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Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers

Teaching Poetry

Poetry offers young adolescents an unparalleled opportunity for exploring feelings and learning about the power of written expression. This session showcases two master teachers as they help their students develop as writers and readers of poetry.

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Workshop 3 Overview

In Workshop 3, we see two master teachers—Vivian Johnson, who teaches eighth grade in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and Jack Wilde, a fifth-grade teacher from Hanover, New Hampshire—help their students develop as readers and writers of poetry.

The workshop begins midway through Vivian Johnson’s five-week poetry unit as she introduces a lesson on line breaks to her students. After the class analyzes several models that exemplify the power of line breaks, the students apply what they have learned to their own writing and share their work with each other.

Like Vivian, Jack Wilde is using a published poem to teach his fifth-grade students about writing poetry. After the students read and analyze the poem, Jack gives them a topic and has them practice writing stanzas modeled on the exemplar to combine into a class poem. The children share their writing, and then Jack leads them in a discussion of how they might apply what they have learned from this exercise to writing their own poetry.

In addition to classroom segments, the workshop features excerpts from a conversation between Jack and Vivian and from an interview with Tom Romano, author of Clearing the Way: Working With Teenage Writers.

Key Practices To Observe in Workshop 3

In this workshop, you will see a number of effective teaching practices intended to help students write poetry.

  • Teachers affirm the importance of writing poetry by modeling that they value poetry and by emphasizing that students are empowered as poets. Students are led to recognize how poetry allows them to express their own feelings and ideas creatively. The goal is not merely to know about poetry, nor is the goal merely to practice a poetic technique.
  • A sense of community is evident in the classes. Students collaborate, express themselves, and clearly feel comfortable and safe in conveying their ideas and feelings, as well as in responding to their classmates’ work. Respect for learning and for learners is evident.
  • Reading and response to reading are demonstrated as key teaching practices in helping students develop as writers. Teachers provide models of poems so that students can develop a sense of how other poets work, and students apply what they learn in writing their own poems. Teachers use poems written by others as a stimulus for their students’ own poems.
  • The teachers ensure that students are active. The children read and respond to models and to their own drafts. They engage in quick writes, share aloud, analyze poems, talk about techniques, respond to questions, and write notes to each other about what they have written. The teachers make sure that many students are involved in the conversations about writing. The classroom is not merely a forum for the teacher to talk about poetry.
  • Teachers are intentional and systematic in their practices, including focused and well organized mini-lessons on poetry. The lessons are sharply focused on important poetic techniques, the “tools” of a poet. The lessons include time for students to apply what they have learned.
  • Teachers arrange for students to have useful resources as writers: lists of criteria, models, quick writes, annotated samples, and “tips” on writing.
  • Teachers respond to students and provide a structure for students to respond to each other orally and in writing.

Related Reading

  • “Literature as Invitation” by Robert Probst in Voices From the Middle, Vol. 8, No. 2, December 2000, pp. 8-15. Copyright 2000 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission. (pdf)

For more information and resources, visit the NCTE Web site at:

Vivian Johnson's Lesson on Line Breaks

Vivian Johnson teaches about the power of line breaks in poetry.

For Vivian Johnson, poetry is not a stand-alone unit. Instead, it’s a yearlong effort to “marinate” her students in the beauty and power of poetic writing. At the beginning of the school year, the first thing her eighth-graders hear her say is a poem. It’s also the final thing they hear when school ends.

About midway through the year, after the students have read a great deal of poetry and developed opinions about poems that resonate with them, Vivian spends five weeks formally teaching the writing of poetry. Throughout the unit, Vivian engages her students in a rich mixture of mini-lessons, reading, discussion, writing, and responding. By the end of the unit, every student has assembled an anthology of his or her favorite poems—a minimum of 40 poems written by others and at least ten original pieces.

Vivian’s poetry unit includes a variety of lessons on figurative language and poetic devices, including the two- to three-day lesson on line breaks captured in Write in the Middle. Although the content of the lesson is quite specific, the techniques and strategies Vivian uses apply equally well to other writing genres.

Lesson on line breaks in poetry (pdf)

Materials for Vivian Johnson's Poetry Lesson

Featured Quotation

  • Mary Oliver (from A Poetry Handbook, Fort Washington, PA: Harvest Books, 1995, ISBN: 0156724006) (pdf)

Conference Sheets

Additional Classroom Materials

Sources for Quotations in the Student Packet

  • Atwell, Nancie. Lessons That Change Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002. ISBN: 0867095067
  • Heard, Georgia. For the Good of the Earth and Sun: Teaching Poetry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1989. ISBN: 043508495X
  • Hewitt, Geof. Today You Are My Favorite Poet: Writing Poems With Teenagers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1998. ISBN: 0867094524
  • Janeczko, Paul. Favorite Poetry Lessons. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1999. ISBN: 0590006185
  • Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. Fort Washington, PA: Harvest Books, 1995. ISBN: 0156724006

Poems Included in the Student Packet

  • “Foul Shot” by Edwin A. Hoey (from Jerry George, Don Stone, and Faye Ward, On Common Ground, Book 3, Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press/Canada, 1994, ISBN: 0-19-541020-3)
  • “Dreams” by Langston Hughes (from The Dream Keeper, New York: Knopf, 1996, ISBN: 0679883479)
  • “Owl Pellets” by Ralph Fletcher (from I Am Wings: Poems About Love, New York: Atheneum, 1994, ASIN: 0027353958)
  • “postcard from cape cod” by Linda Pastan (from Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998, New York: Norton, W.W. and Company, Inc., 1999, ISBN: 039331927X)
  • “Sam, the Shoe Shop Man” by Cynthia Rylant (from Waiting To Waltz: A Childhood, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. ISBN: 0027780007)
  • “The Tree” by Molly Jordan (reprinted in Nancie Atwell’s Lessons That Change Writers)
  • “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks (from Selected Poems, New York: Perennial, 1999, ISBN: 0060931744)

Vivian Johnson's Reflections

On immersing students in poetry:
“The first thing my students ever hear me say is a poem.”

On teaching students to write poetry:
“So I guess the marination is critical and then time to read it… .”

On her passion for teaching poetry:
“I don’t think any one of us can teach anything without it being a clear passion… .”

On holding “poetry reads”:
“We have what I call ‘poetry reads,’ and I simply distribute 75 to 80 poetry books.”

On experiencing poetry:
“I first want to give them another opportunity to record their lives and to make sense of it… .”

On sharing your poetry:
“I often share my poetry with them…”

Vivian Johnson’s reflections transcript.

Samples of Student Work

Editor’s note: The sample student papers have been reproduced exactly as the students wrote them, including mechanical and grammatical errors.

Jack Wilde's Lesson on Distinguishing Poetry and Prose

Jack Wilde uses a model to teach differences between poetry and prose.

Like many other middle-level students, the children in New Hampshire teacher Jack Wilde‘s fifth-grade class have had limited experience with poetry. So Jack’s first priority—starting at the beginning of the school year—is to immerse his students in the genre.

One day each week, Jack has the children choose their reading from a poetry cart—a selection of 75 to 80 books Jack keeps in his classroom. The students also collect personal anthologies, selecting poems they want to own, and, occasionally, memorize. By the time they start writing poems, they know that poetry is more than rhyming words. They’ve begun to think about what’s possible in poetry that’s not possible in prose.

Jack begins his formal unit on writing poetry late in the school year. The first activity—a class discussion on what makes a poem a poem—requires the students to draw upon the experiences they’ve had reading poetry over the past eight months.

For Write in the Middle, Jack shares a mini-lesson on the differences between poetry and prose based on the model “The Truth About Why I Love Potatoes” by Mekeel McBride.

Lesson on distinguishing poetry and prose (pdf)

Materials from Jack Wilde's Classroom

Featured Poem

  • “The Truth About Why I Love Potatoes” by Mekeel McBride (from Deepest Part of the River, Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2001. ISBN: 0887483410)

Additional Models

  • “Ode to Pablo’s Tennis Shoes” by Gary Soto (from Neighborhood Odes, New York: Harcourt, 1992. ISBN: 0152568794)
  • “Child on Top of a Greenhouse” by Theodore Roethke (from Reflections on the Gift of a Watermelon Pickle… and Other Modern Verse, Stephen Dunning, Editor, New York: HarperCollins, 1967. ISBN: 0688412319)
  • “The Base Stealer” by Robert Francis (from Reflections on the Gift of a Watermelon Pickle)
  • Numerous poems by previous fifth-grade students

Sample titles from poetry cart (pdf)

Sample contents of student anthology (pdf)

Jack Wilde's Reflections

What is poetry?
“The reason that I like having my kids do poetry is because they have a pretty narrow definition coming into middle school of what poetry is.”

On teaching students how genres work:
“There are a lot of ways in which it is similar to the teaching of other kinds of writing… .”

On writing poetry in layers:
“The longer I teach poetry the more I do this … have my kids write in layers.”

Jack Wilde’s reflections transcript.

Samples of Student Work

Editor’s note: The sample student papers have been reproduced exactly as the students wrote them, including mechanical and grammatical errors.

Additional Resources

Apol, Laura. “What Do We Do If We Don’t Do Haiku?” English Journal 91.3 (January 2002): 89-97.

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning With Adolescents.Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987. ISBN: 0867093749.

Baart, Nicole. “Saying It More Intensely: Using Sensory Experiences To Teach Poetry Writing.” English Journal 91.3 (January 2002): 98-103.

Barbieri, Maureen. “To Open Hearts.” Voices From the Middle 5.1 (February 1998): 29-35.

Behn, Robin and Chase Twitchell, Eds. The Practice of Poetry. New York: Harper, 1992. ISBN: 006273024X.

Blake, Robert W. “Poets on Poetry: One Way To Write a Poem.” English Journal 80.4 (April 1991): 21-27.

Blasingame, James B., Jr. “Seven Poets Answer Seven Questions for the Classroom Teacher.” English Journal 91.3 (January 2002): 109-113.

Bloland, Dagny D. “O Taste and See: Poetry With Eighth-Graders.” Voices From the Middle5.1 (February 1998): 12-18.

Carey, Michael. Poetry: Starting From Scratch. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1989. ISBN: 093498817X.

Collom, Jack and Sheryl Noethe. Poetry Everywhere: Teaching Poetry Writing in the School and in the Community. NY: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1994. ISBN: 0915924986.

Connell, Marjorie. “Click: Poets at Work in the Middle School.” English Journal 79.6 (November 1990): 47-52.

Drake, Barbara. Writing Poetry. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1994. ISBN 015500154X.

Flynn, Nick and Shirley McPhillips. A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching From Poems We Love. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2000. ISBN: 1571103201.

Frazier, C. Hood. “Building a Community Through Poetry: A Role for Imagination in the Classroom.” English Journal 92.5 (May 2003): 65-70.

Frazier, C. Hood and Charlotte Williams. “The Way In Is the Way Out: Poetry in the Classroom.” Voices From the Middle 5.1 (February 1998): 3-9.

Garrison, Peggy. “Looking Inside: Writing Mind Poems.” Teachers and Writers 28.4 (1997): 1-4.

Glasser, J.E. “The Reading-Writing-Reading Connection: An Approach to Poetry.” English Journal 79.6 (November 1990): 22-27.

Gorrell, Nancy. “Let Found Poetry Help Your Students Find Poetry.” English Journal 78.2 (February 1989): 30-35.

Graves, Donald H. Explore Poetry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN: 0435084895.

Heard, Georgia. Awakening the Heart. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999. ISBN: 032500093X.

Heard, Georgia. For the Good of the Earth and Sun: Teaching Poetry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1989. ISBN: 043508495X.

Heard, Georgia. Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons To Find Your Way. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995. ISBN: 0435081241.

Heartwell, Proal. “Masters as Mentors: The Role of Reading Poetry in Writing Poetry.” Voices From the Middle 10.2 (December 2002): 29-32.

King, Wendy. “Stealing a Piece of the World and Hiding It in Words.” Voices From the Middle 4.1 (February 1997): 22-29.

Kirby, Dan and Tom Liner. Inside Out: Developmental Strategies for Teaching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988. ISBN: 0867092254.

Koch, Kenneth. “I Never Told Anybody: Four Poetry Writing Strategies.” Teachers and Writers 23.4 (1992): 7-10.

Koch, Kenneth. Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children. NY: Vintage, 1990. ISBN: 0679724710.

Koch, Kenneth. Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children To Write Poetry. NY: Harper & Row, 1970. ISBN: 0060955090.

LeNoir, W. David. “Grading Student Poetry: A Few Words From the Devil’s Advocate.” English Journal 91.3 (January 2002): 59-65.

Lockward, Diane. “Poets on Teaching Poetry.” English Journal 83.5 (September 1994): 65-71.

Marshall, Suzanne and Dan Newman. “A Poet’s Vision.” Voices From the Middle 4.1 (February 1997): 7-15.

Moore, John N. “Practicing Poetry: Teaching To Learn and Learning To Teach.” English Journal 91.3 (January 2002): 44-50.

Murray, Donald. Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1996. ISBN: 0867094036.

Romano, Tom. Clearing the Way: Working With Teenage Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987. ISBN: 0435084399.

Romano, Tom. Writing With Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995. ISBN: 0867093625.

Salam, Kausam R. “Poetry in the Classroom: The Fervor and the Fret.” English Journal 91.3 (January 2002): 104-108.

Tsujimoto, Joseph I. Teaching Poetry Writing to Adolescents. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1988. ASIN: 0814152260.

Wilde, Jack. A Door Opens: Writing in Fifth Grade. Portsmouth, NH: