or connotation and denotation.
For more ELA pairing ideas, check out this post about a lesson that connects art and literature.
Poetry Pairings Idea 2: Podcasts
Poetry pairings with podcasts is a tried-and-true option that incorporates different skills. While you can pair specific podcasts about poetry (here are 6 podcasts I use in class), think about podcasts that are not specifically about poetry.
Maybe it’s using different love poems along with an episode from the podcast This Is Love. Two favorites are episode 17 “Anna and Massimo” and episode 33 “On the way to dinner.” Or using their sister podcast Criminal to study gothic poetry with episodes such as “Ghostwatch” or “The Hammersmith Ghost.”
These can be great seasonal options and a way to incorporate listening activities to achieve that standard in class. You can find Building Book Love’s set of poetry pairing activities here: Poetry and podcast pairings for high school and middle school ELA
Poetry Pairings Idea 3: Poetry
You might not be able to pick and choose poems to use since so many teachers have required curricula to deliver; however, there is a way to expand the voices your students study by including poetry pairings of poetry.
Consider a classic poem with a contemporary poem or spoken word piece. You could use Shakespeare’s sonnets 18 or 130 or even “How Do I Love Thee” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning paired with “Love Letter” by Sarah Kay.
Another way to pair poetry with poetry is to deliver a lesson on tone or mood or even point of view with two (or more) poems about the same subject. These could be poems by the same or different poets in a similar time period or written years apart.
For example, start with these three short and accessible poems about advice to girls all from a similar time period:
- Advice to the Girls by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
- Advice to a Girl by Sara Teasdale
- Advice to a Girl by Thomas Campion
And create poetry pairings with any of these more contemporary options:
- If I Should Have a Daughter by Sarah Kay (spoken word)
- For Teenage Girls by Clementine von Radics (spoken word)
- Bad Advice by Rudy Francisco and Treesje Powers (spoken word)
- ADVICE (for E) by Marilyn Chin
- Mae West Advice by Paisley Rekdal
- Almost any poem from Instagram poets R.H. Sin, Nikita Gill, or Rupi Kaur
These poems could be the foundation of an activity for writing a comparative essay. What do the poems have in common? Where are they different? Use these poetry pairings as part of the process to practice and then check students’ skills.
Read more about the process of writing comparative essays in this post.
Poetry Pairings Idea 4: Grammar
Poetry is so versatile you can also pair it with grammar… yes, grammar! Use poems to study a particular grammatical rule in effect (or possibly being broken!).
Consider subordinate clauses in social media poet Brian Bilston’s “A Deserving Clause” (or any of his other grammar-related poems), or homonyms in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “Wrap” or the use of the dashes in any number of poems by Emily Dickinson.
The poem becomes a mentor text to see the rule applied in different ways. It can also be a way to assess students’ understanding of grammar by giving a poem that does break the rules and have them re-write the poem to fit the rule. Or have them write a poem, inspired by Bilston’s, about a grammar rule. For my students, this often becomes a more memorable way to remember where and when to use a comma than a strict grammar lesson on commas. Make it a couplet about the rule and use it as an exit ticket for the grammar lesson.
In another poetry pairing ideas example, students can practice parts of speech by creating a Diamante Poem as pictured above. You can get this free poetry handout here: FREE Diamante Examples and Worksheet
To continue your poetry and grammar pairings, here’s a post with details for a lesson about homonyms and poetry.
Poetry Pairings Idea 5: Music
This idea might be more familiar in that poetry pairings with music is a beloved option. Whether it’s pop sonnets that fuse the classic form with pop music hits or exploring poetry and music by two performing artists well known for their word work such as Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur, there are a myriad of ways to pair music and poetry.
One way that poetry in performance can be best employed in ELA is through an examination of presentation skills. Students listen or watch a performance and assess how the poets/performers deliver both verbally and through body language. Students ask questions such as where’s the emphasis, why that emphasis, and whether the pace or diction is effective, etc.
Assessing the delivery to create a list of tips and tricks for themselves is one option. Another is to use the rubric for an upcoming presentation to grade a performance or even use a performance to co-create a rubric for their own presentation assignment.
And the best part of this option is you can use music that is relevant to your students; in fact, ask them for suggestions (with clean lyrics and/or appropriate videos) to use in class.
Some Final Words on Poetry Pairings IDEAS
As you can tell by this list of poetry pairing ideas, poetry is probably one of the most flexible options to use in our ELA classrooms. While it can be challenging, using it repeatedly tied to other aspects of ELA can help to demystify poetry for students. Plus when students get a chance to write their own poetry, they learn to take some academic risks, which can often translate elsewhere in their academic journey. And finally, there’s just SO much poetry that needs to, deserves to, and should be read that it is almost always worth the effort to include more in class, especially contemporary living poets!
Make sure to grab this free e-book with poetry for each month of the year! It includes eight adaptable activities to use with any poem and a free monthly lesson sent directly to your inbox!