Top 10 Tips to Get HS Students (All Students) Interested in AND Excited about Poetry OR What I Learned from Hanging with Kwame by JoEllen McCarthy

If you are a nerdy fangirl (or fanboy), you will get why the next sentence sounds so surreal.   I have had the pleasure of knowing author, poet extraordinaire, and Newbery winner, Kwame Alexander for many years.  Recently, Kwame asked me to join him at a high school visit here on Long Island. Kwame spent the day with several classes celebrating the merits of poetry.  Yes, high school students talking poetry with Kwame Alexander: “POET. KIDS’ AUTHOR. NOVELIST. TEACHER. COOL DUDE.”   


During lunch, we had a discussion about what poetry is to students… or what poetry can be.

Our conversation evolved when we reflected that too often many HS students were, in the words of  Donalyn Miller, “dormant” poetry readers and writers.  For example, on this day, we met Ethan, a basketball player who openly admitted he didn’t like poetry. He actually used the word “hate” in the same sentence as poetry. Kwame, POET. KIDS’ AUTHOR. NOVELIST. TEACHER. COOL DUDE, didn’t break a sweat.


Want to know how Kwame wins Ethan and others like him over? Check out these tips I learned from Kwame. I took notes during our conversation and I’m including them here, because as TS Eliot said, “Immature writers imitate, mature writers STEAL.” All poems were used with permission and Kwame’s words are in italics.

Top 10 Tips to Get HS Students (All Students) Interested in AND Excited about Poetry

OR What I Learned from Hanging with Kwame:


  1. Poetry is an expression of voices and choices.

Write about what you love.

When we find subjects that kids are interested in and then share poems on those topics…slam dunk!  Use poems that are relatable, know your readers and get them hooked with things they love. Case in point… a little book called Crossover; a free verse novel about two brothers obsessed with basketball.  If you are nerdy and reading this post, you have probably read it already or it is at the top of your TBR.  It should be, as it deservingly just won a Newbery Medal, the highest honor in kid lit. Kwame’s Crossover reaches basketball lovers, like Ethan and more.  The book touches on friendship, family, and is a “masterful mix of rhythm and heart”- Joyce Sidman.   

Basketball Rule #2

Hustle dig

Grind push

Run fast

Change pivot

Chase pull

Aim shoot

Work smart

Live smarter

Play hard

Practice harder


  1. Poetry is kisses.

High school students are either kissing, or thinking about kissing, pretty much all day long.

Sorry Colby, but kissy stuff works. Well, if you make poetry about kissing, you will get their attention right away.  Find poems with kisses.  Check out  Kwame’s “Crush: Love Poems” they get kids to stay strong and cool, with poetry and love.  

Lips like yours

ought to be worshipped

see, I ain’t never been

too religious

but you can baptize me



  1. Poetry is about Dancing Naked

The idea is to show kids that you are unafraid and give them permission to dance naked on the floor.

Ok.  You can keep your clothes on, but… YOU have to take risks so that your students will feel comfortable doing the same.  You need to share a poem that you have written, or a poem that shows your vulnerability.  The risk may even involve sharing something that is not very good.   “Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.” Brene Brown.  


Think of me

         as your own

Private Symphony

My hair the piano keys your fingers dance on

My lips the oboe your tender mouth sings through

My arms the tambourines that vibrate with your touch

My hips the bass drum tense from your glance

My legs two piccolo trumpets blazing through the air


  1. Poetry is passing the ball.

Continue to connect poetry with metaphors your students will get, like kissing, being naked and basketball of course.

Pass the ball. Give and take.  Read and write.  Immerse your students in the language of poetry.  Find authors they admire.  Let them use their poems as models. Let them fall in love with the possibilities and “steal” from mentor authors and  mentor texts.  The nature of all writing is interactive, a back and forth expression of thoughts and feelings. The author composes and the reader interprets.  That’s the passing of the ball.  That back and forth between reader and writer is what allows both parties to be a part of the same poem.  In order to do that, we need to share poems with a wide range of emotions so that students can identify, connect and fall in love with poetry.  And we can spread a little #PoetryLove along the way.


He watches

Her read

The way her fingers

Delicately turn each page

At times

He wishes

he were a library

Each book she would check out.


  1.  Poetry is arts and crafts.

Poetry allows us to see something, and not just tell it.  

Let students of all ages play and experiment with words. Let students take risks.  As Jeff Anderson say, our writer’s’ notebooks should be a playground for experimentation.” Share poetry that paints vivid pictures, and breaks rules.  Allow students to become immersed in the language and beauty of possibilities. Their notebooks are the canvas. Let them get messy.

Filthy McNasty

Is a MYTHical MANchild

Of rather dubious distinction



and ELEVATING       his game

He          dribbles


then    takes

the ROCK to the

glass, fast, and on BLAST

But wath out when he shoots

Or you’ll get SCHOOLed



‘Cause when FILTHY gets hot



Dunkalicious CLASSY

Supersonic SASSY

And     D



          N right

                        in your face




  1. Poetry is reflection.


Poems can be mirrors, and windows, and doors.

Take advantage of the law of reflection. Share poems that allow students to see who they are in relation to the world, their place in it, and help them better understand and appreciate the world we live in. Poetry can also be the vehicle to allow our kids to have a greater appreciation for words, for reading, and for life.

Basketball Rule #3

Never let anyone

lower your goals.

Others expectations

of you are determined

by their limitations

of life.

The sky is your limit, sons.

Always shoot

for the sun

and you will shine.

  1. Poetry is a gift.


We need  students to be exposed to the wonder, the world, and words of poetry.

Make poetry a celebration of words, of feelings and of ideas.  Read poems as mentor texts and for craft lessons.  Poems can support reading, writing and thinking.  Think aloud with poetry, read aloud poetry, write poems. Poetry should be part of all subjects.  “Poetry is big thinking in small packages.”- Donald Graves  Read poetry -just because as well.  Let your students fall in love with language, words and the gift of what can be.   

  1.  Poetry is a ladder and a bridge.


Move students from Shel Silverstein to Emily Dickinson.

The study and celebration of poetry should not be confined to the month of April.  

Poetry matters. All. Year. Long.

Pair poetry as part of text sets, connected themes, and across all content areas too. Explore poems and poets along reading ladders. Learners can experience deeper thoughts and connections by reading across texts.  Thanks to Teri Lesesne, we know the benefits of reading ladders and the journey of moving students from where they are to where we would like them to be.  Think of each rung as a different level of poetry experience.   Utilize resources like Amy Ludwig Vanderwater’s Poetry Farm:, Billy Collins’ Poetry 180: or the wonderful collections from authors at, Vardell and Wong’s The Poetry Friday Anthology, Science, and Poetry Celebration collections to name a few examples.  

  1. Poetry is…

An empty page.

An honest heart.

A get together of emotion.

A font of ideas.

Hope with wings.

Words that fly.

Allow your students to soar.

And the number one tip to get all students interested in AND excited about poetry….

  1.     Kwame Alexander.

Poetry is interesting and exciting with Kwame Alexander: POET. KIDS’ AUTHOR. NOVELIST. TEACHER. COOL DUDE.

Bring in Kwame Alexander as a guest author.  No really, bring him in,  or connect with him on Twitter @KwameAlexander or through his website:

What is poetry to you and your students?

Share your comments below.

@JoEllenMcCarthy @KwameAlexander

@JoEllenMcCarthy @KwameAlexander

All poems were taken from Kwame’s Crossover, Crush: Love Poems, or  just luscious lines he thought up over lunch.   

JoEllen McCarthy is a regional staff developer who spends her days teaching and #AlwaysLearning. Proud nerd and facilitator of the first annual @nErDcampLI for TriState nerds, you can find JoEllen tweeting about reading, writing & learning on Twitter @JoEllenMcCarthy or connect with her through her consulting work with The Educator Collaborative.