Ruffling Feathers with Kay Ryan’s “Home to Roost”

This is the third 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. Guest author Ann Cox highlights one or two of their poems, suggests activities to use these pieces in the classroom, and touches upon their contributions to the promotion of poetry in America. Ann Cox has over 20 years of experience teaching high school English, including AP Lit, Creative Writing, and Speech. She also spent several years as a teacher consultant for the Illinois State Writing Project.

logoThis month’s featured Poet Laureate is Kay Ryan, who served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate. She has won several prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, and her project as laureate, “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy,” included a poetry-writing contest and designation of April 1 as Community College Poetry Day. 

I’ve chosen to spotlight Ryan’s poem “Home to Roost.” She believes the “rehabilitation of clichés” is part of a poet’s mission, and this poem is an excellent example of that idea in action.


From The Niagara River by Kay Ryan, published by Grove Press. Copyright © 2005 by Kay Ryan.

Ways to Introduce the Poem

You might start the lesson by showing a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds or have students read the Daphne du Maurier short story the movie was based upon. Either option will give students a good visual of what a large flock of angry birds looks like.

You also might consider brainstorming, then discussing idioms about birds. This might include:

  • Birds of a feather flock together
  • Run around like a chicken with its head cut off
  • Kill two birds with one stone
  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
  • Ruffling someone’s feathers
  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
  • Chickens come home to roost

The last one is especially important, as students will need to understand the meaning of this idiom in order to grasp the meaning of the poem.

Working with the Poem

“Kay Ryan’s poetry might be one of the few exceptions to the usual rule that poetry is meant to be heard, not seen. Ryan herself has expressed her dislike of poetry readings and once professed “I write for the page. I write for your brain in a quiet room.”

Therefore, I suggest distributing copies of “Home to Roost” and allowing students to read the poem silently. As they read and reread, they should annotate the poem. This might be a good opportunity to try Donna Vorreyer’s tri-color poetry annotations

Once students have annotated on their own, then annotated again with a partner, lead them through a whole-class discussion of the poem. Students can begin the discussion by sharing their annotations. I like to have a few topics prepared in case the discussion stalls. These topics might include:

  • the allusion to the “home to roost” idiom
  • the playful mix of internal and end rhyme, which Kay Ryan calls recombinant rhyme
  • the structure of the poem with its short lines and one continuous stanza
  • the dominant metaphor in the poem and the imagery it creates


Pair “Home to Roost” with other avian poems to compare and contrast the poets’ use of birds in each. Some poems to consider:

Compare the person in the poem to a character in a novel students have studied. Ask them to consider what poor decisions were made by the character that led to their chickens coming home to roost.

Students might make a personal connection to the poem by writing about a time their chickens came home to roost. 

Creative writing classes could consider creating a situation in which a character’s chickens come home to roost and developing that scenario into a short story.

Students could select an idiom (bird-related or otherwise) and write their own poems.

I hope you found some inspiring ideas for introducing Kay Ryan’s poetry to your students. Join me again next month, when the featured Poet Laureate will be Louise Glück.

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with Be a guest author! Email me at 

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