As we wrap up National Poetry Month, teacher/novelist Michele Dunaway returns with more tips about teaching poetry in the classroom. In the teacher's battle to "defeat the poetry monster," Michele encourages a musical approach.

As I did in my article "Reading What you Want," I'm about to propose something really radical. If you want kids to read poetry, you're going to have to let them listen to music.

Okay, I hear a "huh" here, so let me explain. This generation's poets are musicians. For students who live with music playing in their ears via iPod earbuds, one of the easiest ways to sell them on reading poetry is to take a song filled with figurative language and decipher that song as you would do a poem.

I'm notorious for doing this to just about any song on the radio, something my daughter hates when we are riding in the car on long trips. Maybe it's because I'm an English teacher, but I always listen to everything and interpret for meaning. (I also figure out the ending of mysteries far too quickly.) Anyway, I'll suddenly go "Hey, I need that song" because I'll hear an allusion to John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," like I did in the Switchfoot song "Meant to Live."

For me, it's natural to bring song into the classroom, as my high school AP English teacher did when she played Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" after we'd read Emily Bronte's novel or Toto's "Africa" after we'd read Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men."

While I'm teaching poetry, I'll take a song and decode it for my students. I've used Rascal Flatts' "Stand," Train's "Calling All Angels" and even Lonestar's version of the Marc Cohn classic "Walking in Memphis." Okay, I used the latter after my students read a nonfiction article about the history of rhythm and blues. But the point is that while students will say "I can't read poetry" or "poetry doesn't make sense," they never say they can't figure out a song.

So I make them. One of my favorite teaching tools is something I call the song project. In this assignment students choose their own song that they will teach to the class as a poem. I provide a scoring guide so that they have all the criteria before they start the assignment — and remember, I've demonstrated deciphering songs several times already. I've taken the piece and broken it down, exposing repetition, allusion, metaphors, similes, personification, tone, etc.

This project has to be one of my all time success stories. Even the most reluctant learner gets excited, because all of a sudden all those things he's been learning about (yes, it's a simile and this is what it means) connect with him on a whole new level. He views his favorite song with new eyes. He sees the structure and understands why the lyricist chose those specific words (diction/connotation/denotation). In educator jargon — this is depth of knowledge (DOK) 4.

By hearing his own song and those of others, the student learns that musicians (and think how many kids dream of being rock stars) really use and apply all English skills. The disconnect disappears. The learner realizes why reading poetry is important and that is a practical skill that can be applied to the real world (despite John Mayer saying there is no such thing).

I do have some criteria for the project, although I don't care about the genre. Students have full choice over that aspect. I've seen presentations with rap songs, heavy metal, pop, country, etc. However, what I do want is them to choose a song that has a deep meaning and has a poignant message. I require a song that either exposes a social ill, compliments something or inspires a person to change. The presenter, after decoding the song, must tell the audience the song's theme, why the song was chosen, what the presenter hopes the audience will learn from the song and how it applies to people's lives. When the students sign up for their day and time slot (I do two-three presentations daily), they show me their lyrics and I discuss the song with them and give my approval. This way their song fits the criteria, as not all music out there fits the bill and let's admit it, some songs are just about sex.

As I write this I am in the last two days of presentations and songs have ranged from John Lennon's "Imagine" to Skillet's "Rebirthing" and Nickelback's "If Today was Your Last Day." The feedback has been positive, and my most reluctant learner (who hardly turns anything in) presented a Daughtry song. Suddenly he turned a corner and it made all the difference. That's the joy that poetry can bring — no matter its form.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 27th 2010, 11:33 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great article!! Yes, many youthful poets set their poems as song lyrics, and rock/pop songs are the worldwide forum in which teenagers (and 20-30-somethings) discuss emotions and ideas that truly matter to them. I hope teachers everywhere follow Ms. Dunaway's lead!
Wednesday April 28th 2010, 11:10 AM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
Intriguing idea to do a whole project on song lyrics--I enjoyed the article and will read it again. Students in my college literature classes often point out allusions in popular music--for them the song comes before the literature, and I wonder sometimes what they make of the song without understanding the connotations. A fan of Weezer had been bewildered by the Japanese motifs and (to him)obscure quotations on the cover of a CD--light dawned when we viewed a film version of the opera Madame Butterfly (we were reading M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang)--the whole CD was based on the Madame Butterfly theme! Just this week, I led into Oedipus Rex with an old Tom Lehrer song with the comic refrain, "but he loved his mother." But, the best encounters with music and literature have come when my students do presentations of poems; they have the option of setting their poem to music and performing it. I've had several guitar players take me up on it with really good results.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

Michele Dunaway provides valuable advice for introducing poetry in the classroom.
Choosing the right literature to read is the key to getting students excited about books.
Songs are valuable teaching tools, but watch out for the grammar!