State standards require teaching middle school students about poetry, but don't offer much guidance about which poems to use. Even if you have a curriculum with poems already selected or a poetry anthology for class use, selecting the manner in which you present the poems makes poetry more accessible to young teens. Consider grouping poems based on their similarities, making analysis easier for students.
Group poems together by topic, especially high-interest topics for middle school students. For example, develop a mini-unit on poems about sports. Include Yusef Komunyakaa's "Slam, Dunk, & Hook." Full of imagery, this poem begs the students to consider word choice. The poem also never uses the word "basketball," yet that is clearly the topic; this fact provides a point of discussion. Other sports-based poems include Maya Angelou's "Harlem Hopscotch" and Gwendolyn Brooks' "old tennis player." Dreams offer another high-interest topic. Include Langston Hughes' "Dream Boogie," "Harlem" and "Theme for English B" in a dream unit. Get students to reflect on connections they have to the poems.
Teach different forms of poems such as ballad, haiku and limerick. Limerick, for instance, is a high-interest style. Start with nonsense examples, but guide students to the limericks of Edward Lear, who popularized the form. A narrative poem such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" offers opportunities for cross-curricular activities. Another narrative style, the ballad, lends itself to folk examples such as "John Henry" as well as literary examples such as Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee." For haiku, start with Basho's and Kobayashi Issa's poems, since they were the original masters. Have students identify how the poems follow the prescribed format.
Pre-teach key figures of speech such as metaphor and onomatopoeia as well as poetic devices such as alliteration and assonance. Select a group of poems that feature figurative language. Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son," Lillian Morrison's "Tugboat at Dawn" and Jim Wayne Miller's "Spring Storm" all include a strong central metaphor that middle school students can analyze. For onomatopoeia, Robert Browning's "Meeting at Night" and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells" offer great examples. Poems with strong examples of alliteration and assonance include Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica," Martín Espada's "Albanza: In Praise of Local 100" and Sandra Cisneros' "Good Hot Dogs." Have students keep a journal of the language of poetry.
Collect poems with similar themes, encouraging students to find the poet's message. Utilize books of thematic poetry collections such as Joseph Bruchac's "The Earth Under Sky Bear's Feet: Native American Poems of the Land" and "Celebrating America: A Collection of Poems and Images of the American Spirit." Choose a theme that appeals to middle school students, such as courage, and select poems that convey that theme in different ways. The narrators in "Friends in the Klan" by Marilyn Nelson, "Hoods" by Paul B. Janeczko and "Speak Up" by Janet Wong all express their courage in different ways. Get students to reflect on their analysis of theme by reacting to the poems either in writing or in a discussion.