Poetry Lesson Plan: Understanding Changing Purposes of Poetry

Introduction to Lesson

I can’t teach poetry without using music. Maybe it’s because I come from a musical background, or maybe it’s just because I’ve seen how it works to get my students interested in a lesson. Either way, it’s what I do, so you’ll see that technique in this poetry lesson plan.

I like to use music in the classroom for several reasons, including:

  • Kids sometimes think they hate poetry, but no kid hates music. I enjoy reminding them that music IS poetry, so they don’t really hate poetry like they think they do.
  • Bringing in music from my personal collection helps me connect with my students. Granted, it’s usually a connection involving me defending my music preferences while they mock me for them, but that’s okay. Connection is connection, and I don’t mind taking a gentle mocking now and then, as I tend to dish it right back out.
  • If nothing else, playing the music loudly tends to wake up the sleepy students and make them pay attention to at least a portion of my lesson that day, which is always a bonus.

In this lesson, I will use the term "poetry questions." These come from a fantastic book called Sound and Sense – I highly recommend getting yourself a copy if you’re going to teach poetry. The book itself contains about 20 poetry questions; my students learn the following four:

  1. Who is the speaker of the poem? (In other words, what can you tell me about the speaker? Remember: It is usually NOT the poet.)
  2. Who is the intended audience of the poem? (Who is the speaker addressing? Is it a specific person, a group of the general population, or a deity?)
  3. What is the central purpose of the poem? (Is this a poem intended to inform, entertain, persuade, etc.? If so, WHAT does it want us to understand, feel agree to, etc.?)
  4. How is the central purpose achieved? (In other words, throw in all the poetic and literary jargon you know, such as diction/imagery/metaphor, etc.).

For this lesson, we are specifically focusing on question #3, and remembering that there might be more than one central purpose in a poem. Also, I like to use this lesson to remind kids that whenever they’re given a reading assignment, they’d better read the whole thing if they don’t want to be wrong in their answers.

Musical Warm-Up

I always start my poetry lessons with a song that somehow relates to the poem we will study in class (sometimes the song IS the poem, but today we have both). For this lesson, you will need to get your hands on a copy of the lyrics (and hopefully a recording of the song itself, which is more fun than just reading lyrics) to Collective Soul’s "Needs."

Before you show the lyrics or play the song, you need to do some creative editing. See, the kids will THINK you’re giving them all the lyrics to the song, so as they’re listening/reading they think they’re getting the full message. However, you’re far more clever than that, so you’re going to leave OUT the last stanza of the song. Print the first set of lyrics for the students or display on a screen, but only up until the musical interlude (you’re going to print up through "or doubt of faith to fall into"). If you play the song for the students, make sure you pause it before the interlude starts; I like to do this with a volume fade-out, and it makes it seem like the song is actually over. When you’ve played this much of the song, ask the students to respond verbally or in writing to the first three poetry questions (see introduction). You’ll generally get answers like this:

1. The speaker is an emo guy who hates the world and thinks he can survive on his own, doesn’t want any friends or need anyone in his life.

2. He’s talking to anyone who will listen to his whiny butt complain about life and the world.

3. He wants us all to know how tough he is, that he doesn’t need anyone in his life, so move along.

NOW, post the ending of the song ("You’re all I need, do doo do do doo," etc.) and play the rest of it for the kids. Watch as they realize you have tricked them, and that they were entirely wrong about the speaker, audience, AND central purpose of the song. Now have them answer the questions again, and you’ll get responses like these:

1. The speaker is a guy in love, his whole world revolves around his woman, he needs her and nothing else in his life.

2. The audience is the woman he loves, he wants her to know the whole world can disappear and he only needs her, etc.

3. The central purpose is a message of love and longing, etc.

Do it Again, with Poetry

Now you’re going to fool them again, and they STILL won’t figure it out.

Give the students a copy of Dorothy Parker’s poem, “One Perfect Rose.” Print ONLY the first two stanzas of the poem for them. Ask the students to read the poem and answer the poetry questions. NOTE: I skipped question 4 for the sake of brevity in the warm-up, but I would bring it back in now when they dissect this poem. You will get answers like:

  1. The speaker is a woman in love, she got a beautiful rose from her lover.
  2. She wants to tell all the world, or maybe her friends or her lover, about this perfect beautiful rose he sent her.
  3. It’s a message of love, talking about how great her boyfriend is because he sent her the most beautiful flower she’s ever seen.
  4. Parker uses echo/repetition (“one perfect rose”), rhyme scheme, personification, etc.

A friend of mine who teaches this poem also asks her students to create a third stanza of their own, mirroring the style of the first two and continuing the rhyme scheme, etc. It really gets them into the idea of the central purpose, and puts their brain in a romantic mood. This is all the better when they turn out to be completely wrong about the poem.

Now, display the third stanza of the poem, and watch as they stare at you, incredulous that you have fooled them twice in exactly the same way. Ask them to answer the questions again, and you’ll get:

  1. She’s a spiteful woman who’s bitter because she only ever got one stinkin’ flower from her boyfriend.
  2. She’s telling the world about her boyfriend so they’ll all know what a cheapskate he is.
  3. She’s complaining about her love life, whining that no one ever spends any real money on her.
  4. (ok, the literary devices are all pretty much the same either way)

I like to use this lesson to teach a skill, rather than to grade. We tend to do it all together as a class rather than having them write down their answers and turn them in. But you can do whichever you prefer. It’s your classroom, after all.

This post is part of the series: Poetry Lesson Plans

This is a series of free online poetry lesson plans to use in the high school English classroom.
  1. Poetry Lesson Plan: Understanding Central Purpose in Mixed-Message Poetry
  2. Poetry Lesson Plan: Teaching Richard Cory
  3. Poetry Lesson Plan Using Examples of Imagery: Draw Your Own Imagery
  4. Lesson Plan: Strategies for Teaching Poetry
  5. Poetry Lesson Plan: Reading and Listening Without Bias