Start off a new year with poetry; there’s nothing better! Poetry is rigorous, interesting, and easily adaptable to the time you have to teach it. For its flexibility and for the multitude of lessons it allows us to teach, poetry is, hands down, my favorite type of literature.
What you’ll find below are five poems that are ideal for jumpstarting the new year, my all-time favorite New Year’s poem to teach to high school students – “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye (with a link to the complete lesson plan in my TpT store), and a free New Year’s writing prompt resource designed to help you enjoy poetry with your students from the first (school) day of the new year.
5 POEMS FOR THE NEW YEAR
1. BURNING THE OLD YEAR by Naomi Shihab Nye
This poem is ideal for high school students. It’s one that all students can relate to: destroy the minutia of the past year, realizing that so little of any year is worth keeping (“a stone”), and look forward to the year ahead while tiny twinges of regret crackle in our minds.
The poem is available from the Poetry Foundation here: Burning the Old Year, and you can click here for an entire lesson on the poem in my TpT store that’s ready to print and use right away with NO PREP!
The 11-page “Burning the Old Year” lesson comes with two writing assignments: a Constructed Response and an Objective Summary. If you would like students to do another type of writing in conjunction with the poem or with any of the poems below, here are my go-to poem post reading mini-writes:
- Write a reaction to the poem, giving it a rating of 1 – 5 stars. Include one or two pieces of evidence from the text, an explanation of your rating, and a drawing of the stars you award the poem.
- Write an additional stanza in the same style and with the same tone as the poem.
- Write a letter to the poet discussing
- a connection the student has to the poem or the writer’s life
- a favorite line from the poem, or
- a notable image, metaphor, sound device, or idea.
2. AT THE NEW YEAR by Kenneth Patchen
Here’s a great one to start with. Before beginning, introduce the poem by asking students to listen for the flow of the poem as you read it. Since the only punctuation marks in the poem are the commas used to directly address “Father” and the period at the very end, the poem should be read all the way through without pausing, as if you are exhaling one long breath.
3. THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD by Marge Piercy
Another good one to start with is this poem by Marge Piercy in which the writer takes a critical look at what she did and did not do to promote peace in the world, noting that her words, through poetry, can be “weapons of minute destruction” as she moves forward into the new year.
Before reading, define “psyche” (n. the mindset of a person, the place where thoughts and feelings of a person or an entity develop and reside), “sloth” (n. extreme laziness or apathy), and “rhetoric” (n. the effective use of language in speaking and writing, often meant to persuade). Ask students to look for the metaphor of a snake and an allusion to weapons of mass destruction which were the reason for President George W. Bush announcing that the US had begun the military offensive called Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003. You can also use this poem when you teach “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the concepts of passive resistance and nonviolent protests.
4. TO THE NEW YEAR by W. S. Merwin
This is a deceptively simple poem. Only 18 lines long and devoid of punctuation and capitalization (except for the first “W”), the persona in this poem speaks directly to the new year as it creeps into existence with sunlight and a dove’s call for the reader to see and hear. The five lines are hope-filled and compassionate; you may wish to discuss the lines that include “age” and “knowledge” and just what the author is saying about doing the best you can with what a person knows at a given point in time.
5. IT WOULD BE NEAT IF WITH THE NEW YEAR by Jimmy Santiago Baca
I’m including this poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca even though I have to share this caveat: there is, in the third stanza, a reference to drugs and alcohol which might make the poem inappropriate for high school students, but not for students at the college level. Honestly, I love the vivid imagery in the poem and the extended metaphor of the speaker’s boots that runs throughout the poem.
AN OPTION FOR AP/COLLEGE-LEVEL CLASSES: ON NEW YEAR’S EVE by Evie Shockley
This poem, with its subtle ABAB rhyme scheme, washes its readers in language that is exquisite, mellifluous, and intricate; having at least a cursory understanding of the meanings of the words is absolutely essential to making sense of the poem. To help you with that, I’ve created a list in Vocabulary.com with 17 of the words in poem order. If this poem is too challenging for your students, you can enjoy its beautiful linguistic genius and gift it to yourself.
A FREEBIE TO PRINT AND USE TODAY! NO REGRET NEW YEAR
Many of the poems above contain at least a twinge of regret. To have students think about how they might act in the upcoming year to avoid feeling regretful at the end of it, I created a short thinking and writing assignment called No Regret New Year. Students are asked to think about where they would like to be in a year and then think about what they should and should not do in the upcoming year to help them to achieve their goals. My students usually help me to decide how many items should be listed (with the most popular number being four.) I don’t mandate how many of their items must be “shoulds” or “should nots” and while I do a quick visual check across each student’s desk (kind of like the active monitoring that we do during state testing), I don’t read what they write or collect their handouts. When I ask students if they would like to share, some classes stare back at me blankly, while others share every item on their lists. It just depends on the group. If you’d like to give this 15 minute activity a try, click on this link No Regret New Year to open this freebie. You won’t regret using it with your students (haha!)
I hope you and your students have a terrific new year! Be sure to let me know if you run across any other fantastic poems related to the New Year, resolutions, or new beginnings that would be appropriate for middle, high school, or college students. Happy New Year to you!
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