A Classroom Full of Poets

Poetry is one of those things I rarely use in class, but whenever I have, I’ve got a great reaction from the students. For example, my Korean teachers loved making their own stem poems. This involved them completing sentences to describe their classmates which became a poem. However asking someone to just write a poem could be a very intimidating thing to do, so I always try to limit the activity and place parameters on it so they can create without that pressure.

So I’m always on the lookout for a way of introducing poetry into the class in a way that feels natural and doesn’t place too much of a burden on the student. Hence my interest in a recent article on the ever reliable Brainpickings about ‘book spine poetry’. In this, the ‘poet’ takes a handful of books and using their spines, makes a poem. Here are a few of my own works…

The blind assassin
On the road
Dead man’s footsteps
Farewell my lovely
The monk and the philosopher
Dining with terrorists
All men are mortal
The old man and the sea
Catch 22
Big fish
Breakfast of champions
Birds of Costa Rica
Without feathers
You are nothing

I love the idea of asking the students to create their own book spine poems, but there are some issues to resolve first. Firstly they need to get hold of the books. If they don’t have their own, then they can visit the library or a bookshop (with permission). If that’s not possible they could use the bestsellers list on Amazon and if you’re really desperate, you can always bring your own books, although that would obviously limit the range available.

Secondly, you may have to resolve some language issues. When ‘building’ the poems, the temptation is to try and find titles that give you articles, prepositions and other connecting words in order for it to make sense. You might want to let your students cheat and add a few words if they think it is necessary.

A second idea is Newspaper Blackout poems. Simply, the ‘poet’ finds a newspaper or similar text, finds words on the page that they want to use for their poem and blackouts the rest of the page. So all you need to do is take a handful of markers and newspaper articles to the class and off you go! You can even do them on an iPad if you’re more technologically minded (although I used different apps from those mentioned in this article – Safari for the text and Screenchomp for the colouring in.)
Here are a couple of my own newspaper blackout poems:

The original text for poem 1


Alternative health
Alternative Health


l read a headline
I flinch with shame

So over the top
Diphtheria, tetanus, tuberculosis, pertussis, polio,
But we had a fridge full of organic vegetables.
Alternative health left me paranoid.

The original text for Warhol
A vacant, heartless worshipper of money and fame.
Yet a sensitive, shy man
Hidden away
Lost then found
Away from the sleaze and glamour
with his mask off.

Obviously just creating these poems is not enough, so I would print the poems to share with the other students. They could then discuss what they think the poem is about and why the poet chose to put them in that order. The conversation could then switch to them speaking to the poet, telling them what they thought and finding out whether they were right or not.

But of course there are many other ways the students could use these poems, and if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.

21 thoughts on “A Classroom Full of Poets

  1. James, awesome ideas! As you know, I love poetry – can't wait to use these amazing ideas. I had never heard of them and this is a super discovery, thanks to you!

  2. Lovely and very creative James! I must say though, a pet peeve of mine has been how the names of authors have been getting bigger and BIGGER while the titles get smaller and smaller…. We read the author not their words.


  3. Thanks Carol and Vicky, and to Mura for the tip.

    And thank you David, although I'm not sure what you mean when you mention the authors. Could you clarify for me?

  4. Some really great, simple and clever ideas! Thanks for sharing, I agree with you about the poetry, it's always something that when I do it in class I wonder why I don't do it more often!

  5. James,

    I just mean look at the book spines and compare the size of the book title to the size of text for the book author. The book author's name appears huge while the name of the book is de-emphasized.

  6. Oh what a great idea James! I loved the poem with the birds of Costa Rica.
    As for poetry, I used to have at least a lesson with every class at school and always with amazing results. I must unbury one of my students' poems from somewhere, something about the universe and the stars, very lyrical. But what was most surprising was that it came from a student who was struggling with schools. A true artist though…
    Beautiful ideas here! The long break did you good, didn't it?

  7. I absolutely love these ideas. I never usually go in for poetry in the class, but this is just so playful and accessible. It's creative and yet anyone could do it. Thanks for sharing!

  8. What a pleasure to read!
    I would be happy to see a follow up post sharing more of the process the students went through – we teachers are lapping it up but did the students need prodding?
    LOVED your poems! Can't decide which I like best, the bird one or the old man and the sea. But then again, why do I have to choose?
    Naomi (@naomishema)

  9. Hi Naomi. To be honest, I haven't had a chance to try this out myself yet, as I've mainly been teaching business in the last couple of years and I'm currently teaching IELTS. But I loved the ideas so much, I decided to share them so they aren't going to waste!

    I like to leave these idea posts deliberately open because I want teachers to take the idea and fit it to their own classes, so I too would be interested in seeing how the students respond to the idea, and how much help they need.

    Thanks for commenting!

  10. This is great, James. The poems really made me laugh, especially the fish and bird ones. I must admit to never having knowingly used poetry in class, unless I count playful variations on Little Red Riding Hood when I, too, was in S.Korea.

  11. brilliant! will be doing some of these in my 5th grade and 6th grade poetry classes! – neena

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