poetry · writing workshop

Poetry Month: That’s the (Line) Breaks

Poetry, she thought,
with a sigh,
is little
more than prose
edited for
and line breaks.

Right now, I’m doing a poetry unit with my fourth graders. Most of them dread poetry writing. While it’s no surprise, this news saddens me. As someone who prefers to express herself through poetry, I hold the belief that people are much more poetic than they give themselves credit for.

I’m writing this article because it’s possible that you, too, have kids in your class who aren’t fans of poetry writing. It’s possible that you, yourself, are not a fan of poetry writing. I’d like to share some of the activities I’ve done in class to build skill and confidence in my poetry writers. I’ve found that these activities have worked well across grades and readiness, and I hope they work for you, if you’d like to use them.

First of all, it’s important to mention that my primary focus here is on free verse. While we eventually dig into specific literary devices and structured poetic forms, I’ve found that I’m most successful with my students when I start small. 

With regard to free verse, I want my writers to understand a few important things:

  • We often can’t tell the difference between poetry and prose just by listening.
  • The big difference between poetry and prose is line and stanza breaks.
  • Deliberate choices choices in line breaks really elevate the power of our words.

The Difference Between Poetry and Prose

Good prose often uses poetic devices as a matter of craft. Good poetry, read aloud, sounds clear and conversational. If we’re not looking, we might not be able to tell the difference. 

I start my poetry unit by reading these passages aloud and having students vote on whether they think the author has written poetry or prose. Invariably, the group is quite wrong. It’s a good way for students to realize how important the sound of language is across genres. It also opens them up to the idea that even the most prosaic-sounding writing can be elevated to poetry.

Line and Stanza Breaks: Choice and Power, Part 1

Eve Merriam’s “How to Eat a Poem” (linked here)

I have two activities for this skill. First, I read Eve Merriam’s “How to Eat a Poem” aloud. I then share it written as prose (linked for you here), without Merriam’s original line breaks. I demonstrate notation for line breaks (a single vertical slash) and stanza breaks (two vertical slashes), thinking aloud on why I might let a word stand on its own as its own line, or leave it “hanging” at the end of a line. I then give the kids their own copy, letting them notate breaks as they see fit and recopying the words according to their line breaks. I tell them to have fun with the notation, but to be deliberate in their choices:

  • Are my thoughts reading like a list? Then so will my poem.
  • Which words do I want my reader to pause on? I’ll make them their own lines (or line endings).
  • Which words get capitalization – just the “right” ones, or others, for emphasis?

The fun part is the sharing. Kids show each other what they have done, remarking on the similarities and differences in one another’s work. To make sure students have made deliberate choices, I ask them to inquire why they may have made one line break or another. This conversation is always a fun time in our room! 

When we circle back around, we compare their versions to the original. It’s important for our conversation that I don’t tell them one way of writing the poem is “right” or “wrong.” We’re only going for power, for conveyance of meaning.

Line and Stanza Breaks: Choice and Power, Part 2

Even before I commence with Eve Merriam, I start class by having kids journal how they are feeling that day. I try to join them in the writing, and for a full ten minutes, we sit and craft together.

During our time together, here’s what I wrote:

The green lines are the line and stanza breaks I added later when I demonstrated / modeled how to think about line breaks.

Then I demonstrated my thought process for how I might choose which words go on which line. What’s the experience like for my reader? What are the words that bubble up to the surface, looking for air? It’s amazing – magical, almost – to see how ordinary words become elevated to poetry with the addition of a few line breaks here and there. My poem ended up like so:

I loved doing this one in front of my students. These stanzas surprised me, and it was cool for them to watch it unfold.

It was then my students’ turn. Using the “how are you?” paragraphs they wrote, they added line and stanza breaks of their own. Here are a few examples:

I’m always pushing this student to push herself. I think she got the memo!
From one of my most reluctant writers. He was pretty tickled with himself.
And THIS guy. Who knew he had THIS waiting inside?

I was pretty impressed with what they did. And even better? So were they. More importantly, my students were given the tools and the confidence to see that their writing – even what they consider to be “boring” or “ordinary” – can be elevated in power and intensity, all with a few craft moves that they have at their fingertips.

Interested in giving these activities a try? I’d love to hear how they go! Or, if you have other tried-and-true ways of getting your poets to enjoy composing, share the wealth and leave a comment below!

10 thoughts on “Poetry Month: That’s the (Line) Breaks

  1. Fran, this is all so very good. I too have found students in high s hook rarely like poetry, yet a third of AP Lit is poetry or needs to be poetry. It was always my goal to bring out the love of poetry in students. Interestingly, high school students tended to respond better to writing poems from forms. I’d give them things like the golden shovel, skinny, fib, formulas that aren’t overwhelming and showed them their inner poet. Your students have produced brilliant work, WOW! Please tell them how impressed I am w/ their poems. And I hope teachers at all levels try these ideas in their classrooms.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will DEFINITELY tell them you’re impressed. It always thrills them to know that there are real people out in the world who read and appreciate what they have to say. Thank you!

      As for writing poems from forms, I can see how that’s helpful. Having a structure is often more liberating, I find, than a complete lack of one.


  2. I have always loved poetry and prose, long before I knew what they were called and the differences thereof. And why I love song, for with is ong but poetry and prose set to music. Alas, my parents not at all. I can’t imagine what either would have thought of these assignments. Actually, I can and I’ll spare you as I yet again nurse a little of envy your students.

    Oh, and that last kid? Wow, that is some impressive existential thought for a 4th grader and I love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right? And that last kid is the one who would be happy to produce as little as humanly possible (check out stanzas 2-4 for reference). And to see him come forth with THIS. It’s astounding.

      As for that love of poetry and words in general, I’m with you. I had a dad who appreciated language but that was pretty much the ball of wax…


  3. Love all these ideas, Lainie! The book that opened up poetry for me as a teacher of writers was Georgia Heard’s Awakening the Heart. So many strategies for helping writers to find their own voices as free verse poets.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I detested poetry before I started teaching. Everything I read as a kid used to rhyme. But then, my first literacy coach introduced me to free verse poetry. My life was changed. It was freeing. Suddenly, I loved poetry. And when you love poetry, that enthusiasm is contagious.

    Your ideas are wonderful, Lainie. I can see they’re making a difference for your students!


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