Reciting Poetry: Boosting Confidence in Teens

A stack of poetry books on a step stool in the high school library

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

~from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

Poetry in Motion

When I was a child, I had to memorize poems for English class. I can still recite several by heart, including the Robert Frost one above. The practice has gone out the window with card catalogs, but it still may be useful. 

Over the past several decades, as teachers and librarians have put more emphasis on the mechanics of writing and literature, we let go of something important: the simple pleasure of rhyme and rhythm. As journalist Jim Holt says about memorizing poems, “You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem. . .and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one” (Holt). There’s something about reciting a memorized poem that induces calm and shuts out the rest of the world for a few seconds. 

a group of signed poetry slips in front of two plastic displays of poems

Poetry Challenge

During National Poetry Month in April, I focused on this often forgotten activity. After putting together a display of poems by various poets, I posted them in a Canvas announcement titled “April Poetry Challenge.” The instructions were:

  1. Recite four lines from any of the following poems to one of your teachers.
  2. Have the teacher sign the poetry slip.
  3. Bring the slip to the high school library to get your reward.

Then I bought several $5 Dunkin Donuts gift cards. Though I have a budget for favors and prizes, I often think of contests and activities last minute and have to spend my own money. As I look toward next school year, I plan to order several groups of prizes in advance to avoid this.

a poetry challenge slip to be signed by a student and a teacher

I didn’t know what to expect. Most students who come into the library during lunch or free periods want to relax or do work. With the lure of a gift card, though, I got dozens of participants. I didn’t require them to fully memorize the passages if they had trouble but they had to speak the lines clearly. When we ran out of gift cards I handed out books we keep for giveaways. 

Poetic Power

the poem Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Two things happened: First, the students who successfully recited poetry came back into the library beaming. It was obvious they felt a sense of confidence and success. Second, those who participated seemed happily surprised as they recounted the positive reactions of their teachers. It’s not often that students and teachers have time to step away from the curriculums or required activities of their days. This short exercise let them do that in a way that benefited both. On some of the signed slips there were handwritten notes from teachers. “He was great!” said one. “Thanks for the poem” said another. There were smiley faces and thumbs up drawn in. Most endearing were the teachers who took a trip down to the library to express their support for the challenge. A few told me how happy they were to see a shy student come up to them and recite a poem. 

Will memorizing and reciting poetry make a comeback? Probably not. But I think it could play a role in the modern English Language Arts curriculum. Or, if not, it can be one of the many ways we as librarians use our creativity to supplement the subject areas in our schools.

Work Cited

Holt, Jim. “The Case for Memorizing Poetry.” The New York Times, 2 April 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/books/review/Holt-t.html. Accessed 7 May 2024.

the poem Without by Joy Hard

Author: Karin Greenberg

Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.



Categories: Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models, Uncategorized

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1 reply

  1. Hi Karin,
    Thank you so much for sharing this information and resources!
    Best,
    Karen

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