Reading and writing poetry engages us with language, ideas, sounds, images, and emotions in ways that life might not otherwise offer us very often. Poems can be long or short, dramatic or lyric, serious or funny. Some may appeal to us at certain ages or stages in life, while others we can return to again and again, finding new meaning each time we read and reread them.

Poetry historically began with ties to music, so today, it makes sense that poetry naturally overlaps with the music we listen to in our everyday lives. We can read and hear people perform poetic works in many different languages, time periods, and cultures, and within different styles of music, from country to rap. There are poems that have had great influence throughout history, and those authored by poets writing today. And, of course, we can create our own poetry, too!

Celebrate Poetry Month with Great Books

Some poems may be understood easily the first time you read them. But most offer “hidden gems” that you only notice once you reread or discuss them with others. By bringing us closer to the music of language and its incredible power to convey meaning, poetry offers us many gifts, though we may need to stretch a little to help ourselves unwrap and fully enjoy them.

That’s why the Shared Inquiry™ method of learning is such a perfect fit for engaging with rich, complex poetic texts. When readers share questions, connections, and “noticings,” everyone’s awareness of the poet’s creativity is heightened, and our understanding of a poem’s language deepens. No one person has to figure a poem out alone because the group’s collective goal is to discover and create meaning through the process of exploring a poem, or set of related texts, together.

Selecting Poetry for Shared Inquiry

What makes some poems more effective than others for this type of collaborative learning experience? What kinds of poems will benefit most from the power of collaboration and Shared Inquiry strategies?

You want to use poetry that does the following:

  • Grapples with “essential questions” that we each face in life
  • Is rich in language and meaning
  • Is complex and multifaceted

Sample Lesson Plans with Poetry
and Other Resources from the Great Books Foundation

At the Great Books Foundation, poetry has long been an integral part of our anthologies for young students, middle-grade readers, secondary students, and even for adults. Sample lesson plans including poetry for all of these age groups can be downloaded from this page!

Our team has created these free lesson plans featuring contemporary poems on current events by poets such as Amanda Gorman, as well as lesson plans on classic poets and topics such as Kahlil Gibran’s “On Friendship” and Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus.” A sample unit from the Foundation’s Modern American Poetry anthology includes the introduction “How to Read A Poem,” which shares examples of questions to ask when reading and discussing poetry.

Click to download sample lesson plans.

Tips for Engaging in Shared Inquiry with Poetry

Here are some tips on how to engage your poetry selections with the Shared Inquiry teaching and learning method:

  • Use the full Shared Inquiry sequence of activities if you’re guiding a less-experienced group of readers, or if the poem is longer or more challenging.
    • Consider whether to do the first reading aloud or if your readers can do a first reading on their own. If you do read aloud, try not to over-dramatize or spend too much time on your own interpretation, while still reading fluently, of course.
    • Be sure to conduct the sharing questions activity, which encourages curiosity about the unique vocabulary and specific features of the poem. Clear up any confusion surrounding basic vocabulary definitions or comprehension questions. Be sure to save interpretive questions, or questions with more than one answer, for later.
    • Have readers take turns reading the poem (or sections of it) aloud. Practice emphasizing different parts, using different tones of voice, or applying alternative connotations to key words. Pause periodically, and use interpretive prompts or questions to engage in brief discussions.
  • Consider starting the Shared Inquiry discussion by having readers share their own questions about the poem, if this wasn’t already done as part of the Shared Inquiry sequence described above.
    • Another option is to first discuss the poem line by line, or stanza by stanza, before shifting into using an interpretive focus question and cluster.
  • Try to pay attention to how something is being said, as well as what is being said. Ask cluster questions that call attention to each poem’s particular literary features like the meter, use of metaphor, any alliteration, or the rhyme scheme, for example.
    • If you have the time and interest, this is also a good way to practice using poetic terms, though labeling them explicitly isn’t always necessary.
  • Remember that the poet may or may not be speaking to the reader directly in their own voice. If the poem has a speaker or characters, exploring their motivations, dialogue, or actions may help reveal different interpretations readers can have of the poem.
  • Leaders often notice that having evidence-based ideas or claims about poetry may be less straightforward and more about making connections within the poem or articulating connotations of various words or phrases. Asking participants to identify and respond to specific parts of the text is still a good habit, as it helps to balance the tendency towards more personal associations during the discussion, bringing the group back to what they all have in common––the poem itself.

The wealth of poetry available today allows for so many opportunities to engage in Shared Inquiry with learners of all ages. Poems can be grouped together by author, style, or theme; they can be grouped with other objects of inquiry like visual art or a short story through shared themes or time periods. Poems in translation are fascinating in their own right (take for example the Great Books Foundation president’s translation of José Martí’s poem, “Dos Patrias”), as is writing and performing poetry.

If Shared Inquiry is new to a group, poetry can provide good, short text options that allow for both time for reading right there together and time for explaining the method and its guidelines. Like other special months, National Poetry Month should be just a reminder to explore this rich genre of literature all year long!

Connect with Us to Explore Poetry and Much More

To explore poetry, fiction, and nonfiction with your students in a fun and productive way all school-year long, get in touch with your Great Books K–12 partnership manager to find out how to bring Junior Great Books to your classrooms!