The Poetry and Image Pairing

Sometimes, when we’re really, really lucky, many of our goals and passions weave together in wonderful ways.

In 2016, I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to exploring poetry more deeply, partly for my work with my students, but also, because of what poetry is, and how moving it can be. I also wanted to explore ways, in this current school year, to emphasize the six language arts in my classes, bringing the four that aren’t reading and writing into the mix more frequently. I also wanted to explore ways to generate critical thought, and encourage discussion and discourse in my classroom.

I didn’t realize that one lesson plan would enable me to hit many of these things in what has become a favorite activity of late.

Two of the courses I teach this semester are attached to outcomes related to another course, a Global Issues course. This means I’ve been incorporating a fair amount of social justice material into these courses, which is pretty much standard practice for me. A colleague and I I happened along the Teach This Poem lesson from for the week of September 19. (If you’re not aware, this part of the site offers a weekly lesson based around a poem. They’re fantastic!) The featured poem was “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay, which deals with the death of Eric Garner.

The poem is powerful, but it was in doing the lesson that is offered to accompany the poem that we felt like we had struck gold. The students begin by looking at, and studying a visual, an image of a rabbit in a garden. There are guiding questions attached to help students “read” and interpret the visual. They then do a similar sort of thing with the poem. Then, we look at the connections between the two.

This lesson was powerful, and it went very well. It actually came with a neat side lesson, as most of my students weren’t familiar with Garner’s story. (He’s the man who died in police custody, unable to breathe.) Once we had that context, we actually went back into the discussion. I actually focused heavily on the discussion that day, writing, as I usually do, board notes that collect and curate what is being said. I do this to allow the students to focus on the chat, not taking notes. Pictures of these notes are made accessible to the students.

I realized pretty quickly that this was a solid plan. Then, I discovered, via, a wonderful organization and website at Split This Rock is focused upon poetry through a social justice lens. One of the greatest things about their work though, is the searchable database of poems on their site. Right away, I felt like this database was a great vein of gold which I had only just begin to mine.

Very quickly, the Poetry and Image Pairing became a regular occurrence in my classroom, happening almost weekly. Planning the lesson can be time consuming, as pairing the images and the poems is challenging at times. Sometimes, an image is found first, and I need to find a poem that connects to it. Other times, it is the other way around. Split This Rock certainly makes this easier, with their database, searchable by theme.

A recent image we used, by artist Tyler Amato

I remixed the process a bit too. I still begin with the image. I project it it, and my students have a copy. I ask them to “annotate” the image, looking for things that “pop” and we discuss what they notice. We discuss what they think, and how they interpret the image. They ask questions, and we try to answer those questions. All the while, I’m capturing these notes on the board. I then project the poem, which is on the other side of their sheet. Again, they annotate, looking for things that pop, analyzing and questioning as they go. This drives more discussion, which I work to capture on the board.

Makers by Pamela Alexander, which was paired with Amato’s piece

Initially, I was so excited by our discussion, and their engagement, that it never occurred to me that I needed to assess this. Upon further reflection, I realized that though I strive to have an environment that encourages sharing, and using one’s voice, there are folks who don’t. As well, focusing on taking notes doesn’t make keeping a checklist of contributors easy. The act of putting something on paper gives everyone a voice, and, as is often the case in high school, writing something that will be assessed validates the activity.

So, I added a quick response to the process. I borrowed a strategy from a Twitter pal, Dan Ryder. Inspired by his work, I’ve adopted a 3×3 response. Students respond in 3 3 word sentences, or, as many of mine do, 9 words, arranged into a tiny grid. The brevity of this exercise is challenging for the students at first, once they’re accustomed to it, they do some pretty cool things. In this activity, I ask them to respond to something from the class, the image, the poem, our discussion, or some mixture of those elements. Very quickly, I get a good sense of their understanding of the material, and the connections they’re making. Additionally, these are very quick to assess.

What I captured on the board of our conversation about these pieces

At this point, the Poetry and Image pairing is here to stay. It gets us using the visual channel, reading images and looking at them critically. We do a similar thing with poetry. This practice could easily be evolved into longer response pieces, if we so desired. Personally, it has students working with a pair of things, visuals and poetry, that often present issues when they meet up with them on our Grade 12 provincial exam, so they’re building skills and mindsets that will aid them in that task.

Exploring social justice themed material this way has been rewarding. I’m looking forward to trying this strategy with other images and poetry away from the social justice area next semester. This lesson, as I’ve been doing it, is, I think, a powerful way to build habits of critical thinking in students. Depending on the choices of texts, we’re able to highlight techniques and devices in an organic way, and in a way that engages students. My colleagues and I have also discovered that this is a flexible strategy, allowing us to pair not just poetry and imagery, but a .gif and a poem, a video and a poem, or an image and an article. The practice of building connections between two texts is strengthened with this lesson.

Are there any poem and image pairings that you can think of for us to use? Do you have any great images to suggest? Any great poems? I’ve been sharing each week’s pairing on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy, but feel free to comment below to connect.



  1. I’m looking for a poem to pair with what happened in Charlottesville. I looked on split this rock but nothing stood out. Suggestions? I want to try the 3×3 idea! Thank you

    1. I tweeted a few a few weeks ago.

      As far as instruction, I simply explain that they write three three word “sentences” that capture their thoughts on some aspect of what we did. It starts kind of clunky, but once they get used to the idea, they play with the form a bit. They becomes like little poems themselves.

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