Search form

The Four Steps to Making Poetry Discussions Accessible for Every Student

For students of all ages, discussing poetry can sometimes seem intimidating. Poetry often comes off as more abstract than prose, and students tend to get the impression that it will be more complicated than other types of literature. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. This poetry month, I think it’s time we open our minds to some new ways to make poetry more accessible for our students.

When I discuss poetry with my (sometimes resistant) undergrad students, I ask specific questions that pull intuitive insights from them. And even though I follow these steps for college-age students, this methodology makes poetry more approachable for students at all levels, especially middle and high school students who are more likely to have critical discussions about literature in the classroom.

Here's the question guide I use when discussing poetry with my students:

1. Open with a discussion about the title and form

To get your students’ wheels turning about a new piece of poetry, start with questions they can answer without hesitation. These can be simple yes or no questions about their first impressions. Then, you can ask them to dive a little deeper into why they had those impressions.

These sorts of questions dust off the cobwebs and help students feel more comfortable speaking out loud about their ideas. Once they’re at ease expressing their opinions about their surface-level observations of a piece, they’ll be more willing to dive deeper.

Ask questions like:

  • Were you intrigued by the title of the piece?
  • Did the poem match your expectation after reading the title?
  • Do you notice anything interesting about the structure or form?

2. Encourage students to focus on an emotional, gut reaction

Ask students how a piece of poetry made them feel. If you find your students are hesitant to be a bit more vulnerable and discuss their own emotions, consider rephrasing your question to focus on the mood of the piece.

Once your students have articulated the mood and tone of a poem, encourage them to explore any emotions they felt while reading the piece and why they may have felt that way. The “whys” are the most important part of these discussions and encourage deeper levels of critical thinking from your students.

Ask questions like:

  • How did the piece make you feel?
  • Were you surprised by anything?
  • How would you describe the mood or tone of the piece?
  • If there were characters in the piece, how did they seem to feel?

3. Draw connections to other pieces or experiences

Make comparisons between other pieces of literature and real life. Students often make connections to songs, movies, and TV shows and sometimes to their own lives, and you can help them connect these dots.

In a recent discussion, some of my students had interesting interpretations of "Summer Solstice, New York City" by Sharon Olds. A scene in the poem where police officers are trying to save a suicidal man reminded some of them of a procedural drama like Law and Order. This comparison helped them better visualize the scene and dig into its meaning.

Then, at the end of the poem, in a moment of kindness and sympathy, the police officers offer the man a cigarette. The students were surprised by this and cited TV shows and media to show how their expectations were subverted, which helped the poem have an even deeper impact.

Ask questions like:

  • Did the piece remind you of any other literature?
  • Did it remind you of other popular culture like music, movies, or TV shows?
  • Were you reminded of any of your own life experiences?
  • Does anything about the poem’s similarities or dissimilarities to those things surprise you?

4. Finally, ask the tough questions

Now that the group has fully warmed up, go into higher-level, open-ended questions. These questions encourage deeper thinking and help students consider the larger ideas at hand. Again, ask them “why.” If students can express why they believe a poem is making an important observation about the world, their analytical skills will be improved.

For example, in the poem “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams, the speaker describes how “delicious,” “sweet” and “cold” plums he ate were, and he apologizes for eating them because the reader was likely saving them for breakfast. In this instance, you might ask your students why the speaker describes the plums the way he does, and what he might be saying beyond a strictly literal interpretation––about life and being human.

Exploring big picture topics, like the theme and message, is a strength developed with practice. So even if students struggle to find those deeper meanings in early discussions, don’t give up. The more you discuss poetry with your students, the better they’ll get at analyzing it.

Ask questions like:

  • What is it saying about the world as a whole?
  • What does it say about being human?
  • What is the theme of the piece?

Through my work with the Great Books Foundation and their Shared Inquiry method of discussing literature, I discovered the value of collaborative discussion. This method can and should be applied to every poetry discussion. Don’t just ask the questions, but also encourage students to ask questions of one another, even questions they may not know the answer to. This will spark broader conversations and deeper thought from everyone in the classroom, pushing them to think about poetry through a lens of open-ended curiosity exploration instead of black-and-white analysis.


Article by Lindsay Tigue