How I Teach - Poetry you can taste and touch

8th November 2013 at 00:00
Demystify verse for students by asking them to use their senses

Teachers and students alike are often intimidated by poetry. It is commonly perceived as being indulgently academic and wantonly complicated - if you take a look at a footnoted version of TS Eliot's The Wasteland, you can see why.

Yet poetry has much to offer: it can be fun and engaging as well as serious, and it is the task of education to demonstrate this. There are a number of methods you can use, but my favourite takes the form of the following activity.

I begin by asking students to help me form a list of emotion words such as "ecstasy", "melancholy" and "paranoia". To inspire the students, I read a couple of poems: one about sadness and one about happiness. I make clear that the actual words "happy" and "sad" have no place in my classroom, and the students offer alternatives.

I then direct each student to pick one of these words, making sure not to tell anyone else what it is. Once they have chosen an emotion, I ask them to imagine what the word might taste like, giving them two minutes to describe the taste in as much interesting detail as they can without using the word they have chosen. I repeat the exercise with the other four senses.

The students now have the tools for the next task. They have to write each description on a separate line in their exercise books, being careful to use a different word as the sentence opener each time. For the emotion "hate", for example, they could start with, "There is a taste, bitter like a lemonIt rumbles like an express train ..." and so on.

Poems emerge, which the students have written without necessarily knowing it. You should point out that they have included metaphor and structure, just as poets do. And you can also indicate that the poem may seem simple to them, but to others it may be more difficult to grasp. This helps them to get inside a poet's head and encourages them to explore poetry with more emphasis on what the writer is trying to do.

The activity is not just about writing - I also focus on the skills of communication and listening. I end by getting each student to read their poem, while the rest of the class tries to work out which emotion is being described. By listening to and reading the poems, the students grasp the effect of rhythm and punctuation, which allows them to understand poets' thinking and to see some of the techniques they once thought "difficult" as aspects of meaning and performance.

Joshua Seigal is a poet. He performs his poetry and runs workshops in schools, and recently took his one-man children's poetry show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Find out more at


1 Notable skills

Ideal for an introductory lesson, this presentation covers the language used to analyse poems and the skill of annotation.


2 Deal out definitions

These quotes from famous thinkers and artists, such as film-maker Quentin Tarantino (pictured, left), provide varied opinions about what poetry is. Get students to rank them in order of how "true" they are. This task will spark debate - and should increase understanding, too.


3 Metaphorical mindset

Introduce the use of metaphor in poetry, and the significance of a writer's choice of vocabulary, with this resource. Learning is reinforced using a composition task and peer assessment.


4 Poetic parts

Take a closer look at poetic forms with this booklet covering everything from haikus to sonnets, including examples of each form.


5 Scottish stanzas

Explore the work of the Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard with this booklet, and challenge students' views of traditional poetry with the phonetic extracts provided.


6 Structural assistance

This engaging activity provides children with a model framework that they can use to write their own poem about creatures in the rainforest.


7 Special delivery

This activity is designed to encourage less confident writers to pen poetry by focusing on the format of a telegram. Every word costs money to send, so brevity is paramount.


8 Grammar game

Teach your students about grammar through poetry with this PowerPoint activity, which asks them to choose different types of words to fill in the gaps.


9 Picture poem

This visual lesson takes students through a poem via illustrated PowerPoint slides, and then poses questions to structure analysis of the text. bit.lyPicturePoem

10 War of words

Delve into the world of war and conflict writing with this unit plan and supporting resources, featuring poets such as Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Edward Thomas.


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