November 28, 2010

How to Teach a Poetry Workshop

Recently, grants have been available for Community Arts Learning.  This is a wonderful opportunity for artists/writers and members of the community to develop their skills.   The key to successful arts workshops is a lesson plan.    Lesson plans are simple, but they will help the artist stay focused and organize the time so that the experience is productive.  The younger and larger the group, the more essential is structured time.

Here is a sample lesson plan for poetry workshops for children.  This can be adapted for adult learners as well.    Children who are 4th grade and younger developmentally may not grasp the metaphor but they can learn to use sound patterns and the five senses.  

The Lesson Plan for a Children's Poetry Workshop

Age:   grade 4-6 (often it's been about 20+ students)
Time:  1 hour (and it could be 1:15 min)
Goal:   Students will practice poetry and learn to use the 5 senses in description and use  figurative language. 

Materials:   the workshop leader should bring good example poems.  The writing prompts that you plan should relate to these examples. 
It's helpful (preferred but not absolutely necessary) to have another adult in the classroom if you have a large group.  This person can assist with some students' needs (esp if there are special needs kids)--a little one to one coaching. 
Students should have paper and pencils

Introduction to Poetry:

I begin by asking students to tell me what poetry is.    They have interesting answers.  Praise any interesting observations.   I will talk about 5 minutes about what poems are:   they create a picture and sound for the reader.  They can be a story, a list, a letter, a blessing, or a memory.

I'll read an example poem and ask the students to tell me what they noticed about reinforce the definition of a poem.   We will also notice sound elements:  rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, etc.  I point out figurative language and define the word metaphor. 

Practice Poetry:

The goal is to teach students to use the five senses when they write description and to use figurative language.    I approach the project lightly to make it fun.  I give them rules: 1. write fast, 2. don't worry about spelling or punctuation 3. write about what is important to you and 4.  be specific.    Students are writing first drafts.  I tell them not to expect it to be perfect.  We are just going to play with words. (These rules of flow writing are adapted from Natalie Goldberg's book about generating new material, Writing Down the Bones)

Writing Prompts are then used in the classroom.  Each writing exercise is given about 5 minutes for students to write.

Prompt 1.  Metaphor:  Students will hear an example of a persona poem.  (I'll read them a poem I have by John Haines).   They will then be asked to choose an animal and write at least 3 descriptive phrases related using as many of the 5 senses as possible.    Next step:  write the poem.  Begins with "I am....."    The students will be asked to pretend that they are the animal.   They will use the phrases to help them build the poem.  We are looking for a poem of at least 8-10 lines.   

Prompt 2.   Learning how to use specific details.    Students will be asked to write a list of short phrases, specific details, about the area around where they live.    In can be a backyard or a place that they frequently go to play.    Next, students will hear an example of an autobiographical poem called "I Am From" by George Ella Lyon.  This poem is a list poem.   It begins, "I am from clothespins/ from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride./ I am from the dirt under the back porch./ I am from the forsythia bush/ the Dutch elm/ whol long gone limbs I remember/ as if they were my own."      Students will then use their own details to write an autobiographical list poem of their own.

Prompt 3.   Students will use their imagination to  write a poem that begins with one of these prompts:  (often I decide the prompt during class when I learn about their interests or other classroom projects).  I ask them to use a sound element--either rhyme or alliteration.
a journey poem that starts with "If my arms had wings..."  
OR  a list poem of excuses or reasons that starts "Because"   (they are asked to use the word because at least 3 times)
OR   a letter poem that is written from a pet or from a favorite object.

Reading Out Loud:  

After students do 3 writing exercises. I like to offer them an opportunity to read the new poem to the class.  These are all rough drafts, so nobody should expect polished work.  It's "work in progress."   I give some short instructions about posture and breath for the best projection.  Students enjoy sharing their work. I don't force anybody to read.  It should always be volunteered. 

Whenever a student reads, observe the strengths that they have.   "That poem has wonderful vowel sounds," for example.   "That poem uses alliteration.  That poem is a vivid picture.  That poem has a strong beginning or a strong metaphor."    This is essential.  Avoid negative feedback in a short workshop, it will dampen enthusiasm and cause self consciousness.  Avoid laughing at the efforts.  If participants feed judged or self-conscious, they will withdraw their willingness to read rough drafts.  

Reading the work is a fun closure for the poetry workshop.  I help the students read if they need that, and I remind them how to be good listeners.    I often get amazing and great poems from the kids.

Feel free to use or adapt my lesson plan to your own needs.   Each writer/artist should teach from their own strengths.


  1. Thank you for the great resource! I am a teacher out on sabbatical to work on literacy projects.

    It's funny- I have no issues teaching poetry lessons with my own middle and high school classes, but the thought of going into an elementary classroom to do a poetry workshop has me all jammed up!

    Your post is very helpful to get me over my initial block!

    1. Hi Jennifer! I'm glad to hear that you find this helpful. Congrats on a sabbatical -- and I'm glad to hear about a literacy project. I also think poetry is a fun way to encourage reading and writing. The form is so compact, and yet so powerful. Best of wishes to you! I'd be interested to hear how the workshop goes!

  2. Very nice , Sheila. simply put one can relate to it

  3. very helpful, thanks for the insight it really help teaching young kids how to write and present their poems.

  4. very helpful, thanks for the insight it really help teaching young kids how to write and present their poems.

  5. I am organizing an adult poetry workshop, and will definitely be using ideas from here. Thank you so much for such a helpful lesson plan :)