Poetry Madness Challenge

I was born and raised in North Carolina, where college basketball and March Madness were a religion. In both middle and high school, a big, box television set was wheeled in to watch the basketball tournaments in the afternoon. Normally the math teacher would be the one to do this. Their reason for this would be to incorporate fractions, probability, and statistics within these March Madness Math viewing sessions.

I wasn’t much of a sports fan, but I enjoyed having the afternoon “off” to watch a game or two. I remember even teachers turning on the corner TV to March Madness in the cafeteria, which normally blared our school announcements during lunchtime. It was definitely a big deal! When I became a high school English teacher, I discovered Poet vs. Poet, an exciting and fun way to merge March Madness with National Poetry Month in April.  It was a way to incorporate more poetry analysis, competition, and literature all in one fell swoop! I first used Emily’s Poet vs Poet resource from Read It. Write It. Learn It. Since the best resources come from actual classroom teachers. I utilized Emily’s resources for the first two years of completing Poet vs Poet when I taught high school. 

Eventually, I realized that I wanted to incorporate March Madness into my middle school classroom with poems that related specifically to my student’s interests and hobbies, yet still had classic poetry intermixed that I wanted students to read and analyze. 

Here is the FREE Poetry Madness Challenge Google Slides that I utilize in my classroom. It has poems by Kobe Bryant, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Amanda Gorman, Shel Silverstein, and Alfred Lord Tennyson to name a few. 

It also contains a free student bracket that goes along with the Google Slides presentation.

Let me explain to you how I complete the Poetry Madness Challenge in my classroom and get middle school students excited about poetry.

Step 1: Choose a time to begin. 

It takes about a full month to complete the Poetry Madness Challenge. I always begin in April, since it is National Poetry Month. Some teachers I know complete a similar activity using picture books, and they complete it during March to coincide with March Madness.

Once you’ve picked a time, decide what portion of your class time will be devoted to it.  I used the Poetry Madness Challenge as my bell ringer, and it is the very first thing we do in English class. 

Step 2: Brackets

Give students the poem bracket the day before you begin and have them do some research. They can google the poems and read them, and then decide who they believe will be the winner in each match, who will be the final 8, and then the final 4. Some students like to choose based solely on the titles or the authors they know. Some love to read every poem ahead of time and really get inside the heads of their classmates to see how they will vote.

Every year, I hype it up and tell them about the grand prize. The student that makes the most correct guesses on their bracket by the end of the month gets a mini trophy, a certificate, their favorite candy bar, and a homework pass. You wouldn’t think this would excite middle schoolers, but it really does. 

Step 3: Sweet Sixteen

We begin by reading the first two poems on the left side of the bracket, which are the first two in the “Sweet Sixteen.” We read each one slowly, discussing its meaning, word choice, and any interesting things that stand out. We discuss if the poem uses any figurative language, has any specific visuals, and what some students interpret the poem to mean from their viewpoints.

Next, we vote. I do not give students their brackets back until after we vote. This is to avoid any type of cheating. Sure, they can see what poems they picked for the next day’s poet vs poet, and try to skew the classroom votes by voting for only their picks, but it never ends up working out for them. I encourage the students that even if they chose a certain poem on their brackets, but after reading it really like the other one, then they should vote for the other poem.

After I tally up the votes, I record the winner on my central classroom bracket and they can also choose to do this on theirs once I give it back to them. 

Step 4: SOAPS

Next, students pick one of the two poems we read that day and complete a SOAPS analysis on a piece of paper or in a notebook. (This year, I plan on using Poetry Madness Challenge notebooks that they record their SOAPS analyses in.) 

SOAPS stands for Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, and Subject.

Speaker is asking the reader to understand who is writing this poem, or if it’s a particular character, what point of view is shown?

Occasion is another way of examining the setting. What’s the setting of the poem? What’s taking place? When is it taking place? 

Audience refers to who the speaker is writing or talking to. Is it a random reader, is it a specific character, or both?

Purpose refers to the author’s reasoning and core purpose for writing this poem. Was it to inform, entertain, or persuade? Did the author use the poem to get something off their mind? Was it a way to draw attention to something happening in the world at the time?

Subject refers to what is this poem about. What is the topic? What is it specifically referring to?  

Step 5: Comparison/Contrast Paragraph Responses

Once the first “Sweet 16” poems are read aloud, I reread the poems as they challenge other poems and advance in the competition.  When we have to read poems once more, I will utilize YouTube videos.. In some cases, wonderful videos have been made visualizing the poem too. 

Here is a neat video of The Creation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service:

I love the comparison of The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson to football in the movie The Blindside.

By viewing videos of the poems, students can analyze or find other elements they did not notice before.  

Since some students will have likely completed a SOAP analysis on one of the poems, they may choose to complete a SOAP analysis on another poem they had not chosen. Sometimes, the way the brackets happen, students have already completed a SOAP analysis on both poems, and therefore they can choose to write a paragraph response comparing and contrasting the two poems read aloud that day to each other. 

Also, when rereading the poems, it is a good idea to focus on elements not discussed previously. For instance, if you first focused on figurative language, then you may focus on sensory words the second time.

Step 6: Discussions

Once the SOAP analysis and comparison/contrast paragraph responses have been written, I like to just discuss the poems even further. At this point, the students will not have to write anything else. If you would like to keep your students writing about each poem, you can ask them to specifically write about the individual elements of each poem, like rhyme scheme, meter, particular events, settings, etc. 

Step 7: Determining the Winners

Once the winning poem has been chosen, it is time to analyze the students’ brackets. I like to go by a point system. First, if a student predicted any of the Elite 8 finalists correctly, they receive a point.

If any of the students have the final 4 predicted correctly, the students will receive 2 points. In addition, if the students have the final 2 predicted correctly, that’s three points. If they predicted the actual winner correctly, that’s five points. Sometimes, students believe they have won simply because they guessed the final winner correctly. However, that is not always the case. 

You can decide how best to come up with the winner yourself, as the teacher. However, this seems to work out well.

Conclusion:

If you are looking for a fun and engaging way to teach poetry this spring, try the Poetry Madness Challenge. The free challenge and bracket on Google Slides will help your middle schoolers become excited about poetry. It will introduce them to new and classic poets. Furthmore, it will help them see literature as enjoyable, and even related to something they love: sports. Happy Reading!

Descriptive Writing in the Spring

If I had to choose my top two favorite seasons, autumn and spring are very close. Even though I’m a fall girl through and through, the mild temperatures, the bright flowers, the cool breezes, and persistent sunshine make me a happy fan of spring.

To welcome this season into my classroom and to allow my students to glean the benefits from this beautiful time of the year, I plan on having students complete a descriptive essay about spring very soon. A descriptive essay is a detailed written account describing something or an experience. In October, my middle school students completed a descriptive essay about fall, and they did a wonderful job. Let’s dive in and I will show you my lesson plans about descriptive writing in the spring for next week in my sixth and seventh grade English classes.

Pre-Writing

Even though students have been learning figurative language and sensory words all year long, it is a good idea to specifically go over this again in preparation for descriptive writing. I plan on spending one day going over common figurative language that is present in descriptive writing, from similes to metaphors, from symbolism to alliteration. 

Next, ahead of time, I will give my students the specific rubric for the essay for students to see the requirements.

Take a look at the rubric I will be using for this spring descriptive essay. 

We will go over the specific figurative language requirements, such as using at least one simile and one metaphor. Students also have to use sensory words that touch on all five senses. By giving out rubrics ahead of time, students can see their goals and strive to meet them in the writing process. 

After going over figurative language and the rubric,  I will take students on a spring scavenger hunt outside. What student doesn’t love to get outside on a warm, sunny day? 

If it is absolutely impossible to take your students outside, then bring the outside indoors. Turn on an oscillating fan, warm some spring scented oils, and play a YouTube video with nature sounds. I know it isn’t the real thing, however, it is one way to bring nature into your classroom.

For the very scavenger hunt sheet we will be using, please grab last week’s blog freebie here. Also, last week’s blog, 8 Ways to Learn Outdoors, talked all about the benefits of using the great outdoors for lessons. Check that out as well. 

As students walk outside, they will be looking for specific parts of nature, observing them up close, and writing down lots of details and sensory words on their scavenger hunt sheet. They’ll focus on their five senses as they take notes on the very objects they will be writing about. 

After the scavenger hunt, we will discuss the key parts of a descriptive essay. 

The key parts include:

1. Showing, instead of telling.

2. Sensory Words

3. Various Figurative Language

4. Adjectives and Adverbs

5. Emphasis on Onomatopoeia

The last part of the prewriting process was to read various other spring descriptive essays I found online to get an idea of how a descriptive essay was structured. I chose to go simpler with my students and wanted their essays to be three paragraphs, so I chose shorter descriptive essays. We will identify the various figurative language components, adjectives, and sensory words in each essay as they gain inspiration for their own. 

Drafting:

Students will spend two class periods writing their rough drafts. I tend to leave them completely alone while they complete this as I want only their thoughts and ideas in raw form to come through.

Peer Edit:

Students then peer edit with a partner once they’ve completed their rough draft. During peer editing, they fill out a specific peer rubric that matches the final rubric. Students will determine if their peers need more figurative language, sensory words, and that their essay meets all the necessary requirements. Once students get their peer editing rubric back, they can then make the changes needed. 

Revising and Edit with the Teacher:

I always make time to sit down and revise and edit one on one with students. Teacher editing is to ensure that if students missed something during the peer editing process, I can catch it on this end. We go through the checklist again, fix any grammar and mechanics, and I give them any tips I have for them to make their essays even more descriptive.

Also, if someone’s writing particularly stands out and has awesome figurative language examples, I will pause the class and share the specific awesome example to help inspire students.

Publishing:

Students then are responsible for fixing any suggestions made by their peers and me. They are responsible for the absolute final part of publishing their paper and ensuring it is as good as it can be.

Students can copy and paste their final essay into this spring writing slides for an easy print-out. If your students have been handwriting the essay, they can then write their final draft on this spring paper as well. 

Last fall, when I did descriptive writing, students painted a scene from their essay. This can be another step to complete, or students can simply draw a scene as well. 

Conclusion:

Descriptive essays, with the right formula, can be a fun and simple writing assignment for students. By incorporating teaching figurative language, the writing process, a scavenger hunt, and the great outdoors, students can really dive into a detailed and well-written essay. 

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8 Ways to Learn Outdoors

When March ushers in greenery, spring-time, fresh air, and warmer weather, our students can start to get antsy. Not only are they excited for the sunshine and spring break coming soon, but they are chomping at the bit to enjoy the great outdoors. Students should not just be limited to enjoying nature when they’re at recess. We, as teachers, can enjoy it with them too during instructional time, which allows them to be outside for longer periods throughout the day. With this, I wanted to share 8 ways to learn outdoors this spring.

I must admit that I have not always been a “bring your class outside” or “learn outdoors” kind of teacher. I love my cozy classroom, and I love that all of their books  and my materials are right at our grasp. When you bring your class outside to learn outdoors, it takes thought, premeditation, and a couple of extra minutes to gather everything together and head out. Yet, when Covid hit, I switched schools, and my new administration had the idea of erecting tents and buying every student a yoga mat to enjoy lessons in the great outdoors, so kiddos could go mask-free and enjoy some fresh air. Diving headfirst into teaching classes outdoors due to Covid, I became a “bring your class outside” or “learn outdoors” kind of teacher.

Research Studies

According to a research study completed by the University of Wisconsin, “Learning outdoors is healthy. Learning outdoors is active and increases students’ physical, mental and social health. Some studies have even shown follow-up (e.g., non-school) physical activity increases with outdoor learning. Access to nature has also been shown to decrease the symptoms of ADHD. Outdoor learning and access to nature also decrease the stress levels of students and teachers.”

The study goes on to say that students even have a better academic performance by learning outdoors as shown through higher test scores. Learning outdoors, according to the research, affects students’ in-class behavior, as well as their attitudes become more positive. They are happier when they get back inside the school building if they’re outside for longer periods of time. Even just the change in environment correlates to happier students.

For more information concerning learning outdoors, please click below.

LEAF Outdoor Education Research PDF.

Completely-outdoor daycare centers exist in Sweden. Can you imagine? The students eat, play, learn, and even nap outside. Outdoor daycare facilitators in Sweden find children more engaged, happier, and calmer. Their motto is to co-exist with the weather and outdoors.

I am not saying you have to go to this extreme, and you don’t have to teach in a yurt for you and your students to experience outdoor education; however, you can start soon, incorporating nature bit-by-bit into your lessons.  We have put together a list of 8 ways you can start utilizing learning outdoors for your lessons on the next day your region has nice weather!

1. Read Outside

Load up your kiddos, their short stories, or novels, or the read-aloud you’re going through and enjoy the sunshine and warm breeze. Our school uses yoga mats, but if your school has picnic tables, use them. You could even ask parents to send in one yoga mat per child if you would like to try that out. Use your sidewalk, or have students perch on curbs. Reading outside is tons of fun and even relaxing. My students always seem calmer after reading outside. 

2. Use Sidewalk Chalk

Have students write their spelling words or math facts using chalk on the sidewalk. Students can write down their vocabulary words and definitions. What a memorable, yet simple lesson it would be for your kiddos.

3. Perform Experiments

Science teachers could really utilize the great outdoors to perform experiments and complete lab activities. It makes for easy clean-up and the students can get as loud as they want. When I was a science camp teacher, we went outside to play a relay race in which the campers pretended they were salmon swimming upstream.

We also went outside to put pizza box solar ovens to the test to cook s’mores. We measured the length of sharks outside using rolls of yarn. When I taught elementary school, we planted terrariums outside and with the extra soil, we threw onto the grass. We did the old diet coke and Mentos experiment on the lawn of the school. One of the fondest memories I have of being a sixth grader myself was when my awesome science teacher started a garden. Working every day for a little bit in our vegetable garden was so much fun. If there’s any chance you can incorporate science with learning outdoors, go for it!

4. Write Outside

Writing outside can be so therapeutic. In spring, since April is National Poetry Month, I like to take my students outside to observe nature, and then they write spring poems. I also love to do nature walks in which students write down what they observe in the fall and then they turn their findings into a descriptive essay. You can most definitely do that in the spring too! (Read all about how I did that in the blog here.)

5. Play Educational Games Outside

The spelling game Sparkles, the math games Around-the-World, or Buzz! can all be played outside. Students can complete relay races in which they must spell a word correctly before they go back to their line and tag their partner. If you have a basketball court, students can play “Horse,” using spelling words. They can play vocabulary basketball. Taking your students outside for a game promotes student buy-in and gets them excited to learn.

6. Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts are a fun way to incorporate the great outdoors into your curriculum. Students can have a pre-set list that they are looking for outside, such as different items they’re learning in science. Then they must expand by writing details about them on their scavenger hunt sheets. If you’re assigning a nature walk outside for a descriptive writing assignment, a pre-made checklist of items they must incorporate can help guide their observations and writing.

Check out our freebie right here to do just this!

7. Collect Nature

From collecting leaves for leaf rubbings that you can then turn into descriptive paragraphs to collecting rocks during a rock unit, getting outside and gathering natural materials can make learning hands-on. Some other ideas are to collect flowers and write poems about them during April’s National Poetry Month. Collect twigs to create a STEM project. I’ve even seen a colleague have students use only natural, outside materials to make a cushioning for an egg drop experiment. Think outside the box to see how you could incorporate nature into any lesson you teach in order to learn outdoors. 

8. A Rain Walk

If you study weather, getting outside to observe the clouds, sunshine, or even the rain is exciting. Have students bring in one umbrella ahead of time, and on a particularly rainy, (not stormy) day, take your class outside to experience the rain. When I was a summer camp teacher in college, one of my campers’ favorite activities was to do a rain walk. Observe the bugs and the leaves as the rain pitters patters down. Have students hop in some puddles. Sometimes, we get so caught up in technology, we tend to keep our students inside and sheltered. Yet, they really thrive and come to life outside, even if they get a little wet from some rain. 

Educational Books for More Ideas

Would you like to explore this concept even further? We found the perfect book to help you along this path, The Big Book of Nature Activities.

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Get out! Seasonal activities, information, stories, games and observations to foster engagement with the natural world. The Big Book of Nature Activities is a comprehensive guide for parents and educators to help youth of all ages explore, appreciate and connect with the natural world. This rich, fully illustrated compendium is is packed with crafts, stories, information and inspiration to make outdoor learning fun! Perfect for families, educators, and youth leaders wanting to help children connect with nature!

Conclusion

With the great outdoors being right at your fingertips, explore the idea of taking your class out in nature. You can utilize an outdoor classroom for a variety of subjects, from reading, spelling, science, and even math. Your students’ mental health, academic performance, behavior, and attitude will be positively affected, and your mood will lift as well. I encourage you to look at your region’s weather, along with your lesson plans to see how you could incorporate ways to learn outdoors into your instruction. 

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