Using Pop Music to Teach Classic Poetry

Pop Music Poetry

I spent my first couple of years teaching middle school ELA in downtown Los Angles.  Those years were ripe with the creativity and energy of my own youth.  One of my fondest memories of that time was a hip hop poetry unit from authors Sitomer and Cirelli.  The unit taught poetic devices like imagery, figurative language, and hyperbole with music selections from Tupac, Run DMC, and Eminem along with poems by Frost, Hughes, and Kipling.  My young students identified with the themes and appreciated the cultural relevance of the curriculum.

Fast forward a decade. I left LA and now I am teaching American and British literature to juniors and seniors in college prep and advanced high school levels. I’ve gotten older and decidedly less energetic (gasp!) and I’ve started to lose that age connection enjoyed by many young teachers.  There are some definite advantages to the experience and maturity, but there are also some definite drawbacks in losing the connection with youth culture.

To bring back some of that connection, I recently decided to add music selections to my renaissance poetry unit for my 12th grade British literature students. For each poem, we walked through content, scansion, poetic devices, and historical context.  Then, I played a song with some relationship to the poem. We then had a discussion of the connections between the poem and the song.  I really enjoyed teaching this unit because it motivated critical thought around universal themes and it was fun to experience pop music with my students in a meaningful way.  As an added bonus, students were totally into the lectures because they were trying to guess what song I was going to play at the end.

My unit had several renaissance poems, and I’ve picked out a couple examples to share with you below.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on my ideas and your additions in the comment section!

Poem: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29

Pop Song: Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me”

Connection: Shakespeare begins by describing the pressure he feels to succeed and concludes his sonnet with the couplet, “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/ That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” Bieber echoes this sentiment in the pressure of 7 billion people trying to fit in, which leads to the  chorus, “As long as you love me, we could be starving, we could be homeless, we could be broke.”

Using Pop to teach Poetry

Poem: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130

Pop Song: “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars

Connection: Shakespeare uses Sonnet 130 to criticize the cliché, idealized woman other sonnet writers croon over. He describes the real imperfections  of his love and ends by saying, “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare.” Bruno Mars begins his song with the same clichés that Shakespeare criticizes.  Shakespeare says “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” while Mars says “her eyes make the stars look like they’re not shining.” This leads us into a discussion about clichés used in love poems and songs.  Then we launch into the discussion of the congruities of the chorus with the main idea of the sonnet.  It is interesting to talk with students about where the feelings of inadequacy come from (partner vs self).

Poem: Sidney’s Sonnet 39

Pop Song: “I need some sleep” by The Eels

Connection: The sonnet and the song focus on the need to get some sleep as a source of peace and solace in heartbreak.

Poem: Spencer’s Sonnet 35

Pop Song: “Anyone Else But You” by The Moldy Peaches

Connection: The Spencerian sonnet claims that his eyes cannot be satisfied with anything less than beholding his love, which is reflected in this cute little ditty from the Juno soundtrack where the singers “can’t see what anyone sees in anyone else but you.”

Poem: “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe and “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” by Sir Walter Raleigh

Pop Song: “No Scrubs” by TLC

Connection: Sir Walter Raleigh famously writes the nymph’s rejection of the passionate shepherd, claiming the shepherd is full of empty, unrealistic promises.  Similarly, TLC rejects the modern “scrub” who offers things that he simply cannot deliver.

Any questions or suggestions for the teaching strategy?  I’d love to hear them!

How to Create a Prezi Lesson in Less Than 15 Minutes:

On Tuesday, I published a prezi video tutorial for teachers that detailed many of the bells and whistles of and went through how to create a prezi from scratch.  I think it is important to understand the underpinnings and inner-workings of any tool we use in the classroom, especially if we assign students to make them.  However, I’m also a full-time English teacher and mother with papers to grade, meetings to attend, and blocks to build, so today I created a video that shows how I create a full class period prezi in less than 15 minutes.  My hope is to show you that prezi can seamlessly create multi-media lessons that can be saved and tweaked for future lessons, saving time in the long run.

The prezi I am going to create in this tutorial is based on the poem, “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes.  I usually teach this lesson to my freshmen during our poetry unit.  For other poetry unit ideas, check out these other great poetry and essay guides from Secondary Solutions!

Are you using prezi or do you have any plans to start?  Leave us a question or comment and join the discussion!

Don’t forget to pin this post for later use!

15 minute prezi

Emily Guthrie has taught junior high and high school English in Southern California for 8 years. She currently teaches grades 9-12, including AP English Language and Composition.  She specializes in working with technology to enhance curriculum for English learners and enrichment students.  She also blogs about fitness and motherhood at

101 Writing Prompts for Winter!

More writing prompts for grades 7-10! 101 Writing Prompts for Winter includes writing prompts for Research papers, Argumentative/Persuasive Essays, Expository Essays, Descriptive/Narrative Essays, Response to Quote/Response to Literature (Poems) prompts, and Creative Writing prompts.

Topics include Christmas, Santa Claus, Chanukah, symbols of winter, quotes about winter, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, President’s Day, special winter holidays and celebrations, and more!

Sample prompts:
You have been asked to write a proposal banning the manufacture and wear of ugly Christmas sweaters. Convince the powers that be that ugly Christmas sweaters should be outlawed. Be sure to provide examples and details to support your argument.

Think about the time you learned that there was no Santa Claus. When was that moment, how old were you, and how did it make you feel. Be sure to paint an image in the reader’s mind to take them on that journey of discovery with you.

Families do not always get along at the holidays. Describe how family discord can be a problem at these times, and detail how to best handle these situations.

Explain and respond to the following quote by Bill Watterson: I like these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood.

Suggested poems for analysis (except for one, due to copyright) are also included. $5 at

Thanks for stopping by!

Thirty Poetry Project Ideas for National Poetry Month!

To celebrate National Poetry Month (April), I thought I would make this month’s blog all about poetry by sharing some fun poetry ideas to get those creative juices flowing!

Years ago, while sifting through paperwork I happened upon my old “Poem Report,” dated May 24, 1989!  While the memories of working so hard to perfect my original poetry (not to mention my handwriting, since I didn’t own a computer then) came flooding back, I was able to flip through the pages with different eyes at that time—the eyes of a new teacher.  I was blessed to have so many great teachers, and although I never could remember which teacher assigned the Poem Report, I was finally able to honor her by assigning my students their own project to explore great poetry and discover their own inner poet.

Some ideas for a Poetry Project:

1)    Have students create a bio-poem.  As you can see from this site, bio-poems also work from others’ perspectives (like a character in a book) as well.

2)    Have students create “I Am” poems.  Really great activity for the beginning of the year or semester when you have new students.

3)    Have students create an “I Do Not Understand” poem. Some great examples.

4)    Also, the same blog has some excellent Found poems (anyone teach Touching Spirit Bear?)  The same can be done for any piece of literature.

5)    Have students create an “All-Lies” poem.  This is important because in order to write lies, you must know the truth.  These can be as many lines as you decide, and are generally non-rhyming.  To help students with this, you may have them write one poem all about themselves, then switch it up on them and tell them that the real assignment is to create all lies—or non-truths—about themselves.  For example, “I do not care about my friends, my room, or my iPod.  In fact, I wish I could throw away all electronic devices forever.”

6)    Have students free-write listening to music.  Or have them rewrite the lyrics of their favorite song, changing the story, or ending, or choosing better words by using a thesaurus to see what they come up with.

7)    Have students write poems in pairs—one person writes a line, then back and forth.

8)    Have students create a group poem…passing the poem around and having each one create a new line as it moves around (like the old game of telephone).  To be sure students don’t sit long without anything to do, have them work on several poems at once.  One of the rules, however, is that each line must be new and original and cannot be repeated within the same poem or in another poem!

9)    Give students a list of 6-10 random words and have them create a poem based upon your guidelines.

10) Have each student bring a photo to school.  This can be a personal photo, or a picture from a magazine or newspaper.  Have students create a 15-line poem telling the story of the photo, or from the perspective of the person in the photo.  If the photo is of a place or thing, have students write a poem from the perspective of that place or thing.

11) Have students turn a short story, tall-tale, children’s story, etc. into a poem.

12) Have students choose an article from the newspaper and create a poem based upon the information.

13) Have students create a poem in which every line of the poem must begin with a certain letter of the alphabet, i.e. all lines begin with the letter “s.”

14) Have students create their own epitaph in limerick form (I always used this one at Halloween—the kids loved it!)

There once was a teacher, Mrs. Bowers

Who lies here pushing up flowers

Her students drove her to death

Until her last breath

And now she’s out haunting for hours

15) Have students write a eulogy in poetry form for something they value, i.e. iPod, cell phone, their room, their car, their privacy.

16) Have students create a poem from headlines in newspapers, magazines, etc.  Be sure to indicate number of lines and whether it should rhyme or not.

17) Have students create a Sestina (six-stanzas, unrhymed). Challenging and fun!

18) Have students create their own sonnets.  Be sure to give the rules!

19) Have students write either a Tanka or a Haiku.

20) Have students create an Up and Down Poem.

21) Have students create a Five Senses Poem.  First, describe an emotion by assigning it a color (sight), then tell how it smells, tastes, sounds, and feels.

22) Have students create a synonym poem.  See Colin McNaughton’s “I’m Talking Big!” which begins “I’m talking big!  I’m talking huge! I’m talking enormous, immense, tremendous!”

23) Have students create a 5-6 line tongue-twister (this can be a good exercise in alliteration as well)

24) Have students create Cinquains.  Short and sweet!

25) Have students create a Pantoum, a Malayan poem invented in the 15th Century.

26) Have students create acrostics.  I am sure they have done this for their own name at one point in their lives, so have them create an acrostic using a more challenging word, such as their favorite sport, subject in school, or—even better—a character from literature!

27) Have students create an “ode” to one of their favorite things.  This can be a tangible object, like their cell phone, or something intangible, like exhaustion or frustration.

28) Create poetry across the curriculum!  Have students create a poem about a figure or event they are studying in history or social studies, or have students create a poem using at least 10 math words or concepts.  For science, have students write a poem based on the biology of a frog or other concept they have been studying.

29) Have students research a poet and write a biography—or better yet, a poem—about the poet!

30) Have students choose a famous poem, then create a copy of the poem.  They can create a copy by imitating the style, rhythm, and rhyme of the poem.

Although in the “old days” I put my report together in a couple pieces of construction paper and a few brads, times have obviously changed.  Have students compile their poetry projects in an original blog.  Blog hosting is free and gives a perfect opportunity for students to share their work.  Or, at the very least, have one of your more tech-savvy students create a blog for sharing each class’s work.  Students can also create work on their technological skills by compiling their work in a PowerPoint presentation or on CD.

Be sure to outline the guidelines and expectations for their poems. At the very least, let them know when they can or cannot rhyme, and how many lines minimum (or maximum) the poem should have.

Other ideas:

National Poem In Your Pocket Day is April 14.  Celebrate the written word by sharing your favorite poem with friends and colleages! See for more info.

Start a Poetry Slam at your school.  Info available at Poetry Slam, Inc. at or

Other fun stuff is available at including an interactive poetry machine, poetry writing workshops, tips for reading and analyzing poetry, poetry unit plans, and more!

Links consulted/referenced: