Back-to-School Poems for the ELA Classroom

Back-to-School Poems for the ELA Classroom

It’s that time of the year. Time to pack up your flip-flops, set your alarms once again, and bid a fond farewell to our old friend “summer vacation.”

It’s no secret students (and teachers) can have a difficult time transitioning back to a school mindset. However, there is no better way to reactivate those dormant literary analysis skills than with some poems to ring in the new school year!

Because poems are shorter than most literary texts or excerpts while still packed full of meaning, reading them in class or for a small homework assignment can help your students dip a figurative toe into the waters of analysis.

Here are 10 poems sure to pique the interest of even the most reluctant back-to-schooler:

Summer Shower by Emily Dickinson

Ah, summer is always gone too soon! Indulge and hold onto it a little longer as Dickinson uses her whimsical imagery to transport you into the whirlwind of delight that comes with dancing through the summer rain. Talk with your students about the sentimental nature in which Dickinson describes the shower, and analyze how she uses rhythm to move the poem along.

Burning the Old Year by Naomi Shihab Nye

Alright, enough indulging. This poem seizes the reader by the hand from the very first line and drags them into Nye’s smoldering world full of sizzling imagery. It captures the fleeting nature of each passing year and asks the reader to reflect on what they wish to accomplish and what they have yet to. This work aligns nicely with the oh-so-familiar goal-setting routine that accompanies the beginning of a new school year.

How Doth The Little Busy Bee by Isaac Watts

After reading this poem, your students may wonder where they’ve heard it before, and struggle with its origin on the tips of their tongues for the rest of class. Or, more likely, they’ll just look it up on their smartphones and realize, “Oh! It’s from ‘Alice in Wonderland!’” Indeed, Alice does attempt to recite this little morality poem, which reads like a peppy nursery rhyme and impresses upon the reader the value of hard work -a reminder any student could use now and again.

Day in Autumn by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Mary Kinzie

Although your students are probably filled with woe as summer slips through their fingertips, time does march on. Use this gorgeous poem to usher them into the misty autumn months. Rilke’s winding words perfectly encapsulate the way the world seems to soften and slow down during fall and engender the reader settle into the tender possibilities of the new year.

The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Straightforward and easily read, this poem turns a mirror on the reader. The speaker is searching for a very particular partner by asking for very specific and sweeping details about the innermost workings of a person. The work is particularly impactful for young readers, who are often searching for themselves in whatever they happen to be reading. “I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep,” might be the philosophical question of the year for your students.

i shall imagine life by E.E. Cummings

This poem will probably get your students’ attention, if only because it is short and written without capitalization, and thus reads a little like a tweet or a Tumblr post. The unclear and slightly nihilistic nature of this poem leaves the field wide open for interpretation, meaning it is right up the alley of angsty tweens and teens, and will no doubt result in some passionate readings from your classes. You can also use this poem as an ice-breaker activity. Have your students write their own “i shall imagine life” poems and share them in small groups.

The Self-Unseeing by Thomas Hardy

It’s true that a new school year is a perfect time to be looking ahead and embracing the future, but it is well to remember that the present is only here for so long. Students are often eager to breeze through their school days and put on their adult caps, which can cause them to be less than attentive in class. Use this poem, in which Hardy revisits childhood memories and laments their passing, to encourage your students to slow down and focus on the tasks at hand.

This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams

Talk about rendering ordinary life in extraordinary ways: This poem is actually a note that Williams had written to his wife and stuck on the fridge, informing her that he had eaten the plums she was saving. Simple and unconventional, this popular work is sweet, appropriately guilty, and demonstrates to students how just a few words can paint a realistic picture packed with intimate detail.

A Dream Within A Dream by Edgar Allen Poe

Returning to a hard and fast schedule can be tiresome, especially for those lucky enough to have spent a whole three months sleeping late and spending lazy days in bed. Because your students probably have dreaming on the brain anyhow, pose to them an existential question about the realities of life: Are they really in school, or is the shrill ring of the school bell a dream within a dream? Or just tease them with the fact that Poe was kicked out of school altogether, and wouldn’t know their troubles anyhow.

First Day At School by Roger McGough

While your students have been traversing treacherous school hallways for some years now, they all had a very first day of school once upon a time. Remind them of the anticipation and anxiety they may have felt back then with this poem written from the point of view of a child “a millionbillionwillion miles from home.” You could even pair the poem with a fun welcome back assignment: after reading, have a compare and contrast moment in which your students can take store of how much they have grown over the course of their many, many first days.

Back-to-School Poems for the ELA Classroom