Teachers looking for prompts for poem analysis and prompts for writing poetry may turn Walt Whitman over in his grave. After all, poetry, more than any other form of writing, should come from the heart, right?
Poetry is the artistic expression of one’s feelings using words. It’s the written equivalent to a beautiful painting or well choreographed dance.
But writing poetry can also be extremely challenging. It can overwhelm teachers and students alike, so I want to share some resources for how to create prompts for poem writing and poetry-writing inspiration for your students!
Let’s dig in!
How to Write Poetry for Beginners
You want to know how to write poetry for beginners? The secret is…just write the poem.
You know the old saying, “you’re a poet and you didn’t know it?”
Well, it’s true.
Wait! Before your cursor heads up to that red X and you leave my page forever, hear me out!
I like to read poetry. I loved analyzing the classics in high school and in my college courses. I was always in awe of the way my teachers and professors knew exactly what the poet was meaning.
But when it comes to writing poetry, especially for school? Thanks, but mostly no thanks.
And I know a lot of our students feel the same way.
The trouble is, we’ve been taught there’s an exact science to poetry.
We’ve been taught that there are certain formats we must adhere to, syllables we must count, symbolism we must establish. And when it comes reading the poetry of others, well, our interpretations are nice and all, but we like to think that there is a right answer.
The idea that there’s a right and wrong way to write poetry creates wayyyyyyyyyyy too much pressure on our students (students who already struggle to think creatively mind you).
So, as simple and reductive as it may sound, the best way to write poetry for beginners is to just write it.
I’m going to share with you some really engaging prompts for poem writing, topics, and resources for writing poetry that’ll make teaching poetry a cinch, but first can you pinky promise me that you’ll shelve the notion that there’s any one right way to approach a poem, mmkay?
Inspiration for Poems
Inspiration for poetry can come from anywhere, but the best inspiration for poetry comes from within.
This is why assigning prompts for poem creation or topics for students, especially when they’re first attempting to write poetry and their confidence is limited, can be a burden. Instead, challenge your students to think of inspiration for poems from anything and everything they encounter in their own lives.
Consider the following invitations for students to free write in their writer’s notebooks to use as inspiration for poems (don’t worry about having students write in poetic form during their brainstorming, but if they want to, more power to them!):
- Tap into your emotions. How are you feeling today? What makes you happy, sad, angry, hopeful?
- Write to a person. If you could write to anyone, what would you say?
- Write about your favorite thing to do (examples: play soccer, watch Netflix, make up dances with friends, shopping with your mom)
- What news stories or social issues have you heard about that make you passionate for justice or change?
- Open up the photos app in your phone and choose one from the last month. Write about what’s happening in that photo.
- What’s something you’d never want to change?
After students brainstorm for inspiration, have them choose one or a few ideas and play around with turning these ideas into poetry. Just one sentence, one word…that can be the seed for a poem.
Or, how about some more creative prompts for writing poetry?
- Paint Chip Writing – give students a paint chip and have them use all of the color names somehow in their writing. Or, you could have them write about a moment, thing, or person who matches each color.
- Have students make a list of “interesting” details or words they love as prompts for poem writing. Then, have them choose a few of them as inspiration for a poem.
- Assign “top 10” lists or have students write a list poem like “the recipe for _________ (abstract idea)”
- Have students read a poem and then use the poem as a mentor text for student writing. Students should imitate the structure or topic of the original poem. For example, I have my students read “Ode to My Socks” and then write their own odes to an item of their choosing to imitate the style of the original author.
Topic Prompts for Poetry
There’s an endless supply of topics for poetry. If poetry can be anything, it can be about anything. However, if your students are anything like mine, this can feel more overwhelming than it does freeing.
I like to introduce this idea by having students conduct a gallery walk of poems I’ve blown up on poster board.
I challenge them to distill each poem down to ONE word.
We then tally up the words they chose and analyze them for patterns and use those patterns to create an anchor chart of topics for poetry that I hang up in the room to serve as inspiration and go-to prompts for poems during writing time.
Here’s a recent list of topics for poetry I’ve created that you could use in your classroom!
- Nature (the #1 topic found in poetry)
- Death and aging
- Joy and celebration
- Coming of age
- Greed and lust
- Power and corruption
- Social issues and political issues
If you’ve been teaching in the last decade, you’ve probably used or at least heard of George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From.” This poem has become a beloved (and IMO…overused) addition to English teacher’s anthologies because of the repetition of the beginning lines in the poem.
Using poem starters to help scaffold students to write their own poetry has proven to be an extremely valuable strategy for many.
I’ve used this poem in my own classes and encouraged students to write about where they’re from both literally and metaphorically by borrowing the repeating lines in Lyons’ poems and my students have created beautiful poetry.
But if you’re a little “Where I’m From”’d out (I’m right there with ya…), you could try twisting the topic a bit and have students write a “before, during, and after” poem, a.k.a. “Where I’m From, Where I Am, and Where I’m Going.”
You can also try these poem starters as prompts for writing poetry:
- “The Conditional” by Ada Limon
Limon’s poem starts with the line, “Say tomorrow doesn’t come.” The next eight lines use the same pattern of “Say…” followed by an idea of something that won’t happen. After analyzing and discussing this short poem, students can use “Say…” as a poem starter for their own writing and imitate the repetition and form of Limon’s poem.
- “The Dream of Knife, Fork, and Spoon” by Kimiko Hahn
This poem is so deep and so fun to analyze with students. Their interpretations range from abstract to so poignantly personal. It’s also a great mentor text for students to “borrow” poem starter lines. The first two lines of Hahn’s poem read, “I can’t recall…” I like to have students brainstorm a short list of things they “can’t recall” in their notebooks, or in the margins of the poem itself, and then choose one of their ideas to write on chart paper or the whiteboard at the front of the room to share with classmates.
- “sisters” by Lucille Clifton
Always a crowd favorite, “sisters,” repeats the phrase “me and you” and serves as the perfect poem starter for students.
I’ve had students create poems about their relationships with friends, teachers, coaches, family members, their religion and culture, and teammates.
It’s always such a joy to read their creations when they feel inspired by this one!
Even MORE Prompts for Writing Poetry
Your students might be struggling to come up with poetry ideas because they’re looking in all the usual places and thinking about writing all of the usual poetry.
Poetry can be interactive, engaging, and dare I say fun if you’re willing to step outside of the “normal” poetry box and create something new!
Here are some poetry ideas you’ll want to try this year!
Poet and literacy specialist, Georgia Heard, has curated the perfect anthology of list poems, Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems. I was skeptical about bringing this into my high school classroom since it’s obviously curated with a much younger audience in mind, but my high schoolers love that creating a list can be a poem. They think it’s taking a shortcut when we study the poems together but quickly realize it requires a lot of critical thinking to get it just right.
One Word is a website that generates, well, one word.
From that word, students can brainstorm synonyms, antonyms, related words, analyze connotative meanings of their word and its ancillary words and then write a poem focused on that one word. This can be really fun when done in partners or small groups.
Blackout Poetry or erasure poetry is created by redacting unnecessary words and sentences from prose to create poetry. Any piece of prose from wedding vows, grocery lists, newspaper articles, song lyrics and more can be used to create blackout poetry. Students love creating this kind of poetry because it’s interactive and can easily be shared. Check out this website for how to create your own and to see examples.
Collaborative writing can make writing poetry seem much less daunting. After all, everything’s better with a friend!
I love to share this poem with students to get them thinking about how they could create a collaborative poem. In April of 2022, The New York Times posed a question to students: What small kindnesses do you appreciate? Times writers compiled the over 1,300 responses into a collaborative poem. The possible poetry ideas with this mentor text as your guide are truly endless.
SLAM/Spoken Word Poems
There’s always the class clowns and performers who I immediately know are going to love SLAM/spoken word poetry. But year after year there’s a handful of shy, quiet, back row kind of students who really connect with this style of poetry, as well. That’s why my SLAM poetry unit is one of my favorites each year. Try it out – there are lots of prompts for poem creation and it’s an all-time favorite for my students 10+ years and counting…
Poetry Websites for Students
Sometimes I like students to just find a poem that sounds good to them, whatever that definition of good is. Of course most of them want to choose song lyrics, which is fine. But you know me – I want to challenge them to step outside of the comfortable sandbox. To scaffold this, I like to direct them to the following websites.
Produced by The American Academy of Poets, this is a comprehensive database of American poetry. There’s a poem of the day, a poet spotlight, activities for National Poetry Month and so much more to be explored on this site.
- Poetry 180
Poetry 180 is sponsored by The Library of Congress and is curated by poet laureate Billy Collins. The idea of having 180 poems in one collection is to offer students one poem a day to read, analyze, and enjoy.
- Teach Living Poets
You might have seen the #teachlivingpoets movement on social media, but in case you’ve missed it, the idea behind Teach Living Poets is just that…to teach students about poets who are living, not just the old dead white dudes of our high school careers. These poets are diverse with contemporary ideas, opinions, and voices representative of the lives our students live.
This website is a little more geared toward teachers than students, but I’ve had students surf around for awhile to learn about new (to them) poets and it’s always been an enriching experience.
Other sites to love include Poetry Out Loud and Poetry Daily.
Poetry Resources for Teachers
There are endless poetry resources for teachers, but like most resources for teachers, it requires time and energy to plan something really engaging and effective.
All of the ideas and resources I shared today will surely inspire some brilliance in your classroom, but don’t get down on yourself if you can’t implement them all at once (Unless, of course, you ARE a real-life superhero…if that is the case, teach me your ways!).
And, remember, you don’t have to exchange all your minutes for quality prompts for poem writing and prompts for analyzing poetry. Check out my collection of ready to use poetry resources for teachers.
As always, if you have a classroom practice that’s show stopping or an idea for a resource, please share it with me in the comments below! I love getting to learn from you as much as I love getting to share what I’ve learned with you!
Hey, if you loved this post, you’ll want to download a FREE copy of my guide to streamlined grading.
I know how hard it is to do all the things as an English teacher, so I’m excited to share some of my best strategies for reducing the grading overwhelm.