Poem of the Week

Poetry, in my opinion, is like a Swiss Army knife for teaching literacy. Its rhythm and repetition helps English Language Learners develop phonemic awareness, its themes challenge gifted and advanced learners, its reliance on describing experience in short, measured bursts aids struggling learners, and most secondary students connect with its similarity to song lyrics.

Every weekend, I update the poems. If you’re interested in teaching poetry, there are many free resources online to help you. Start with this search for lessons K-12 at NCTE’s Read Write Think. Next, try out the educator resources at Poets.org and the Poetry Foundation.


November 11, 2017

Praise Song for the Day

A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. A chapbook edition of Praise Song for the Day will be published on February 6, 2009.
Source: Praise Song for the Day (Graywolf Press, 2009)

October 22, 2017

Love after Love

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

September 24, 2017

September 17, 2017

September 10, 2017

September 3, 2017

August 27, 2017

August  20, 2017

August 12, 2017


July 30, 2017


July 23, 2017

July 8, 2017

Commentary: Whitman’s poem is a visual tour of the city, but also a kind of love letter to place. As such, it is a great model for students who may wish to use it as a guide to constructing a similar poem about their city, state, or even neighborhood. Like Whitman, students may wish to research the origin or meaning of their city’s name (or even the name of the street where they live) and use it to begin a poem or descriptive paragraph. Successive stanzas describe people, seasons, and landmarks, which also suggest a directionality for student writing about a place. Finally, students may wish to pair their writing with images, in the style of early artists Sheeler and Strand.

Whitman’s poem inspired one of the first avant-garde documentaries: Manhatta, 65 shots of early 20th-Century Manhattan, features pieces of Whitman’s poem and was created through the partnership of painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand in 1921. It was chosen for preservation as part of the National Film Registry.


July 2, 2017

Commentary: Trethewey poetically expands upon Heraclitus’ observation: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” She also examines the power of memory, history, and place to ground us in who we used to be as well as who we are now.

Two interesting writing/discussion prompts from the poem are the lines:

“There’s no going home” and “bring only what you must carry.”

Either or both phrases talk about the necessity of leaving the familiar and deciding what is important to keep from that time and place. What home(s) have you left? What have you kept, what have you discarded?

Start at 11:50 to see and hear the author read the poem as well as provide context


June 25, 2017

Commentary: Roethke uses some technical fireworks: the villanelle form and  iambic pentameter to compose his thoughts and feelings here, but you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy it. Here’s some great analysis of the poem, if you’d like to think more deeply about it, because there’s a LOT to think about.

As June closes, some schools are letting out, others have let out, graduates are thinking of the unknown path ahead, even those getting married this month can understand Roethke’s themes of awareness, anxiety, and anticipation. You may wish to try a writing exercise I’ve used with students called “writing off the line.” The instructions are simple:

  1. Make a copy of the poem for everyone
  2. Read the poem aloud twice; once to let it wash over you, the second time as if you were a piece of litmus paper waiting to react with a word or phrase
  3. Have students mark the words/phrases that cause a reaction in them
  4. Put those words at the top of a clean sheet of paper
  5. That’s the line to use as a jumping off point for their own thoughts
  6. Write for ten minutes, giving permission to write whatever comes to mind
  7. Have students re-read what they wrote, marking the places in their writing that they find interesting

Alternatively, have students view this video of a custodian talking about why he loves this poem. Then, use it as a springboard for their own discussion of it.


June 18, 2017

Commentary: This Rita Dove poem illustrates a scene, almost like a short video, of people waiting to board a plane. Because it’s so visual, students may sketch the scene as you read it to them. Notice the descriptions of the passengers. You may compare Dove’s visuals with actual visuals of  this short scene from the ending of the film, “Love Actually.” So much poetry comes from slowing down and noticing. You may use this as a springboard for students to study a scene of people and try describing them with the same sort of empathetic noticing used by Dove. What happens when we look with understanding?

June 11, 2017

Commentary: Mary Oliver is one of my all-time favorite poets. She catches elusive and hard-to-name experiences like no other modern poet. I’ve used “The Summer Day” to teach summer school students, having them use the poem’s final question as a writing prompt. Because its imagery is so concrete, it’s a great mentor text for learners who are attempting to write their own poetry. Advanced placement students might think about the use of present tense and what that might contribute to the poem’s meaning.

June 3, 2017

May 30, 2017

May 21, 2017

May 7, 2017

May 1, 2017

April 23, 2017

April 16, 2017

April 9, 2017

April 2, 2017

March 26, 2017

March 19, 2017

March 5, 2017


by David Whyte

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God

or many gods.

I want to know if you belong or feel


if you can know despair or see it in others,

I want to know

if you are prepared to live in the world

with its harsh need

to change you. If you can look back

with firm eyes,

saying this is where I stand. I want to know if you know

how to melt into that fierce heat of living,

falling toward

the center of your longing. I want to know

if you are willing

to live, day by day, with the consequence of love

and the bitter

unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even

the gods speak of God.

from River Flow: New & Selected Poems 

February 26, 2017

A video of archival images that features Langston Hughes reading “I, Too”

February 19, 2017

Listen to Amanda Palmer’s amazing reading of “Protest” here:

February 12, 2017

February 5, 2017

Lesson Plan from Read Write Think

January 28, 2017

The Gates of Hope

By Victoria Safford

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

h/t Maria Popova/Brainpickings

January 22, 2017

January 15th, 2017

Via poets.org

Image by Elijah Hail/Unsplash


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