Line and Stanza Breaks in Free Verse Poetry – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 5 pt. 1

First up is Katie Hedrick

Katie's Lead

Structuring Free Verse Poetry: A Lesson in Intentionality & Revision

Katie designed this lesson because her students struggled learning how to effectively write Free Verse poetry. Most English teachers know how quickly children (and adults!) glom onto formulaic poetry such as haiku, sestinas, etc. There’s nothing wrong with formulaic genres; indeed, working under tight constraints is an excellent way to foster creativity.

She begins talking about the idealist and the realist. The idealist is the part of her that wants to teach only lessons that she finds personally rewarding. At its best, this type of teaching helps educators tap into their own passions and bring that joy into class. At its worst, this sort of teacher-centric approach can lead to “hobby teaching,” a term describing when teachers only cover what they want to cover. Contrasting the Idealist is the Realist. The Realist is concerned with doing things simply because admin and standards and bureaucratic structures mandate them. In that sense, Free Verse poetry pops up in many high-stakes tests and benchmark assessments.

Katie Herself

This is an interesting bifurcation. I often get the sense that many teachers carry an “I only do this because admin/test/state standards dictate it.” That if only we were free of these diversions we might be able to dive deeper into a practice that sustains us more as educators.  My partner, Amber, discusses how mentioning the realist might also help with teacher buy-in by acknowledging the “but I have to do this because my _____ requires me to ____” mindset endemic in the teaching population.

Katie’s problem was that her students’ poetry resembled paragraphs more than a poem. That’s where this lesson, the intentional use of line and stanza breaks, comes into play.

At this point in the unit, Katie has already immersed her students in free verse poems. We begin by counting the number of lines in the poem, ‘Lost’ by Liam Anderson, and writing it at the bottom of the page. Then, we look at the number of stanzas. We notice (in the Kylene Beers way) things. How long the lines are, how long the stanzas are, the placement and mere existence of phrases, fragments, and complete sentences.

Before reading:
How many lines are in this poem?
How many stanzas are in this poem?
Circle the words at the end of each line.

Katie then reads us the poem (twice) using expression and volume dynamics. After her reading, she instructs us to answer the following sentence starters.

After reading:
I noticed that the lines of this poem break…
I noticed the author started a new stanza when…

We then share with our shoulder partners and then the whole class. Katie is a master teaching in the making. She brings us through a productive line of questions requiring us to notice, out loud, what words end lines, and what that means for the oral reading of the poem.

We next read ‘The Meet’ by David MacDonald. It only has one stanza and 19 lines. We discuss how the form of the poem (no breaks, short lines) mirrors the form (a poem about bursts of speed during a swim meet). We discuss intentionality, how the author does things on purpose for specific reasons.

Our last poem is ‘Afternoon Beach,’ a longer poem about, well, an afternoon at the beach. We circle any place where the author has changed the spacing. We choose one that we find especially interesting and write one sentence (just one!) about why I think the author put those words on the page like that. Why did the author form the lines in that way? We say the author uses spacing to mirror the content. A line about pushing is indented out.  The author reins in the next line which simply reads, ‘pull me.’ Staggered words slowing the reader down and pulling them into a crisp dive into the water on a scorching summer day. The author writes “oceansky” instead of “ocean sky” to mirror the way the horizon and the water can bleed together into a hazy

Some of Our Final Observations:
-Lines end with important words
-Lines break to show a pause or where to take a breath
-Line breaks can add rhythm or pattern to a poem
-Stanza breaks show a change in the poem
-Stanza breaks can add drama or make words to stand out
-You can write in prose, then circle the words you want emphasized, then rewrite as poem

Katie then shows us a poem she’s written (free verse, of course, to match what the students are doing) that incorporates the same aspects of line and stanza breaks we’ve been discussing. What a pro! Her annotated example models how writers think. She makes her thinking public, explaining six specific choices she’s made. The message here is that we’re all writers. We’re all part of a larger community committed to writing, to the process of cracking meaning out of the aether. This “author talk” is essential.

Katie's Poem

So, we move into the good work. Katie has us break the same paragraph into lines and stanzas.

My attempt

We discuss the similarities and differences in our individual break-ups. We all have various moments of “writer jealousy,” wringing our hands in envy at each fantastic turn of phrase and clever line break.

A killer lesson. Changing students into writers. Introducing them to the validity and power of their own experiences. Giving voice to the world of children that, no matter how hard adults try, is a place of endless meaning and importance.



  1. Pingback: What Makes Poetry, Poetry? – the becoming radical
  2. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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