Implementing Poetry March Madness

Updated: Feb 24



As a long time basketball fan, March Madness has always been one of my husband's favorite times of year; now March Madness is also one of mine. Every March, I hang up a large set of brackets in my classroom full of classic poet's names: Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Emily Dickinson... the list goes on. In total, my students not only become familiar with a Sweet Sixteen of poets; they also become true fans, cheering their favorite poet through the brackets to victory.


Implementing Poetry March Madness is easy. Poems are quick and easy to read, but they're even better read multiple times as they move through the rounds of March Madness brackets. Poetry is often a topic kids struggle to learn and teachers struggle to teach, so March Madness adds that necessary element of fun and instant engagement for everyone.


Here's how you can make Poetry March Madness happen in your classroom:


1. Create a Sweet Sixteen of Poets.

After years of implementing Poetry March Madness, I've found starting with the Sweet Sixteen is best. Starting with 32 poets (basketball starts with 32 teams) takes way too long, and students start to lose interest.


Choose sixteen poems that are accessible to your students and that have the depth to be read and analyzed multiple times. You might choose to match poets in brackets by era. For example, you could choose four Romantic poets, four Harlem Renaissance Poets, four Modern poets, and four Beat Generation poets for the Sweet Sixteen round. Or, you might choose to find the most engaging poems and throw them on the bracket to see what kids like best. There is no magic formula. Either way, your kids will be reading, analyzing, and enjoying the poetry.


Since I teach 7th grade and my main goal is to get kids comfortable and excited about poetry, my brackets are not organized by time period. I chose poems, most of them classics, to engage my students, get them thinking, and allow them to practice peeling back the layers. I also chose poems that would introduce my students to diverse voices in poetry: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ruth Muskrat Bronson, Langston Hughes and more.


A great place to start your search for poems is Poets.org and PoetryFoundation.org

If you want to save time, you can download the brackets I use along with a packet of all the poems here.


2. Create a system for choosing the winners.

Rubrics aren't just for grading papers; rubrics are the perfect tool to guide students through the process of reading, analyzing, and choosing the strongest poem in a match up. Choose categories for your students to focus on. For example, students might rate the form, tone, language, and theme of each poem. Write descriptors for four levels in each category going from best to worst. Then, model the process of rating a poem, showing students how you would think through the analysis for each category.


After students read a match up, they use the rubric to rate each poem, then vote on the stronger poem. Google Forms is perfect for quick voting and easy tabulation. In schools that are not one to one with technology, post-it note voting is just as effective.


In my 7th grade classroom, students vote on post its in each of my five sections of ELA. I collectively tabulate the winner based on every single 7th grader's vote, then announce the winner the next day in class. Kids get SO excited to see the winners. Every year, I hear kids discussing and debating the best poets in the hallway and in the lunch room--that's my sign that Poetry March Madness is working it's magic!


3. Read one match up each day.

You might choose to dive straight in and teach Poetry March Madness as one complete study, reading several match ups each day. I prefer reading just one match up each day as a 15 minute warm up to whatever other lesson we're working on in class. Reading one match up allows students to fully absorb and appreciate each poem, vote on their favorites, and run into class the next day excited to see the results.


4. Go deeper in analysis with each round.

One question I often get: Do students reread the poems as they advance through the rounds. Absolutely, yes! As poets advance through the brackets from the Sweet Sixteen to the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the Championship round, we reread the poems each time.


Each time a poem advances, I challenge students to notice something new. I explain to my students that this is called, "peeling back the layers." Each poem has multiple layers of discovery, and it's up to readers to do the work of unpacking the meaning.


After rereading a poem independently, ask your students to share with a partner one new thing they discovered. Then, share these new discoveries as a whole class. Celebrate when your students discover meaning in a poem that you've never noticed. Kids will start to see the magic buried in each poet's words. Emphasize the importance of looking at the poems in a new way with each new match up. The beauty of Poetry March Madness is that students have a tangible reason to reread poems multiple times.


5. Add some fun with prediction brackets.

Before students read any of the poems, hand out prediction brackets. Tell students that just like basketball's March Madness, which is full of guess work and wildcard teams that overcome huge odds, anyone can win Poetry March Madness. Show students how to make predictions for which poets will win each bracket, then give students time to make their guesses.


Collect the brackets and keep them in a file. At the end of Poetry March Madness, check the brackets to see which student made the most accurate predictions. I tell my students that the best bracket wins free lunch from the fast food restaurant of their choice--if free lunch isn't a possibility, kids get just as excited about jolly ranchers and stickers. This extra buy-in makes students even more excited to see which poets are advancing through the brackets towards the championship!

Poetry March Madness gets kids excited about poetry. Nothing is better than hearing my kids debate who the stronger poet is as if the poets are famous athletes playing in major championships. Years later, students will remember the winner and even the words to some of their favorite poems. The best part: kids become comfortable with a genre that can be intimidating to so many.


Try Poetry March Madness in your classroom and get your kids excited about poetry. May the best poet win!


Curriculum Spotlight: Poet vs. Poet March Madness includes print and digital brackets, a student packet with the poems for each poetry match-up printed side by side, a rubric for rating poems, and tips for reading poetry. Get everything you need to implement Poetry March Madness with zero prep here. Enjoy!


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