Bright Idea: Use Poetry to Help Youth Sort Out Who They Are

‚Äč
Photograph of diverse teens.

Poetry is powerful. Clinical psychologist Rebecca Chalmers sees that power whenever she uses poetry as a therapeutic tool.

“When young people share a poem they’ve written, and everyone says that it’s beautiful, that’s supporting who they are and how they’re able to intellectually and emotionally express themselves, and that feels so good,” says Chalmers, who practices in New York and has a Master of Fine Arts in poetry.

As a mode of expression, poetry is tailor-made for teens. “Poetry is very immediate and about the self and helps sort out ‘who I am’ in a way that speaks to them,” Chalmers says. And working on poetry with a group of other youth can feed teens’ need to relate, she says. “By the time they’ve written something and shared it with other group members and gotten that supportive feedback, they form such a bond.”

April is National Poetry Month, and what better way to celebrate than by creating poetry with the young people you work with? Here are Chalmers’ suggestions for how to structure a poetry-writing session:

Start With Examples

Bring a published poem, Chalmers says, and start things off by having one of the participants read it out loud. If you’re meeting over a series of weeks, share different types of poems, from classic poetry to spoken word and song lyrics.

“A lot of teens really like classic poetry, but Tupac Shakur lyrics have also been great starting points,” Chalmers says.

Spend Some Time Writing

To keep youth from balking at the blank page, give them a prompt--a sentence or topic or artwork they can respond to.

Chalmers says fill-in-the-blanks are good. She suggests:

I am the color ____.

I am the emotion ____.

I am the wild animal ____.

I am the superstar ____.

Or if teens complain about being misunderstood by adults:

I am the color ____. I am NOT the color ____.

Or:

I used to be ____, but now I’m ____.

Keep prompts simple. “The complex part is what the youth do,” Chalmers says.

If you ask youth to share what they’ve written at the end of the writing period, be very supportive, she says. “Reading your own writing aloud is scary. Acknowledge that it can be difficult and emphasize how brave they are for sharing.”

Finish With a Collaborative Poem

Chalmers says writing a piece as a group brings a roomful of would-be poets together and creates something lasting for them. “I’ve talked to people long after they’ve left [a writing] group,” she says, “and they’ve told me that they still have all the collaborative pieces we did.”

Chalmers suggests making “accordion poems,” which are like paper fans with words on them. Here’s how to write one:

  1. Write the first line of a poem at the top of the page. Chalmers usually writes the line herself,  something that relates to a theme discussed earlier in the session. Then she passes the paper to a young person.
  2. The young person writes a second line responding to the first. He or she folds the top line back horizontally, so only the second line is visible, and passes the page to the next person
  3. The third person responds to the second line, folds it back so only the third line is visible, and passes the page on.
  4. Continue until everyone has contributed a line.  

Another way to write a group poem, Chalmers says, is to assemble everyone’s responses to a fill-in-the-blank prompt.

When you’ve finished your collaborative piece, read it aloud and ask the youth to name it.

More Poetry Stuff

Thousands of poems to start your group off

Writing prompts from Poets & Writers magazine

Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins explains how to read a poem out loud

Monday-Friday
9-5 pm Eastern