The rhyme equation: 1 + 1 = 3

Do your students struggle with analyzing rhyme in poetry? How many more times must we teachers hear “it helps to make the poem flow” or the cringe-worthy “it creates a sing-song effect”? Or maybe they avoid rhyme completely because they don’t know what to say if they can’t use the words “flow” or “sing-song.”

I have a solution that will offer remarkable improvement in your students’ ability to effectively analyze rhyme. It’s an equation, actually. Just tell them to think: 1 + 1 = 3.

I must give credit for this formula to the person who shared it with me at a professional development session on teaching poetry, Alan Michael Parker. AMP is an essayist, poet, novelist, and teacher of Creative Writing at Davidson College. He’s taught some of my all-time favorite poets, including Clint Smith and Rebecca Hazelton.

The formula works by taking the two individual words that rhyme (the 1 and 1) and creating a new meaning (the 3) by merging the two words together into a new idea. Let me show you some examples from my AP Literature student, Julia, who used the formula to examine rhyme in William Blake’s “Introduction to Songs of Innocence,” a poem that appears simple, but with this formula, can offer some insightful analysis.

Structurally overall, Julia notices that the stanzas are separated by the various actions of the piper, and by the different requests of the child on the cloud. (Fun fact about Blake: he claimed to have spiritual visions of angels and God.) Here’s what happens in the poem:

Stanza 1: piper encounters a child on a cloud

Stanza 2: child requests a particular song for piper to play

Stanza 3: child requests the piper to sing a song

Stanza 4: child requests piper to write his songs in a book

Stanza 5: piper writes the songs with the purpose of sharing them with other children

Based on these simplified stanza summaries, Julia takes a closer look at how rhyme enhances each.

The rhyming words “wild” and “child” in stanza 1 emphasize the playful and carefree nature of children in a peaceful world–and the cloud child sure is a happy kid. Not to mention, a little demanding. The child is oscillating between laughing and crying tears of joy, certainly “wild” in his joyful emotions.

Also in stanza 1, “glee” and “me” combine to mimic the child’s happiness infecting and bringing delight to the speaker. The cloud child is gleeful, wanting to share his glee with the piper.

Image from British Museum
Songs of Innocence

In stanzas 2 & 3, “cheer” and “hear” double-time and join forces to reiterate that hearing the piper’s song makes the little cloud dweller feel all the feels.

“Write” and “sight” in stanza 4 can be interpreted two ways. Perhaps the piper needed to see this divine vision in order to be inspired to write his joyful songs for others. And the child serves as his muse. Or, perhaps the child urges the piper to “write” the songs down so that all the world may see them, and receive the same joy the child is feeling. 

Also in stanza 4, there’s “read” and “reed,” which aren’t just rhyming words, but the exact same sound. So what do we make of that? Added importance? Julia thinks so. As a Romantic poet, Blake certainly finds inspiration in nature. This pairing of words shows us the connection between nature and art. The speaker is using a piece of nature, a reed, to actually scribe his songs for others to read and garner inspiration from. And as Blake offers this poem as an introduction for his book Songs of Innocence, it gives insight into his artistic connection to the natural world. 

Finally, “clear” and “hear” in stanza 5 serve as both a culmination to the poem and an invitation to the rest of the book. The piper, or the poet Blake, hopes others’ minds will become clear and find joy in the innocence and simplicity of childhood once they hear his songs.

There you have it. The rhymes Blake employs all contribute to the poem’s overall meaning of childhood innocence, imagination and creativity, and the connection between nature and art. Sounds better than it “helps to make the poem flow,” doesn’t it?

Here are some other poems from LIVING POETS that use rhyme to have your students practice their new 1 + 1 = 3 equation. 

Tyehimba Jess (2017 Pulitzer Prize winner) Sonnet crown for Blind Tom

Rachel Hadas “Triolets in the Argolid” – what is a triolet?

Patricia Smith “A Street in Lawndale”

Amit Majmudar “T.S.A.”

Diane Gilliam Fisher “His and Hers” 

Kristiana Rae Colón “a remix for remembrance” 

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith

Making Poetry Connections Beyond the Classroom

This week, my Creative Writing students are in serious drafting mode. We’re working on crafting partner slam poems, an assignment given to us by Terry Creech, artist educator and Executive Director and founder of BreatheInk. Watching my students workshop with Mr. Creech and getting messy playing with language, sounds, and performance ideas are the inspirations for this post.

In this post, I am going to share various ways I have extended my students’ learning beyond the classroom or beyond my own direct instruction. I have found that my students’ most meaningful poetry moments rarely involve me as a teacher. I’m just the one who leads them to the door.

Let’s start with BreatheInk since we are currently in the midst of working with them. While they are Charlotte-based, they have close ties with Brave New Voices, which is a nationwide poetry organization and competition for high school students. There’s also Louder Than a Bomb, which has roots in Chicago, but has grown into a national competition. And Urban Word NYC, and tons more, I’m sure, in all major cities. What’s so great about these organizations is that students can see themselves in these young poets – they are the kids on stage and in the videos. Check out these students performing “Beach Bodies” and consider how your students would relate.

They’re funny. They’re smart. They have a message. They craft their poem to relay that message in the most effective way possible. They’ve considered things like syntax, connotations, figurative language, allusions, volume and pace, rhyme and alliteration — aren’t these the very things we as poetry teachers want our students to consider? So let them try it! Give them poems they can relate to. Give them the opportunity to become a poet themselves.

Or give them the opportunity to talk to a living, breathing, real-life published poet. Being able to have a face-to-face conversation with a poet allows for a new level of student engagement. Skype and Google Hangout are two easy ways to invite a poet into your classroom. In order to have the most successful conversation, have your students read several poems (if not the entire collection) by the poet, learn about the poet’s biography, have lots of discussion in class, come up with quality questions ahead of time, and finally do a practice Skype with someone else first (it can even be a student in your class on their phone) to work out any technical difficulties. My class has Skyped (or will be Skyping with) RA Villanueva, Clint Smith, and Victoria Chang. I’ve never paid a fee for a Skype sesh, but I do always send a hand-written thank you card and a small gift to show our appreciation for their time.

Or level up and have a poet come to your school. Poet visits are typically not free, so you may need to get creative to make this happen. Some schools have instructional budget allotments, booster clubs, and/or PTOs you could ask for funding. You could set up a Go Fund Me or Donors Choose. You could do your own fundraisers, like bake sales, T-shirts, restaurant nights, etc. If a poet happens to be in town, you could get lucky with a volunteer visit like we did with José Olivarez last year. If not, you will most likely need to pay an honorarium and cover any travel and hotel expenses. The experience your students will get will be well worth it. (p.s. Please pay them something, even if it’s small, if they don’t tell you a specific amount. I took up a collection for José and paid for his hotel and dinner, even though he didn’t specify an honorarium.) (p.p.s. Look out for José’s new book coming out 2018!)

Or maybe you want to start more low key. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about Poetry Out Loud. This year was our school’s first time participating in this national competition, and we have a student who is advancing to States! POL is a great introduction to the power of poetry, and it’s a little easier on the nerves because students are not performing their own written work, but works already published by renowned authors. Their poetry data base covers works from the 1500s to present day and is filled with phenomenal works from living poets.

Or you could get out of the classroom and take a field trip. There are so many options–some free, some not. A couple years ago, I took my students to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. It was cool; there were goats, but it wasn’t free. This past year, we attended a free Literary Festival hosted by University of North Carolina-Charlotte, which featured a reading and Q&A with Nikky Finney and Eduardo C Corral.

At the time of this event, some of my students were juniors, who I have now this year as seniors. I know this event personally affected them long-term because they are currently still reading these two poets and writing their poetry blogs on them (more on blogs in a sec!).

Local colleges and universities are great places to look for free events and readings. I usually find the best info on English Language Arts department pages. For example, I discovered Clint Smith is coming for another reading at Davidson College, his alma mater, during our spring break. My students read Counting Descent for summer reading and they (if they’re not heading to warmer waters on vaycay) are excited to meet him in person and get their books signed.

You can also check out local coffee shops or artist spaces for open mics. Some are hosted by literary organizations and may offer more of an educational experience than others, so I suggest looking into them and contacting the establishment to see if it will be student-friendly.

Blogs are a fantastic and easy way to connect your students with individual poets. When students create their class blogs, I let them know that they will be public and shared with a wider audience. One of my favorite things to do is send the student blog link (via social media) directly to the poet they are writing about. Some poets are super nice and respond with a comment, which completely makes the student’s day! It’s like they met a celebrity. Poets have even furthered bloggers’ learning with additional links or information about their work.


Kyle Dargan


José Olivarez


So how do you make this happen in your class? First of all, you need to do a little research. Check out local literary events and university websites. Look up your favorite poets’ reading tour schedules on their professional webpages for any coming to a location near you. Reach out to poetry organizations like Poetry Out Loud or Brave New Voices. Tweet @ a poet you appreciate. Give them some love on social media. And include the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag!

What other connections have you made for your students that I am missing? Please share in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

Color poem

End goal: Students will write a poem about or inspired by color


Step 1: Pre-write Activity – Shades of Green

Across the top of my front board, I hung a row of sheets of paper of different shades of one color. I got the sheets at my local craft store in the scrap booking section for a dime each. It was important to me to get various shades of the same color instead of a rainbow FullSizeRenderpalette so that students can consider the nuances of color and shades. With instrumental music in the background, students wrote down a list of 6 words what came to mind for 3 different shades of their choice. (I’m old school and still use Pandora. I like Theivery Corporation, Little People, and Trip Hop radio stations). Then, I had students write the best word from their 3 lists up on the board.

Step 2: Pre-write Activity – Mentor poems

Students were placed into small groups by randomly choosing different colored markers. Find your color, find your group. I taped 7 different mentor poems from living poets into the center of a large poster board and gave one to each group. I also included brief biographical information about the author and a picture so students could literally see who they were reading, and maybe get more insight into their poem from reading a little bit about them.

List of mentor texts:

Why is the Color of Snow? by Brenda Shaughnessy

Spoken For by Li-Young Lee

Shell White by Melissa Range

Synesthesia by Mahtem Shiferraw

“On Blueness” by Joshua Bennett – I can’t find it published online, but it’s the last poem in his book The Sobbing School

application for the position of abdelhalim hafez’s girl by Safia Elhillo

Sonnet 12 by Victoria Chang – on page 46 in her book Barbie Chang

In their small group, they first read the poem out loud. I asked them to discuss their first impressions of the poem. What surprised them? What is their emotional reaction to it? In a corner of the poster board, one of the group members recorded their group’s answers. This was Round 1 of 7. For each round, students switched poster boards and read a new poem, along with the previous groups’ notes. Each time we switched, a IMG_5225different person read the poem out loud, and the recorder also switched to ensure that all group members put forth an equal amount of work.

Round 2: Underline words you don’t know and define them. If you do know all the words, find words that are particularly specific, heavily connotative, or surprising and explain why.

Round 3: Paraphrase the poem. What is it about?

Class was already over by the time they finished Round 3, so we ‘to be continued’ the activity into the next day.


Step 3: Pre-write Activity – Shades of Blue 

Repeat same activity from yesterday, but this time with blue.

But I added on an extra step this time to get them thinking like a poet. After the students had all written their words on the board, I had them look over all of the words and write down 3 interesting, unexpected word pairs – words that normally wouldn’t go together, such as “shy blueberry” or “electric sleep.” Once it looked like most students had at least 3, we each wrote an unexpected word pair on the board that we felt was the most interesting of our 3. I was super impressed with this part of the lesson.

Students invented amazingly creative and surprising word pairs. I asked them why they thought I had them do this extra step today, and their responses aligned with my intentions:

We discovered new ways to describe something.

We created cool metaphors.

We are looking at something in a different way. 

Step 4: Pre-write Activity – Mentor poems continued

Students returned to the groups they worked in yesterday. For each new round, we continued switching poster boards, orators, and recorders.

IMG_5231Round 4: What color is the poem about? Circle words/phrases that involve color. In the margin – how does the poet use the color(s) in the poem? Why is the color appropriate?

Round 5: Identity the main shift in the poem. Draw a line to indicate where it occurs. In the margins, explain how the poem is different above and below the line you just drew.

End of class.


Step 5: Pre-write Activity – Finish mentor poems

Today, we started with finishing up the rest of the mentor poem rounds. Same groups, same procedure.

Round 6: Put brackets around uses of figurative language. In the margins, identify the literary device being used.

IMG_5224Round 7: Read the poem and all the notes in the margins. Find the note that paraphrases the poem, explaining what it is about. Were they right, close, or wrong in their interpretation? Explain. Add to this note new information about the poem.

Finish the last round with group and whole-class reflection: Besides the literal use of color, what did these poems have in common? Is a poem ever really just about a color?


Step 6: Paint Swatches and Prompt

Time to write! I lay out a mess of paint swatches (free from any hardware store) and encourage students to choose one that speaks to them to place next to their paper as their draft their poem. The point swatches are optional – some students took one, some didn’t.

Prompt: Write a poem that is inspired by a color. Include multiple references to the color in your poem.

FullSizeRender (1)


Ink Blot Haiku & POL District Competition

This past week, we were in school a grand total of one day. Due to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and some crazy snowy weather, students got to spend most of the week cozy on the couch. Okay okay, and teachers too. Spending a full week in my house with my 3-year-old and 5-year-old has been… Let’s just say I’m actually looking forward to going back to school this week.

The one day we had in Creative Writing class was well spent. Students made ink blotsIMG_5146 using plain copy paper and permanent non-washable legit real ink. Hence, the use of newspaper splash pads. Check out Mostafa using one as a bib. Fashionable, I must say.

They created their masterpieces by using coffee stirrers to blow around blobs of ink placed on their paper by my ink dropper. There was beauty in the randomness of the drops, and they did not know why they were making their images–although they could probably take a fairly educated guess.

As the ink dried, we read some examples of haiku, made sure we were clear on the form, and discussed what each haiku achieved in such a small space. Then, students took a good gander at their ink blots to consider images, stories, or IMG_5148IMG_5149emotions evoked. On a page devoted for drafting in their Writers Notebooks, they worked through lines of 5-7-5, switching out syllables and words if they found them unworthy of the final piece.

In other news, our school also participated in the Poetry Out Loud District competition this weekend, held at Charlotte’s historical Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture (an absolutely beautiful and powerful space). Various schools from the Charlotte area competed with two students from each school, the school winner and the runner-up. Being in such a hallowed place with others who appreciate the wonder and weight of poetry was extremely moving. And to share that experience with my students was something I will remember (and hopefully, they will too) for a long long time.

Our school took second and third place in the competition. The second place winner will be advancing to the State competition in March! Every single student who performed did an amazing job and I am grateful for our district coordinator Ebone Lockett for making the event special for everyone who attended.

Upcoming this week – color poem prompt with mentor texts by Joshua Bennett, Melissa Range, Mahtem Shiferraw, Li-Young Lee, and Brenda Shaughnessy.

Memorizing Poems

This week, Creative Writing class has been hard at work preparing their performances of their chosen poems for Poetry Out Loud’s school competition. This is the first year my school has entered the competition so it has been an exciting learning experience for all of us. Poetry Out Loud is a national organization, and it is certainly serving as an effective way to introduce poetry to my students. Students are memorizing and performing poems by Nikki Giovanni, Rebecca Hazelton, Edgar Allan Poe, Eve Ewing, Paul Dunbar–poets spanning from the 17th century to current day.

We spent the week closely reading the poems, learning them line by line, word by word. We looked at just the vowels. Then just the consonants. We found patterns in the sounds of the poem. We picked out words to emphasize in each line. We navigated the how and why of the poem. We got to know our poem.

For example, here are the directions my colleague Mr. Seneca came up with for focusing on vowels:

  • Read out ONLY the vowels of your poem (might sound like Ah eee oooh uh eh aye…)
  • Look closely at the vowels in your poem. Do you see any patterns? Are there shifts in the pattern?
  • Check out the Scale of Vowels. Find two or three vowels that occur often and are on the LOW end of the spectrum. Underline them. 
  • Say the poem, exaggerating (really exaggerating) those vowels. Which words or ideas seem to be emphasized?
  • Now find two or three vowels that are on the HIGH end of the spectrum. Do the same thing.
  • Now look at the words or ideas that you have found in all previous exercises. Which sounds and words would you choose to emphasize in performance? Choose those and read your poem again naturally, as if you were really speaking in front of an audience.

To allow students to practice the performance aspect, I took the idea from Education Week’s article to have them stand around the room in a big circle, all facing the wall. They read their poems over and over again. To the wall. No eyeballs on them, no pressure. Then, we broke off into small groups and recited them to each other, giving positive feedback and constructive comments.

I’ve realized the value in having students memorize poems.

It’s been a powerful, competitive learning experience, and I am confident in our school’s winner. She’s going to go in blazing and crush her performance of her poems at the upcoming district competition. I’ll keep you posted!

Coming up this week – ink blot haiku and BreatheInk!



Expanding definitions of poetry

Day 1’s lesson was a discussion on students’ initial definitions of poetry, using a Play-doh and FlipGrid mash up (see my previous post)

Today, I wanted them to reflect on, add on to, and hopefully gain some new perceptions of what poetry is and what it can accomplish.

Over the course of two 50-minute class periods, I showed them a Playlist of Poems. Some are personal favorites, and all will be used in some way later in the semester as part of a poetry prompt.

The directions were:

We will watch a string of poems. After each video, write down your thoughts in regards to:

  • What is the poem about?
  • How does the poem make you feel, or what does it make you think?
  • What words stood out to you in the poem and why?
  • Overall thoughts on the poem / reading / performance / video?
  • If you had to assign a COLOR to the poem, which color would it be and why?


In between each video, I set a 3-minute timer for students to free-write their thoughts using the above questions as a guide. They couldn’t stop writing. If they got stuck and had a writer’s block moment, they could simply copy down the questions if they needed to. The point was to keep the pen moving, and hopefully, the thoughts. After each free-write, I asked for a quick show of hands. Well, thumbs actually. Thumbs up if you liked the poem, sideways thumb for ‘it’s okay,’ and thumbs down if they didn’t like it. This was mostly for my own curiosity and trying to gauge their likes and dislikes when it comes to poetry.

Here is the list of videos I showed them:

After the last free-write, students found a partner or two and discussed the following questions in a small group:

  • What new ideas would you add to how you define poetry after watching these videos and hearing these poems?
  • Are these poems like other poems you have read before? Which ones? Explain similarities and/or differences to poems you have read before.
  • What did you learn about poetry from watching these?
  • Which poem stood out the most to you and why? Favorite and least favorite poem?

As a culmination, we came together as a whole class to discuss our opinions, thoughts, and any new perceptions about poetry. Students had all kinds of varying opinions about each poem, which I love because, even though they differed, they all felt comfortable sharing their thoughts and had a voice in the discussion.

And I am happy to report that there were way more thumbs up than sideways thumbs or thumbs down.

What is poetry?

Today, I start my adventures in teaching Creative Writing. And blogging. Basically, blogging about teaching Creative Writing, neither of which I have done before. I requested to teach Creative Writing last year as I started to immerse myself in contemporary poetry. Now willfully drowning, I am grateful to my school for granting my request. I don’t know my students yet–I get to meet them later today–but I do know that I want them all to love poetry. Reading it, writing it, swimming in it.

As the creator of the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag on Twitter, my focus for class will be exactly that–teaching poems by LIVING poets. On the list so far are poems by: Kaveh Akbar, RA Villanueva, Safia Elhillo, Melissa Range, Joshua Bennett, Cathy Park Hong, Eve Ewing, Maggie Smith, Mahtem Shiferraw, Ross Gay, Savon Bartley, Tracy K. Smith, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi.

My first day lesson is called What is Poetry? Materials needed are Play-doh, colorful paper, markers, internet connection and devices for using FlipGrid. The directions are as follows:

To begin our poetry adventures together, I would like for you to consider your personal definition of poetry.

  1. With a partner, brainstorm a list of different ways you define poetry
  2. Create a Play-doh sculpture that physically illustrates your perception of poetry
  3. Set your sculpture on a sheet of colored paper. Write individual words and phrases around the paper that sum up your definition
  4. Using FlipGrid, record a 90-second video explanation of:
    1. Your definition
    2. How your sculpture encapsulates your definition
    3. Explain the words around your paper

….fast-forward 3 hours….

Even as a teacher of 13 years, I still get just a little nervous for the first day of class, and today was no exception. My excitement far outweighs any jitters though, as I get to devote a whole class everyday to something I really love. I expect to have a lot of fun with this class.

Students played through creation and considered their definitions of poetry. Common words were emotionscreative, expressionmusical, and personal. 

I would consider our first day together a success. My goal is to blog once a week, or when I feel like I have something worth sharing.  Any ideas, lessons, and advice are welcome!  🙂

Follow me on Twitter! @MelAlterSmith