Activities on poetry for middle school students should focus on a variety of traditional and contemporary poems. Middle school students are old enough to analyze and interpret the deeper meanings in poetry, so lessons on figurative language and literary themes can help students gain a stronger understanding and appreciation for poetry. After students have been exposed to numerous examples, they can begin to write meaningful poems themselves.
Listen to Sound Recordings
Start your unit on poetry by exposing your middle-schoolers to a wide range of poets. Play a variety of professional sound recordings or read poems aloud to help your students become familiar with poetry and develop an emotional connection to it, suggests Maureen Lynch at the Yale National Initiative. Opt for both traditional and contemporary poems, so your students can explore different styles, themes and rhythms. Include both serious and humorous poems in your selection. For example, play serious poems, such as "If" by Rudyard Kipling and "Alone" by Maya Angelou, recommends Lynch. Opt for humorous selections, such as "Messy Room" by Shel Silverstein and "Best Limericks" by Edward Lear. Provide written texts of the poems to go along with the sound recordings, so your students can follow along.
Explain Figurative Language
Before class, create a chart of nine different types of figurative language and provide brief definitions and examples for each:
- alliteration -- the repetition of initial consonant sounds, such as, "She sells sea shells."
- hyperbole -- an exaggeration or overstatement, such as, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse."
- imagery -- visually descriptive language that involves one or more of the five senses, such as, "The stream shivered in the wind."
- simile -- an implied comparison that includes an adverb such as 'like or as;' examples include "busy as a bee" and "cold as ice"
- metaphor -- an analogy that implies one object is another, such as, "the ladder of success" or "life is a roller coaster"
- personification -- when animals, ideas or inanimate objects have human characteristics, such as, "traffic slowed to a crawl" or "the flowers begged for water"
- onomatopoeia -- sounds that are similar to the noise they represent, such as, "buzz, click, hiss, grunt, hoot and rattle"
- symbolism -- words, characters, places and objects with meaning beyond their literal translation, for example: The color black symbolizes evilness or death.
- idiom -- an expression that can't be translated literally word-for-word, such as, "green with envy," "a piece of cake" or "slipped my mind."
Figurative Language Groups
Divide your class into nine groups and assign each group one of the figurative language types. Ask each group to find three examples of their figurative language type from the sound recordings -- and written texts you provided -- and write them on paper. For example, the hyperbole group might write, "Silverstein uses hyperbole in 'Messy Room' when he says that the chair is overstuffed and the workbook is wedged in the window." Or, the simile group might write, "In 'Alone,' Angelou uses a simile when she parallels wives to banshees." Ask each group to share their examples with the class. The goal is to help your students recognize figurative language , making the poems easier to understand, digest and interpret.
Meanings and Interpretations
Break apart a poem, such as "The Raven" by Robert Frost, "O! Captain, My Captain!" by Walt Whitman or "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll, line-by-line or stanza-by-stanza and discuss the meaning and interpretation of each line. Do the first couple of stanzas as a class on your white board or blackboard, and then ask your students to finish the rest on their own paper. Divide your class into groups of two or three students each and have them compare their interpretations.
Collaborative Class Poems
Create a poem from scratch as a class, so your students can practice developing lines that have meaning and rhythm -- and you can help them if they get stuck. Ask your middle-schoolers to come up with a topic or an issue they care about, such as nature, music, animals, friendship or peer pressure. Discuss what they want their readers to gain or infer from the poem. For example, they might choose to write about the importance of the river that runs through their home town or discuss character traits they look for in a best friend. Ask your students to volunteer lines or phrases for the poem and write them on your white board or chalkboard. Encourage them to incorporate figurative language into the poem. Read the finished poem aloud to your class.
- Yale National Initiative: Making the Relevant Connection -- The Middle School Student and Poetry An Understanding and Appreciation of Poetry to Inspire the Poet Within
- Boise State University: Figurative Language; Cassandra Mares
- Michigan State University Residential College in the Arts and Humanities: Poetry Lesson Plans for Elementary, Middle, and High School Students
- National Endowment for the Humanities -- Edsitement!: National Poetry Month -- Exemplars from Edsitement -- Poetry for the Common Core
- Poetry Foundation: "If" by Rudyard Kipling
- All Poetry: "Alone" by Maya Angelou
- Family Friend Poems: "Messy Room" by Shel Silverstein
- Family Friend Poems: "Limericks" by Edward Lear -- originally published in "A Book of Nonsense" in 1846
- Carson-Newman University: Literary Terms and Definitions
- Photo Credit Lisa F. Young/iStock/Getty Images
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