Poems Taught and Remembered
In celebration of National Poetry Month, we extended an invitation to our fellow teachers in the English, World Languages, and Social Studies departments, asking them to share a favorite poem they teach in the classroom. Their responses vary from the personal to the academic–and those rewarding places in between. Reading these reflections reminds us of the power of language to transform us as individuals: to introduce us to a new community or culture, to build our understanding of a new language, to help us recognize the necessity of precise words, to heal those parts of us in need, or even to reconnect us with the stories of our youth. Perhaps more importantly, though, when read together, these poems and our colleagues’ stories about them reinforce how poetry is also a communal experience, one that calls us to see, hear, and know each other through new lenses. It is this sense of shared community that most energizes–and, near the end of the year–restores us, and we are so grateful to glimpse into so many creative and caring classrooms. Enjoy!
“Hombres Necios”/”You Foolish Men” by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
When I taught Spanish, parts of this poem were presented to Spanish III students at the beginning of the school year to introduce them to remarkable Hispanic and Latinx voices. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was one of the choices. The poem itself was unfortunately not something we explored in depth; rather, we focused instead on the choice that Sor Juana had to make between getting married or serving in the church. She chose to become a nun, using that path to educate herself and become a tutor for the children of the viceroy from Spain. She was presented as a courageous and remarkably intelligent woman. We used that lesson to then have the students vote on their favorite person and commemorate their legacy by creating an Altar for el dia de los Muertos.
Sor Juana is a personal favorite of mine because of my own family history. My mom was not allowed to go to school as she was expected to take care of her husband and bear children. In some of the ways I grew up, to attend school and seek higher education is a rebellious act. And in other ways, in contradiction to the traditional culture and roles expected in the community where I grew up.
–E. Ayala, former Spanish teacher and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas
Aside from being a riveting read and a pleasure to listen to (with the right reader), I present this poem to my creative writing students when I teach villanelles. I also present this as a challenge. Up to this point in the semester, we’ve learned much about form. Students understand the rhyme scheme and repetition of key lines of a villanelle but find them hard to write. There’s not as much real estate as one would first suspect so one must be efficient with their choices. More often than not, students accept the challenge and many of the best poems follow in the tradition of Thomas’s famous work.
–K. Lee, English teacher
“Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón
I’m not sure if Ada Limón wrote this poem about April, but looking out my window at the waxy new leaves on our maple and the pops of color from the blooming fruit trees down our street, in my imagination and heart, she might have. Whenever possible I turn to nature as a far better educator than myself, and as we all know, this time of year in an academic calendar can be challenging; final exams, final grades, and many are grasping for the freedom and breathing room of summer. So naturally, I sometimes join my students by feeling wiped out and like “giving up” during this time in spring. But, like Limón instructs, I love to open a class in April by reading “Instructions for Not Giving Up” and let the “open palm” of our favorite tree invite us to stop and write, paying homage to “whatever winter did to us” as part of the landscape of being alive; through the poem, we remember that, even if we find ourselves anxious, we have survived another seasonal cycle and must carry on. The call to surrender and “take it all” (Prompt: What is the “all” you need to let go of or make peace with?) never fails to heal a little bit of us.
–K. Schenck, English teacher
“A Julia de Burgos” by Julia de Burgos
We read “A Julia de Burgos'' by Julia de Burgos in my AP Spanish Language class to talk about the complexity of identity. The poem discusses the conflict between the public self and the private self, but also brings into question feelings of otherness as the poet, a divorced afrolatina from humble beginnings, doesn’t fit into the society of her contemporaries. Also since Burgos is a Puerto Rican poet, we discuss the duality of the Puerto Rican identity as well, since Puerto Rico is officially a territory of the United States but also culturally identifies with Latin America.
–A. York, Spanish teacher
“Severed Head Floating Downriver” by Alice Oswald
My favorite poem to explore in a classroom is Alice Oswald’s “Severed Head Floating Downriver.” I use the poem during a mini-unit on the Underworld, and students read it in conjunction with the Orpheus myth, various retellings of the Orpheus myth (music, movie clips, etc.), and Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Abandon,” where she speaks about the Underworld as an archetypical space. The poem is beautiful and strange and reads like a dream, and it works really well to talk about structure and meaning; as Orpheus’ head floats down the river, the structure becomes more and more disjointed, which mirrors the emotional state of the speaker. We read/annotate it several times in quick succession to see how our meaning and experiences of the text change with each iteration, which also helps introduce to students the flexibility of meaning/interpretation.
–C. Baxter, English teacher
“Black Yellow Red,” a video collection of poems by George the Poet
In AP Human Geography, we use George the Poet’s “Black Yellow Red,” a short film made from a collection of his poems, to discuss political centrifugal/centripetal forces and the effects of colonization. The film is also great for reviewing other class concepts like forced migration, brain drain, multiculturalism, languages, demographics, and more, and is a good means for simply increasing students’ understanding of Uganda and western Africa as a whole. It’s also just a great piece artistically, and I have multiple students who have mentioned they have read and watched some of his other stuff on their own after class.
-J. Smith, Social Studies teacher
“Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity” by John Tobias
When presented with the opportunity to share a poem that I love to teach, I wanted to say something smart, something erudite, like “I love to teach ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in conjunction with Hamlet and then have a class debate about who wins the Emo Boy of the Year Award: J Alfred or the Melancholy Dane?” But as much as I love Shakespeare and Eliot, I favor simple poems like “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle.” It was a poem my mother used to read to me, when being read to was the greatest joy. I like to share it with my freshmen because it is easy to connect to and shows that poetry is not, by nature, hard or difficult or intentionally obtuse. It depicts a common experience in a way that is much more immediate and clear than most of us have the ability to do. And it leads the way to a discussion of the stories that have impacted our lives. Stories and poems don’t just live on the outskirts of our lives but become (can become or should become) integral parts of our own story.
–E. Keller, English and Theater teacher
“Ode to the Goose” by Luo Binwang
In China, there are some classical poems that almost everybody knows because they learned them when they were children. Just like some children’s songs in the United States, such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” this classical poem–and the others that I teach, such as Wang Zhihuan’s “Climbing Story Tower” (below)–are easily memorized, fun, and have great cultural significance, passed down from generation to generation. These poems help students learn how to pronounce Chinese, practice tones, and write Chinese characters. We start by watching videos of each of the poems to familiarize ourselves with Chinese sounds and tones, to enjoy different interpretations of each poem, to try to understand the meanings through the different performance styles and pictures, and to add English meanings to better understand the messages. Once we have completed the videos, we create our own gestures to express the meaning of the poem and practice in pairs until everyone is comfortable with the poem. Eventually, students do their own individual performances of the poem in Flipgrid, giving us the opportunity to enjoy each other’s performances as a class.
–M. Shen, Chinese teacher
Climbing Stork Tower – Wang Zhihuan 王之涣《登鹳雀楼》
白日依山尽 bái rì yī shān Jìn
黄河入海流 huánghé rù hǎi liú
欲穷千里目 yù qióng qiān lǐ mù
更上一层楼 gèng shàng yī céng lóu
The white sun sets in the mountains.
The Yellow River flows to the seas.
To gaze another thousand miles.
Climb up to yet another story.
First semester freshmen read Elie Wiesel’s Night, an autobiography about the life of a young boy before and during the Holocaust. Then, in our poetry unit, students read “The Riddle” with a riddle question that needs an answer to “Who Killed the Jews?” Initially, students say that Hitler or the Nazis killed the Jews, but the poem explains that many people were involved in killing Jews, both directly and indirectly. Spring semester, some students read Belonging by Nora Krug whose “visual memoir is graphic novel, family scrapbook, and investigative narrative,” and they learn about Nora who searches for her identity by going back to Germany and studying her family’s roots, where some had to join the Nazi party to get a job and support their families, for example, while other family members were indeed hardcore Nazis. Therefore, the answer to the riddle proves to be much more complicated.
–M. Cochran, English teacher
“For Women Who are Difficult to Love” by Warsan Shire
If I had asked myself this question last April–what is my favorite poem to teach–it would have been Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration,” an erasure poem that starts with The Declaration of Independence as its foundation, and then, through the power of quite literally erasing specific words and phrases, Smith creates an entirely new text: one that speaks to her understanding of The Declaration. I love it in part because it is a real and immediate way to show students how writers engage in the American public conversation, but really, I love it more for how students respond to it–creating their own erasure poems to express their insights into this canonical text. Today, though, the poem that immediately comes to mind is Shire’s “For Women Who are Difficult to Love.” Her words reinforce the power of female individuality, closing with these haunting lines: “you are terrifying / and strange and beautiful / something not everyone knows how to love.” While students’ analyses of the poem were smart and insightful, touching on motifs and conflicts that we have been cataloging all year, it was their creative responses that really blew me away: “For Dreamers Who are Afraid to Disappoint,” “For Women Who Fear Failure,” “For High School Girls Who Don’t Believe in Themselves,” “For the Kid Who is Picked Last,” or “For Those Who are Questioning.” Their words are a testament to self-awareness, to self-confidence, and to the power of language to communicate these truths to others.
–M. Griffin, English teacher
“À Mon Frère Blanc” by Léopold Sédar Senghor
In French 2 & 2 Honors, one of our fall semester units includes the francophone cultures of Africa. I always include the poem “À Mon Frère Blanc” by Léopold Sédar Senghor. In addition to being a great poem on its own, it also reinforces structures students are learning and vocabulary they are reviewing at that point in the semester.
First, students watch this video: Mon frère blanc - YouTube. Then they read the text and an author profile in pairs and try to discern the meaning. Finally, we debrief in French and English to ensure their understanding of the themes and context, which is a bit too deep for their French skills at this level. Sometimes a few students already know it in English from middle school, but don’t know its backstory: the importance of the Sédar Senghor and the post-colonial era in Africa. It is usually a lively discussion, and they enjoy learning about a facet of history and language that is new to them. Sometimes I have offered an optional assignment for students to create their own video reciting the poem.
–A. Gilchrist, French teacher
“Poemectomy” by the Chicago poet John Dickson has been the first poem I have given to my freshmen classes each of the last two years. It is free verse, so different from the rhymed poems that most of them are used to, but not threatening. More importantly, I tell them the story of my relationship with the poem to try and show them that a personal connection with a poem is possible: When I was a sophomore in high school, my teacher gave us this poem, and I liked it. This was long before the internet, so my memory of the poem faded until I could only remember part of one line: “wistful and wan and dangerously thin.” Then the internet became a thing, and I did a search for that part of a line and found it. And I liked it still! Sadly, the site I found it at is dead now, but I had already made a copy.
-F. Bauroth, English teacher
“I Have Walked Down Many Roads” by Antonio Machado
My co-teacher and I taught this poem in Spanish 3 Honors. We introduced it because its use of the present perfect tense aligns with the grammar concepts we cover in level three. For homework, students write their own modeling after the style of Machado (an example below): they are personal but also very beautiful.
-R. Sonneborn, Spanish teacher
Montaña rusa de la vida
Mi vida es como una montaña rusa.
Llena de miedos y sustos,
llena de ilusión y alegrías,
llena de altibajos y vueltas.
He tenido partes en las que quiero cerrar los ojos
Y he visto las partes que he superado
Entro a ciegas sin saber lo que me espera
Esperando lo que está por venir
I love teaching this beautiful and approachable poem because it thematically pairs with an array of larger texts, and the multiple analytical layers can challenge the range of freshmen to seniors. I use it to kick off a school year because first, it facilitates a refresher on concrete vs. figurative language—a pillar of literary analysis. Second, the poem’s tangible images offer students a foothold, so they begin the course on a confident note. Third, it features a memorable, haunting line as the speaker interacts with two Indian ponies in a pasture beside a highway: “There is no loneliness like theirs.” I like to see the reactions in the room when we pause here. We talk about point of view, and projection.
In August 2021, I introduced “A Blessing” to my freshmen whose summer reading was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, a heartfelt novel about Kya, a young girl who nurtures and relies on her relationship with nature. She comes to live as if there were no division between humans and the natural world. At the end of “A Blessing,” the speaker (thought to be Wright himself) experiences an epiphany that if he were to “step out of [his] body, [he] would break into blossom.” Individually, but especially when put in conversation with each other, the novel and the poem invite us to consider what happens when we blur the line between us and nature (or, rather, embrace the blurriness).
This year I had one of those strokes of luck that makes your students think you are a genius curriculum designer: Kya is a secret budding poet and when she finds a collection of her long-lost mother’s favorite poems, included is a real poem by James Wright! It’s a different poem by Wright and it is printed on a page of the novel. We were able to discuss allusion—not just why this poem, but why this poet? After all, young Kya is susceptible to literary influence. After some research, the students learned that Wright was another mid-century writer who was preoccupied by the themes of loneliness and isolation, conditions that Kya endured throughout her life. This discovery lit up the room and taught the students to research not just a referenced text but the referenced writer too.
–B. Kechejian, English teacher