Poetry is an often overlooked form of literature when it comes to teaching children about language. This is an unfortunate trend, since a poem can offer so much to a student. The musical and aesthetic qualities of a language, or the descriptive and visual powers of text are obvious takeaways, but children can also learn a lot from the more subtle themes, symbolism and philosophy woven into a poem’s imagery and structure.
Getting children interested in reading poetry at home may seem daunting. Students (of all ages) can be resistant to the unexpected uses of language that a poem often presents. However, it needn’t be so. Introduce poems to your kids as playful expressions of language, where words can take on different, contextual meaning, hear what they have to say about the poems and discuss your own ideas, and the kids are sure to be curious.
We recommend three poems, of varying difficulty and themes that we think are great to read and discuss with your middle-school kids.
1) I, Too, Sing America, by Langston Hughes
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Read the full poem here.
African-American poet Langston Hughes was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and this poem, published before the Civil Rights Movement, first depicts a prejudiced America where African-American domestic servants are “sent to eat in the kitchen,” before describing a hopeful, more inclusive vision of the United States.
Notice the lack of a rhyme scheme or a formal rhythm, and the pauses that the poem seems to force at the end of its short, declarative sentences. This poem’s a great opportunity to teach your kids about free verse, and that not all poems need to rhyme.
Thematically, you can discuss slavery and racial prejudice in the history of America (which is currently a very relevant topic), food, health, and the role of shared meals as social experience (“They send me to eat in the kitchens”, “I’ll be at the table”), as well as the role of laughter, song, art and expression as a force for social and political change (“I , too, sing America”, “But I laugh”).
2) Design, by Robert Frost
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
Read the full poem here.
Design’s sonnet structure (a mixture of the Petrarchan and Shakespearian sonnet, if you want to get technical) is much more old-school than I, Too, Sing America’s free verse. The formal structure of the poem isn’t arbitrary, of course: it seeks to reinforce the poem’s central question of how formally designed our lives actually are, whether coincidences actually exist, and whether or not destiny is a thing. Heady stuff, and Frost uses a classic technique of introducing a problem in the first eight lines (the “octet”), and attempting to answer in in the last six (the “sestet”), though in Frost’s case, rather than provide an answer, he probes a deeper, more fundamental question of whether design exists or not.
While a little more challenging for younger readers, we think the visceral sensory effects (enhanced by the somewhat non-traditional rhyme scheme) will appeal to kids. Take for example, the moth “like a white piece of rigid, satin cloth,” with its “dead wings carried like a paper kite.” The poem definitely verges on the horror end of the spectrum, with its talk of spiders, death, darkness and witches. Exciting stuff, which can be a wonderful gateway to the poem’s deeper literary and philosophical qualities.
3) Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll
And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
At first, Lewis Carroll’s classic poem from Through The Looking Glass, may seem intimidating to a student, but a closer look will show that all the “difficult vocabulary” is made of nonsense words that Carroll made up. However, so influential was Carroll, that some of those words have made their way into common language (“chortle”, and “galumph” come to mind).
Carroll, is a master of onomatopoeia (making words sounds like their meaning), and the strange syllables he threads throughout this (surprisingly regularly structured) poem, coupled with its singsong rhythm, recall both an epic adventure in the style of Beowulf and Gilgamesh, as well as a goofy cartoon. A fun exercise with your kids might be to imagine, draw, or describe in plain English what the setting is, or maybe what a “slithy tove” looks like while it “gyre[s ]and gimble[s]in the wabe.”
And of course, Jabberwocky, is replete with the requisite monsters, magic swords, and heroic quests. While certainly a parody, the themes of facing your fears, and courage in the face of the unknown are still clear, and will resonate with every child.