Back to school: Four icebreaker poetry ideas

Get to know your students with these poetry mentor texts

School is starting soon in most locales of the United States and teachers are busy gearing up to find interesting. low-stakes ways to get students writing. Poetry is always a no-fail way to encourage students of all ages to get back in the swing of things.

Here are four new poetry lesson and/or project ideas.

1. Something You Should Know

This poem by award-winning poet Clint Smith would be a great one to use as a getting-to-know-you writing activity. Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. According to his website, “He is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and the poetry collection Counting Descent.”

Author and poet Clint Smith | Photo: Ryan Lash/TED | License

I’ve underlined those lines where students could substitute in their own lines and memories. Of course, this is just a guideline.

Something You Should Know
is that as a kid, I once worked at a pet store.
I cleaned the cages
of small animals like turtles, hamsters,
rabbits, and hermit crabs. 
I watched the hermit crab continue
to grow, molt, shed its skin and scurry across
the bottom of the aquarium to find a new shell.
Which left me afraid for the small creature,
to run around all exposed that way, to have
to live its entire life requiring something else
to feel safe. Perhaps that is when I became afraid
of needing anything beyond myself. Perhaps
that is why, even now, I can want so desperately
to show you all of my skin, but am more afraid
of meeting you, exposed, in open water.

Ask students to emulate Smith’s poem, using it as inspiration for their own. While middle and high school students are still kids, they may have trouble thinking of a memory from when they were younger. Allow them enough time to think of a writing topic.

To imitate this poem, have students model its structure, including using five sentences and past tense verbs. Ask them to notice the punctuation in the poem and attempt to phrase their sentences to support the punctuation. For example, the first line of the poem will end with a period. The next idea elaborates on the first sentence with a series. The third idea describes the last item in the series. The next idea begins with the word “Which” and includes infinitive verbs. The final five lines include the word “Perhaps” to suggest the meaning behind the story told so far in the poem. This is where the concrete topics discussed earlier in the poem explain an abstract notion.

Here’s a mentor text I wrote as an example for my students:

Something You Should Know
is that as a kid, I was a bird-watcher.
I roamed the backyards
of my neighborhood to see
sparrows, robins, the occasional oriole.
I spied the orioles perching
on branches, under canopies of leaves
as they migrated to far-away southern fields.
Which left me in awe of their fortune
to travel, to explore, to wander,
to have their entire lives to roam.
Perhaps that is when I realized
that birds have it best. Perhaps 
that is why, even now, I can want so much
to search and discover, uncover, 
and reveal the world’s treasures. 

Discuss the poet Clint Smith and further explore his writing at his website.

2. I’m a Good Person Because My Childhood Was

This catalog verse-styled poem by poet Jan-Henry Gray could also be used as a getting-to-know-you writing activity. According to his website, “Jan-Henry Gray was born in the Philippines, grew up in California, and worked as a chef in San Francisco for more than 12 years.” Today, he is an award-winning writer and professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY.

To emulate Gray’s poem, have your students assemble lists of objects, phrases, memories, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures from their childhoods. (This poem is similar to the popular Where I’m From poems, but with a more extended length.) They can include people from the news, events and happenings, statistics, TV shows, foods, greetings, urban slang, and more. Clearly, Gray drew on a wide spectrum of images and memories to create his list poem, which he assembled into a prose paragraph.

I'm a Good Person Because My Childhood Was
junk yard, Goodwill, crushed cans, buy-1-get-1-free, re-runs, dead leaves in the pool, no lifeguard, landlord no English, bounced check, smog check, two—no, need three jobs, back entrance, under the table, no ride after school, loud dogs, mean neighbors, no neighbors, someone died there, FOR RENT sign, up for months, rusted carts, bruised fruit, free bones, just ask, beef tongue, chicken broth, chicken hearts, clouded eye of fish on ice, fry it extra crispy, the house smells like patis and Windex and roses from the rosewater bath to heal the kidney, traffic, church is packed, late for church, not going to church, news of a shooting, news of a robbery, news of the boy raped at prom, pictures of the teens in court, animals!, those crying parents, his crying parents, Rodney King, Reginald Denny, everyone’s yelling on Ricki or Jerry or Maury or Montel and Oprah is on the cover of her own magazine, dentist office, insurance voucher, no social, permanent address, temporary address, magazines with the address torn off, it’s your first time, the handsome dentist says, he touches you and you feel special and rich and white and American and healthy and taken care of, T.C.C.I.C., keep in touch, have a nice summer, we’ll be friendz 4 forever, never change

This prose poem reveals so much about the writer. Obviously, your students may not wish to disclose so much personal information, and that’s completely fine.

Make sure to tell students their poem will not be displayed and, if you decide to have students share their work with a classmate, make sure to allow students to choose their partner.

The last thing I want to do is to make a young writer feel uncomfortable in my class on day one.

Discuss the poet Jan-Henry Gray and further explore his work at his website.

3. To Whom It May Concern

This poem by writer Mark Wunderlich may appeal to your advanced writers, mainly due to its longer length, which can of course be shortened as you see fit.

According to his website, “Wunderlich was born in Winona, Minnesota and grew up in rural Fountain City, Wisconsin. He attended Concordia College’s Institut für Deutsche Studien, and later the University of Wisconsin from which he received a BA in German Literature and English.” He has taught at Stanford University, Barnard College, and Stonehill College in Easton, Mass.

I’ve underlined those lines where students could substitute in their own lines and memories. Of course, this is just a guideline.

To Whom It May Concern

In the polaroid in a drawer of the house
the other relatives picked over, I’m the blur in the background,

mop of silvery hair. The rasp of the ash pan when you empty the stove
is a bit like my voice, stuck in the chimney like a nest.

You won’t have to know how I procrastinated, of my abiding fear
of snakes, or how I gave terrible presents when I bothered to give them at all.

I was told by a psychic to remember the unloved dead,
and so I did, but not in a way they would like,

recalling how they got ugly when they drank
or stole the loose change from the laundry

when they thought nobody saw. I spent years
writing my last letters, writing off the debt of a cold bed,

pretending I was busy when really I was home
pinned to the couch by a cat.

For money I did many things—trapped muskrats,
forged thank you notes, let men pet me while I danced.

Mostly I played the role of someone who cared,
tilted in my chair and trying to appear engaged—

the preoccupied uncle you weren’t quite sure you liked.
That’s me smoking in the Winnebago, leaving the sink

clean of hair. I’m there deadheading the rhubarb
nobody bothers to pick and my worthless collections—

rag rugs, concrete gnomes—
were most likely put out in the trash.

Sometimes I lied when I was bored. I wanted you
to know what I knew, though I eventually gave that up

preferring to make you laugh.
This life I led was mostly private, and hours were spent

sweeping bat guano from a crumbling set of stairs.
Nobody knew the half of it, and nobody seemed to care.

I foresaw how neglected the town cemetery became,
glimpsed in a vision the rusted fence that let in the deer.

They stripped the bark from the junipers
that eventually came down in a storm.

I was in that storm, blown out across the ice
toward Arcadia. That’s a town in Wisconsin

and not some name for paradise.

Again, your students can modify this poem to fit their needs. It’s simply a starting point to get the creative juices flowing.

4. Headline Poetry

Try headline poetry, one example of “found poetry.” I love headline poetry for two main reasons: 1) it results in some of the THE MOST intriguing, flat-out creative writing ever and 2) it lets everyone talk and socialize as they collect and cut out their words. But don’t worry, things quiet down a bit when students start to arrange their words into meaningful poetry.

Side note: And yes, COVID-19 and all the needed precautions are on everyone’s minds. As of now, my school will be fully in-person. If your school is offering virtual learning, the headline poetry idea below may not apply to your situation. (It requires scissors, paper magazines, and glue.) Instead, depend on the other poems listed above to suit your needs.

Here’s a gallery of gorgeous headline poetry created by my students and a few by yours truly.

One final headline poetry tip: have a broom handy for early finishers or have them collect all those common words such as articles and prepositions for other students to use when needed in their poems.

If you need some inspiration or materials to try headline poetry, see my headline poetry toolkit on Teachers Pay Teachers.


Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading!

If you try one of these poems with your students during the first weeks of school this year, please let me know. I plan to use “Something You Should Know” in a week or so and I’ll be sure to write a post to let you know how it goes.

Have a great 2021-2022 school term!


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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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