Teaching poetry to my students is always my favorite lesson of the school year. Maybe it is the fact that poetry ties so closely to music lyrics, which they are obsessed with, but it is always the unit that they enjoy the most. After months of research papers, grammar practice, and reading the classics, students just come alive when we start poetry. Kids that were checked out, check back in. Students who rarely talk in class, begin to express themselves. A little bit of magic happens with poetry, magic that can not be tabulated via data and Excel spreadsheets.

Poetry deals with strong emotion and acts as a catharsis for many of my students. I do not give students subjects for their poetry. I instead introduce them to different figurative language techniques and ask them to apply those techniques to free-verse poems of their own. Students practice with simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, symbolism, imagery, and alliteration.

Many of my female students, with no prompting from me, wrote about body image in their poems. It is clear that it is a constant and pressing issue in so many young women’s lives.

There is a stranger in front of me

Her hair is messy, split ends growing.

A scar in between her eyes

Lips looking kinda rough

Acne across her face.

Her smile is not the biggest or the brightest.

I look at her body shape

She’s not the most fit

She should really consider going on a diet

And even though I see her and talk to her every day,

I still don’t really know her.

I hate the thought of not knowing who she is.

I finally have enough and

look in her eyes and break the mirror.

This girl writes about not truly knowing herself, about only identifying herself via her flaws and blemishes. She writes in a tone that expresses hostility toward herself and the way she looks. The last line especially exhibits this hostility when she chooses to break the mirror rather than look at herself. If you could see this girl, you would see a shy, bright, young lady with long, black hair and the cutest dimples. How sad that she cannot see that same girl when she looks in her broken mirror.

This next poem, written by another girl, portrays some of the same sentiments. Students were asked to write using personification for this poem. This student chose her bathroom scale as her subject.

160 pounds the scale says.

You’re getting too fat.

Start eating less.

120 pounds the scale says.

What is wrong with you?

You’re fat, eat less.

100 pounds the scale says.

You´re too heavy get off me.

Eat less it says.

90 pounds…

Still too fat.

Eat less to be


You´re too fat the scale yells at me.

It says to eat less.

If you could see the girl who wrote this poem, you would see a thin, introverted kid. A girl who loves Twenty-One Pilots, and whose face lights up whenever one of their songs appears on the classroom playlist. She is beautiful with her dyed multi-colored hair and chipped fingernail polish. But she doesn’t see it. She carries the weight of her family’s dramas and unbearable expectations. Tragically, just days before the end of the school year, her step-sister committed suicide, compounding the already unbearable weight she is buckling under. Her bathroom scale is the only thing in her life she feels she is able to control.

This next poem is also written by a girl, a girl who lights up the room with her individual style and grace. She is tall and lean and doesn’t realize how the other girls in class probably wish they could look like her.

J- you are beautiful

You really truly are

But only when you’re the perfect weight.

You wear nice clothes

And your makeup has no flaw.

Anything less is unacceptable.

Once you fix everything wrong about yourself,

that plastic surgery will be necessary too.

If you truly love yourself, then maybe someone will love you too.

Maybe in a couple years when you have the body like her.


I compare you to her and her and her because you’re not like her.

Your grades are C’s why can’t your chest be too?

Why can’t you be more like her?

How she complains that she is fat and you get mad.

(I love it when you get mad you start to rant.)

They’re wrong, you’re right. Beautiful……

Idiot take your own advice!

But it’s hard to

when I whisper in your ear and call you flat

You’re the l in flat

the wall from class

and the stick from that branch- never the pear.

Incapable of loving, you’re unable to commit   

How he walked away, and never stayed.

Your daddy issues push them away.

And you stay looking stupid using your heart instead of your brain

But J- i’ll stay here until the end or until I make you end your end.

Because that’s what I do, I whisper in your ears

And tell you the truth.

She is not only obsessed with her weight, but also her breast size. How sad, the line “Your grades are C’s why can’t your chest be too?” showing a girl who has been led to believe that her breast size is more valuable than her GPA. How sad, a girl who thinks she is not capable of being loved. A girl who knows she has ‘daddy issues’ and that those issues are defining her self-worth. She is 14 years old. Much too young to be feeling this way. Much too young to be thinking of plastic surgery and suicide as the only way to gain love from a source that cannot (or will not) give it.  

It is not just the girls who feel unbearable pressure to fit in and conform to society’s standards. Boys feel the pressure as well. That pressure is compounded for my students who are struggling with sexual identity. This next poem is written by a boy who is experiencing that struggle.

Impure thoughts in my head

Looking at something I shouldn’t

The conservatives tell me I’m wrong

The religions tell me it’s not too late

“What you’re feeling is a sin”

How could you be so sure?

After all, it feels good

Looking across the room

Feeling something

For someone

Who just so happens to

Cause the stark divide in the nation.

Is it so impure to love?

Is it so impure to want?

I mean, this is okay, right?

Looking at that boy

This boy equates his attraction to another boy with a massive divide. He, unlike his peers, does not feel a simple, innocent crush on a classmate, a feeling that so many fourteen-year-olds feel. He feels guilt. He feels pressure. Society is telling him that he is wrong, that his feelings are wrong. He is a boy up against a wall of disapproval. He, like the girls in the poems before him, is struggling to conform to the person he is told he should be. And, as a result, he is denying a huge part of himself.

Another issue present in many of my students’ poems is the issue of racism. Again, these topics came up with no prompting from me. The poem below was intended to be a simile poem, but it ended up being so much more.

Will I make it home

or will I be convicted and sentenced for life?

All of my life has been a fight

being made difficult because my skin’s not white.

Overcoming many obstacles

it’s like I’m climbing a hill.

Will I make it home or will I be killed?

Will I make it home or will my mom cry

because her middle son was left on the street to die?

These are the things

I think about when I’m alone.

will I be murdered or will I make it home?

Another one of my students chose the topic of racism for his poem as well. He was working with the techniques of imagery and onomatopoeia. Just like the boy before him, his poem ended thinking of his mother.

Am I a robber because of my skin color?

Walking down the street, feeling lost and alone.

Do you have to be a shapeshifter

to get around in this town?

I make it to the store, walking down the aisle.

I’m being followed, thinking in my head,

am I a suspect of some sort?

Rushing to the checkout, breathing

hard, fearing I will never see another day.

Blue, red, and white lights flashing through the glass window.

Running to the door, making it outside.

Boom boom boom! I fall to the ground,

closing my eyes, thinking

what will my mom say….

How powerful that these two boys wrote such similar poems, even though they were in separate classes. Both boys are tall, African-American males. Both look like they could be in their early twenties, rather than their mid-teens. And both exhibit an overwhelming fear of the police. They are aware that, due to the appearance of adulthood, they are in danger. But, under the facade of manhood, you really have two kids. Two boys who love their mothers and worry about what might happen to them if they are ever the target of police questioning. How overwhelmingly powerful and sad.

It isn’t just African-American males who feel this discrimination. Girls feel it as well.

I am not white I am not black I am a person of color

I am red green and blue

I am the darkest shades and the brightest hues

The color of my skin should not define me

What about my character or my empathy

Why is it that when I meet someone they look at me full of disgust

As if when I walk by them they will combust

Why do people think I don’t want an education

Or that all I care about is vacation

Much to your surprise none of that is true

I don’t know what it will take to get it through

But I don’t match any of those descriptions  

After all, I’m not black or white I am a person of color.

This girl is acutely aware that, in some people’s eyes, she is only seen for the color of her skin. The girl who wrote this poem is brilliant, with a reading level of a college student. She is a talented writer and a gifted student. Her line, why do people think I don’t want an education, exposes the appalling frustration of being discriminated against based on color. How infuriating to be so bright and to know that, to some, you will only ever be seen through the eyes of ignorance and bigotry.

Racism and Sexism are not the only topics broached via my students’ poetry. Some others talked about discrimination based on mental and emotional issues. The next poem was written by one of my students who is diagnosed with autism.

I am not a joke.

My life says I am alone,

It has no reason

to reach what I want.

Is it disability, or am I just the awkward outcast

because I am not sure how to make people laugh at my jokes?

Joy in a smile that wants to come across my face.

Am I wrong to desire a little change?

A turtle that wants speed,

A broken piece of society that is denied joining the public.

This boy speaks about feeling apart from his school community. He feels alone and wishes he could fit in. He refers to himself as a broken piece of society and feels awkward around his peers. In reality, he is a soft-spoken, sweet boy. The kids love him and many have no idea about his diagnosis. But, for him, his diagnosis defines him.

Another topic that came up often in my students’ poetry was the topic of depression. Depression, like autism, is considered a mental illness and it can be just as alienating and frustrating for a teenager trying to navigate their first year of high school.

I am not depressed

I can still smile at pretty things

And laugh when jokes are funny

I can still talk to people

And enjoy nice days

But when I go inside

When I’m alone

There is something broken

And I fall into a sadness so sweet

That it engulfs me

I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see

And the tears always fall

When I’m falling asleep

And I miss something

That doesn’t exist

I am not depressed

I’ve just been sad for awhile

But I can still find the light

I can still smile.

I ended this blog with this poem for a reason. This poem shows hope. It shows the spirit of all the kids featured in this post. They are all capable of finding the light. They come to my class with a huge smile on their faces, ready to face what is ahead of them. They are sweet, and innocent, and filled with promise. They have taught me more than I will ever be able to teach them. And they will be missed.