The Poetry Game: Unlocking Student Creativity

Teaching Poetry in the Time of Texting and TikTok

We have all heard that teaching a subject is one of the best ways to learn that subject. The same holds true for experiencing a skill or competency. Can you imagine learning to play golf reading a how-to manual? Good luck. You might shoot 175 for 18 holes. To learn the intricacies of a golf swing you need a professional to explain the swing, demonstrate the swing to you several times, and then have you practice and practice and practice the swing which allows you to experience what swinging a golf club feels like (a simulator would also work in terms of practicing a swing). You can now go out and play an actual round of golf and maybe break 100 (assuming this is one of your first times playing). You now have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the game even if you never shoot better than 90.

The same holds true of poetry. Writing poetry will help students understand poetry on a deeper level by experiencing it in an embodied fashion. You don’t expect them to be Robert Frost or Elizabeth Bishop. What matters is they experience writing poetry and the challenges such composition entails.  The poetry game is an excellent approach for this teaching strategy. I came across this game in a wonderful MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (“ModPo”) offered by the above-mentioned Al Filreis at Penn. A former T.A. (teaching assistant) introduced the game, but he did not remember exactly where he learned about the game, so I will refer to The Poetry Game, as something like a folk game.

The game’s purpose is simply to write poetry. It is open ended with the end date for the game and individual rounds determined by the players or game’s organizer. Victory is determined by votes. Each round can have a victor as can the game itself. There is only one rule. You must use ten pregiven words in your poem. The first ten words are provided by the game master or instructor and thereafter the winner of a round must provide the next ten words.

In my case, I ran the game for approximately ten weeks with 3 rounds. I provided the initial ten words. Students had one week to write their poem and then the following week was devoted to reading and voting on the poems. All voting must be anonymous. Since I had two sections of the course, I had class two read and vote on class one and vice versa, which helped maintain anonymity. Students would email their poem. I would assign each student’s poem a number, delete their names and replace their name with my assigned number, combine the poems in one file and post the file on the LMS. Since this was not a creative writing class the game was a bonus opportunity but one with teeth. Every student who submitted a poem earned bonus points, say ten, that directly counted toward their course total. In the end ten points can matter a lot in determining a course grade. After I posted the poems, the other class had a week to read all the poems and email me their vote with an explanation of why they felt the poem they close deserved their vote. This assignment was mandatory. It was low stakes, only ten points, but again ten points can be a big ten points. Also, if they voted on time, they earned all ten points. This provided a true incentive, and, for me, helped ensure virtually every student participated in the game. This participation also did justice to the students who took the time to compose an original poem. The winner of each round read their poem to the class to a nice round of well-deserved praise.

A nice feature of this game is how easy you can mod the game in a way tailored to your course by simply adding or changing constraints. In addition to the ten required words, Round One I asked that all the poems to be a sonnet since I was discussing Renaissance sonnet sequences in the course at that time. Similarly, you could ask students to write an ode, an elegy, use a specific meter or rhyme scheme and so on. The game turned out to be lots of fun. Students played the game in earnest, and I am confident the game contributed in a significant way to their understanding and appreciation of poetry as well as giving a positive shot to their self-esteem.

A final, and very important point about this game or any game for that matter. Generally, if students want to write poetry they must register for a creative writing course like Poetry Workshop, but they will not write a poem in a course on Romantic Poetry or Postwar American Poetry. As this blog has argued that’s a mistake. The academic notion of separating creative writing of poetry from analyzing poetry (true of higher ed just as much as secondary school) does students a disservice and represents a lost opportunity. In today’s world, creativity is essential, but hard to teach and rarely covered in colleges’ conservative approaches to teaching. Hence, the high number of employers who fret at student’s inadequate preparation for the workforce. Lack of creativity is frequently one such inadequacy.

Poetry represents the most powerful and nuanced use of language humans possess. Make the best of this extraordinary form of communication and try out the above methods if you teach poetry or writing.

***If you are interested in learning about the power of games, comics/graphic storytelling in the classroom considering ordering or borrowing one of my recent books or contacting me at for consulting projects, workshops or other engagements.

Games as Transformative Experiences for Critical Thinking, Cultural Awareness, and Deep Learning Strategies & Resources

Teaching in the Game-Based Classroom Practical Strategies for Grades 6-12 (edited collection with introduction by James Paul Gee and afterword by Justin Reich)

Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels (edited collection, K-12 and higher ed)

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