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malcolm london
Teaching

4 Poems for Hesitant High School Students

A teacher's recommendations for poems sure to engage students, regardless of their comfort level and experience with poetry.

By Cathy Kang

April 11, 2015

I had the privilege of teaching poetry to a wide range of high school students this year, from those who had scribbled poems all over their binders to others who vehemently denied having ever written a single line of poetry. Here are the four poems that engaged my students, no matter what their comfort level with the form: 

1. Anything by Sandra Cisneros 

So many of my students could access Cisneros’ informal, playful, and deeply personal language. I had students write about how they got their own names after a close reading of her vignette "My Name," which turned out to be a wonderful assignment to start the year and introduce themselves to the class. More often than not, the assignment sparked good conversations at home, and the students end up learning something they didn't know about their names (I know I did!). 

2. "High School Training Ground," by Malcolm London

If your students are anything like mine, they have a lot to say about how a school should be run. Listening to and watching the poet Malcolm London speak about high school issues piqued the interest of some of my most disengaged students. As a class, we looked at his purposeful use of repetition to convey a message. We then traced his words to actually locate the speaker as he walks us through a typical school day. Kids love responding to the poem by writing about their own high school experience—it really forces them to be intentional in examining and drawing conclusions about the building they enter every day.

3. "We Real Cool," by Gwendolyn Brooks 

Not only do Brooks’ unique line breaks spark discussion around the purpose of enjambments and rhythm in poetry, but the poem also speaks to her own views of the community around her. Students tend to become more intrigued when they hear Brooks actually reciting the poem on audio, and a great follow-up assignment—one in which students write about members of their own community—often results in some fascinating insights. Take Gary’s poem, for example:

Iron Gut by Gary Carter 

They call him Iron Gut with his overpowering demeanor and scruffy beard under his dark piercing eyes I think he was in the war or got shot in the stomach or something He just sits upright on his porch in his dark wooden chair with a blank stare And still to this day I wonder why they call him Iron Gut

4. "This Is Just to Say," by William Carlos Williams 

This poem has always been a favorite to teach because of its brevity and ability to provoke discussion. Students have fun analyzing it and coming up with their own three-stanza parody. They often end up competing to come up with the most biting parody, like the ones below:

Forgive Me by Hugh Conway 

I have knocked down the apple tree you’ve been growing forever and which you were probably saving for an apple pie forgive me I used the wood so that my house can stay warm

and

Chrome Spokes by Jovan Diggs

I have taken your bike off the porch the one you really like with the chrome spokes which I took to the store where I sold it for 55 dollars Forgive me I needed a new game I'll give you 5 dollars though