Exploring “Heart to Heart” by Rita Dove


Getting to the Heart of the Matter with Rita Dove

Today’s post is brought to you by guest author Ann Cox. Ann Cox has over twenty years of experience teaching high school English, including AP Literature and Composition, Creative Writing, and Speech. She also spent several years as a teacher consultant for the Illinois State Writing Project. You can reach her at annkellycox@gmail.com.

This is the second installment in a series at #TeachLivingPoets. The Poet Laureate Project features a different U.S. Poet Laureate each month during the 2019-2020 school year. I will highlight one or two of their poems, suggest activities to use these pieces in the classroom, and touch upon their contributions to the promotion of poetry in America.

This month’s featured Poet Laureate is Rita Dove. In addition to being the youngest ever U.S. Poet Laureate, she is also a Pulitzer Prize winner and the only poet to receive both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts.

I’ve chosen to spotlight Dove’s poem “Heart to Heart.” This poem is a good choice if your students haven’t had much exposure to poetry since the language is relatively simple. I also selected this poem because I love how the poet takes common images of the heart and looks at them in a fresh new way.

Ways to Introduce the Poem

A quick glance at my iPhone revealed thirty emojis that incorporate a heart. You might start the lesson by displaying a bunch of these emojis to students and having a brief discussion about the symbolic meanings of the heart.

Then you could show this brief video that explains how the heart shape became a symbol of love.

Another way to connect to ideas in the poem might be to show students the painting below and ask them to consider the artist’s message about the heart.

Working with the Poem

If you’ve never used the TPCASTT method to analyze poetry, “Heart to Heart” is an easy way to begin. You can use this chart at first to familiarize students with the process.

If you plan to use TPCASTT with “Heart to Heart,” distribute copies of the poem as well as the chart, and give students a few moments to jot down their thoughts about the title. Then read the poem aloud or listen to Rita Dove read her work. I like to listen to a poem at least twice; first, just to listen, then a second time to begin analysis.

Give students time to complete the TPCASTT chart. If students are using this method for the first time, I recommend working with a partner; otherwise they can complete the chart on their own. Then you might have a follow-up discussion as a whole class or in small groups to discuss students’ findings.

One discussion method I sometimes use is called speed dating. Students sit in two rows facing one another (or an inner and outer circle, depending on the logistics of your classroom).  They discuss T with the partner across from them. Then, while one row remains seated, everyone in the other row moves one seat to the right. They then discuss P with their new partner. Keep rotating in that manner so everyone discusses the poem with seven different partners.

You might also follow up a discussion with a viewing (or reviewing) of the heart painting I mentioned earlier. Ask students to compare the ideas represented in the painting to the image of the heart presented in Dove’s poem.


I found several interesting pairings you might consider:

  • Pair “Heart to Heart” with another of Dove’s poems “Golden Oldie.” Ask students to compare how the poet covers the same topic in different ways.
  • Pair Dove’s contemporary poem with a classic one. Two that would work well are “When I Was One-and-Twenty” by A.E. Houseman and “Never Give All the Heart” W.B. Yeats. Both poems warn of the dangers of giving your heart away, which is a direct contrast to the speaker in Dove’s poem.
  • One of my favorite ways to engage students in a lesson is through music. Consider pairing “Heart to Heart” with John Legend’s song “All of Me.” Ask students to compare their use of heart idioms as well as the images of imperfection that both speakers contemplate.
  • Have your students write a heart poem using this lesson.
  • Use this poem while studying Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Ask students to consider the following: 
    1. Compare the heart in Dove’s poem to Paul D’s heart in chapter 7. How are the speaker and Paul D’s hearts and emotional state similar or different? 
    2. Dove’s speaker says their heart speaks, “I want, I want.” How does that connect to concepts of love in the novel? Consider all the ways the characters “want.”

If you’re looking for a writing idea, ask students to choose one of the idioms from the poem & use it as inspiration for a new piece of writing. For instance, “key to my heart” could be the title of a poem, or a student might write an essay about a time they “wore their heart on their sleeve.” You may wish to provide a list of heart idioms and their definitions (including those not found in the poem, such as “eat your heart out”), especially for ELLs who might struggle with idiom meanings.

I hope you found some inspiring ideas for teaching Rita Dove’s poetry. Join me again next month, when the featured Poet Laureate will be Kay Ryan.

Check out last month’s post on Ted Kooser here.

Thank you, Ann, for sharing this lesson with us. I am looking forward to learning more about US Poet Laureates from you!

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with TeachLivingPoets.com? Be a guest author! Email me at msmith@lncharter.org. 

You can follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith and please tweet all the awesome things you are doing in your class with the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag! 

3 thoughts on “Exploring “Heart to Heart” by Rita Dove

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