Common Core and Middle School Poetry

poetry

I learned many wonderful things at The Farm School, where I ran a home school cooperative in a converted Chicken Coop for 10 years. I got to use power tools and take care of chickens. I learned about the joy of manual labor and the beauty of the night sky. I fell in love with a piece of land and came to see my walk to and from my school house as sacred.

poetry

It was a magical place.

I also learned about poetry. The Farm has a vibrant and beautiful relationship with poetry.

At the Farm, certain poems act as prayers. There are fundamental lines that we come to at certain moments. Everyone knows them. Everyone loves them. We all find peace in them.

Poems of The Farm School

The quintessential Farm poem is “To Be Of Use,” by Marge Piercy. It is a celebration of manual labor and of getting things done. It was often read to welcome new people into our community or to honor people as they left. The opening lines, “The people I love best/ Jump into work head first,” are perfect for a farm.

There is “Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway 80.” It is a bit of a gruesome poem, about chickens in a cargo truck, craning their necks, stepping on their dead brethren, but still eager to go ahead. My co-teacher reads it every year at graduation, as we send our students out into the world. No lesson plan does this poem justice. It is meant to be read in a barn, in the spring, with eager children ready to leave their childhood school and start high school.

There is “The Peace of the Wild Things,” which, invariably, someone shares when the news of the world is more troubling than usual.

Poems of my classroom

There are the poems I use in my classroom.  I read “Miracles” by Walt Whitman when I need my class to remember that we are all a part of a beautiful world. “A Summer Day” by Mary Oliver is my go-to poem for when we talk about religion and beliefs. “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright is perfect for when I want my kids to understand that their lives are important.

Poems of my family

My family has poems, too. I read “Why I Wake Early,” also by Mary Oliver, to my daughter every morning during her babyhood. I would bop her up and down for the triumphant “Good Morning Good Morning Good Morning!” at the end of the poem.

The Common Core and Poetry

The Common Core mandates that the kids read Poetry. After examining and re-reading all of the poems on the Common Core Exemplar text list, I am sure that having the children study these poems without context will make them hate poetry. Poetry, even Common Core poetry, needs a purpose and a context.

In the table below, I have offered you suggestions to help you authentically incorporate these poems into your schooling and your life.

The list of Common Core Examplar Poems for Middle School

Poem Author Notes
Paul Revere’s Ride Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth Integrate Paul Revere’s Ride into a study of the Revolutionary war. Here is a really fun Interactive digital map. There are many educational videos available, including this one.
O Captain! My Captain! Whitman, Walt I love Abraham Lincoln. I love Walt Whitman. This poem makes a lot of sense when you are studying Lincoln or The Civil War.
Jabberwocky Carroll, Lewis This poem is just fun! Watch it read by Kate Burton here. http://www.cpalms.org/Public/PreviewResource/Preview/48910.
Twelfth Song of Thunder Navajo tradition This is a lovely, accessible poem; It is an ode to the beauty of the land. Here is a series of video lessons for the poem.
The Railway Train Dickinson, Emily Traveling should have its own poems. There is a great song by Ani DiFranco about “The Arrival’s Gate.” Next time you take a train trip, have Ani’s song and this poem by Emily Dickinson handy.
The Road Not Taken Frost, Robert This is the quintessential poem about choices made and opportunities left behind. Wait for the write moment with this poem. You child will have some decision to make. There will be some dance to go to or someday when she has to decide which trip to take. Pull out this poem and read it with her. It is also a lovely read for a silent winter’s night. Here are a number of related activities.
Chicago Sandburg, Carl This is a burly and strong sort of poem. It would be good for teaching about the Industrial Revolution. Here is a short video that sets the poem to music. Here is a NY Times lesson, that pairs an article, a picture and this poem.
I, Too, Sing America Hughes, Langston “I, Too, Sing America,” is a simple, poignant and painful poem about the experience of African-Americans. Hughes’ poems are essential to a study of race and society.
The Book of Questions Neruda, Pablo Neruda is perfect for when you want to sit back and ponder the beauty of the world. Here are some lesson ideas for Neruda.
Oranges Soto, Gary I would only venture down the road with this poem and your child if your child likes to talk about “Mushy” stuff with you. This poem felt like watching TV with kissing on it. Maybe some people find it normal to watch and talk about mushy things with their kids, but it kind of freaks me out.
A Poem for My Librarian, Mrs. Long Giovanni, Nikki This poem is about a black girl growing up in the South, dreaming about the faraway places she read about in books. There are 23 pages of lessons and activities about the poem, here.

Creating a Purpose for Poetry

In my teaching and homeschooling, I have found it essential to set aside some time each day for the creation and enjoyment of beauty. There are many different ways to do this. One way, is to have a time each week that you hang out with a poem.

Life is beautiful, gosh darn it! It is! Even on those days when it is cold and miserable, and the baby is crying and my daughter is whining and the rooster that a neighbor dropped off is not getting along with the old hens. It is beautiful! The right words at the right moment have the ability to stop a person and help them acknowledge that beauty! Words can make us consider ourselves and our place in the world and have a more profound and intense relationship with the natural world and each other.

I suppose that poetry can be used as a tool to teach something or another. Sure, reading the midnight ride of Paul Revere when you are studying the revolutionary war makes sense. That might make the Revolutionary war come alive, but it won’t make poetry come alive.

Create some poetic rituals

Whether you decide to read a poem in the evening, a poem as a grace before meals or a poem for your child’s birthday, having shared traditions with meaningful words adds beauty to your life.

My assessment of the list? It is not bad, but it is not the poetry that you want to build your life around. These are poems that are worthy of study. Some of them are beautiful or powerful. Some of them will inspire your children to think or act. But find some other poems that speak to your heart.


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at www.onlineclassesforgroovykids.org.

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