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January 11, 2011 Hooked on Poetry By Mary Blow
Grades 6–8

    Middle school students love their music. Whenever possible, they plug into an iPod or MP3 player. I like to use this passion for music to introduce poetry, with activities like the one below, which hooks students on poetry as they debate the question: Are songwriters poets?



    This activity introduces poetry terms informally and models the thought processes involved in peeling away the layers of a poem. Music videos and lyrics engage the students in comparing and contrasting the lyrics of songs.



    1 40-minute class period 

    Lyrics and Music Videos 

    • “Circle of Life” by Elton John (YouTube VideoLyrics)
    • “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” by Randy Newman (YouTube VideoLyrics)


    Selecting Music

    Youve got a friend

    Select a genre that will engage your students: classic rock, country, pop, hip-hop, rhythm and blues, jazz, etc. The secret to hooking middle school students on poetry is to select songs that relate to their lives. Two pop songs that 6th graders appreciate are “Circle of Life” by Elton John and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” by Randy Newman, the theme songs from The Lion King and Toy Story, respectively. Many students are familiar with these animated Disney movies, thereby providing a foundation for new knowledge.

    Exploring these lyrics shows how poems, depending on who is reading them, take on different meanings. In both of these songs, the lyrics take on a deeper meaning when viewed from the perspective of a middle school student rather than an animal or a toy. Begin the activity by playing “Circle of Life” and analyzing the lyrics. Then repeat this process with the second song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” 

    Analyzing the Lyrics

    After watching the video, project the lyrics for “Circle of Life” on the board and read them as a class, modeling how to read a poem. Engage in a whole group discussion brainstorming similarities and differences between music and poetry. At first, students tend to focus on structure, but eventually they start considering repetition and rhyme and ultimately, meaning. The videos support a literal interpretation of the lyrics. Therefore, it is expected that the students will interpret the song in relation to the plot of the movie. However, analyzing the line “Some say eat or be eaten” from the perspective of a middle-school student will ignite a classroom discussion and grab the attention of even the most reluctant learner, as they connect it to bullying or motivation to study.

    Words of Wisdom

    Words_of_wisdom_wall After analyzing the lyrics, the students select “words of wisdom” — words to live by. The quotes are collected, written down, and posted on a bulletin board. Quotes from "Circle of Life" and "You've Got a Friend in Me" are shown in the photo to the right:

    • “You should never take more than you give” (line 8)
    • “Till we find our place / on a path unwinding” (lines 13-14)
    • “There's more to be seen than can ever be seen / More to do than can ever be done” (Lines 3-4)


    Repeat the process with the second song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” The following "Words of Wisdom" were selected from the lyrics:

    • "You've Got a Friend in Me" (Title)
    • "Our friendship will never die." (line 25)
    • "You're gonna see, it's out destiny" (line 26)

    This activity provides a foundation for selecting quotes from other literary pieces during literature circle projects.

    When you've finished selecting quotes, contrast the tone and mood of the two songs. List the emotions evoked by each one, and discuss how they connect to the rhythm and tempo of the song. This is the perfect time to model how to count syllables in a line. Point out that short, one-syllable words are used to speed up the pace.


    Ask the students if they believe songwriters are poets. They must use evidence from the lyrics or the class discussion to support their opinion.


    There are wonderful resources online to guide the discussion or modify the activity to meet the needs and interests of your students. Writer and teacher Jim Burke's article "How to Read a Poem" is helpful. Scholastic's "Poetic Devices," "Musical Poetry," and "Teaching Poetry Through Rap" are also good, and you might also look at the Web site Hip-Hop Poetry and the song "Poetry (for Life)" at

    How do you hook students on poetry? Post your ideas below.


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Susan Cheyney