English Language Arts, March Activities, Poetry

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.

Poetry Madness Challenge

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.

April is National Poetry Month

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.

Poetry Madness Challenge Brackets

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.” Next, 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. 

Poetry Madness Challenge Sweet Sixteen

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.

Poetry Madness Challenge: Determining the Winners

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.


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!