I Can Do That: How to Start a Career in Poetry

We met a poetry teacher who shared his path to his career today. Find out how you can follow in his footsteps.

By Team XQ

When it comes to learning at XQ, we always ask the following questions: Does it engage students in a way that is meaningful? Does it engage them and allow them to follow their own paths? Does it satisfy our five XQ learner goals, which are designed to help students develop into individuals who are deeply invested in their own learning, and range from ensuring students become masters of fundamental literacies to growing to learners for life? 

Further, while we continue to invest in the necessity and importance of the sciences and their place in the future of work, it’s just as important to continue to elevate the arts. The beauty of STEAM in education is how it provides the space to create the incredible The Atlantic:

“Poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.”

Further, poetry is important because of the simple fact it provides students with the potential for deep personal engagement among students while promoting a diverse range of literacy competencies. 

With all that in mind, it’s hard to know where to start. Fortunately, we recently connected with Keith Leonard, a high school teacher based in Ohio whose approach to teaching is focused on finding new ways to use poetry as a tool that’s essential for self-expression, discovery, and learning. Read on for inspiration how you can introduce teaching poetry in your classroom.

Where do you teach? What do you teach? And how long have you been teaching?

I teach juniors and seniors at the Wellington School, a K-12 independent school in Columbus, Ohio. One of Wellington’s main tenants is teacher autonomy, meaning I get to design all my own courses. I teach everything from poetry and fiction to podcasting and radio drama. This trimester, I’m co-teaching a course called Advertising the Environment, in which students create a media campaign to raise awareness about waste production in America. I’m also teaching a class on time travel, which combines some very basic physics with literature to show that even our most fundamental understanding (how we think of time) is much more complex than we expect. 

This will be my fourth year at Wellington. Before this, I taught creative writing and composition at Indiana University, where I got my MFA in poetry. Before that, I earned a BA in secondary education and teaching licensure at Westfield State University in Massachusetts.

What brought you to the profession? 

Fascination. Wonder. I don’t understand literature. Or, I don’t understand how it works—how something as simple as words on a page can conjure up such a complex reflection and understanding of what it means to be alive. And no matter how much I study a single poem or story, it always reveals new things. So, really, teaching as a profession is a way of exploring that strange nature of art. The fact that I get to explore that with other people as a living is a gift.  

I found out about some of your poetry teaching strategies on Twitter—using LEGOs to play with white space, the writing marathon—could you share how you develop these activities? The inspiration, what you hope your students will get out of them?

Sure. I like to think of the classroom as a place for play. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember a single thing I memorized in high school. What I can remember is having fun, though. I remember teachers that got excited and laughed a lot. So, I’ve been trying to imagine school as a place to introduce future interests, and having fun is a gateway to those interests. Like, if a student walks away from one of my classes and picks up another book of poetry to read, that, to me, is a wildly successful class. It means the class doesn’t end—it just points the student to a path they want to continue walking down.

To that end, I’ve tried to show that reading and writing poetry is a life-affirming and fun activity. I generally shy away from teaching things like meter and established forms, and instead ask students to invent their own rules for poems. Earlier this year, I saw a really brilliant poet and teacher, Emelia Philips, use LEGOs in her classroom, and I thought I’d adapt it for my own. I brought in a bucket of LEGOs and asked students to tape a handful of pieces to a single piece of paper. Each little dot on top of the LEGO piece would represent a syllable of a word, and I encouraged them to spread the LEGOs around the page. Some students inverted the lines; one made their paper look like a giant smiley face. We then all traded papers, brought them home and wrote poems according to the prescribed LEGOs. It felt like a game. Maybe a light puzzle. 

I think most of all, I want students to develop habits that help them continue writing. Writing poems and stories is a healthy activity. High schoolers are a tempest of emotion and intellect, and they’re not always encouraged to take that emotion and intellect seriously. So, to help encourage them to take their creativity more seriously, I’ve been developing a thing called the “Creative Writing Marathon” this year. Essentially, I adapted a marathon training plan for writing. We pick a day in the future, usually a Saturday, where we gather at the school for 3-4 hours of dedicated writing time. For the weeks leading up to that marathon, we each have a calendar listing how much time we’ll “train” each day. So, for instance, the first week, we start off small and dedicate 10 minutes a day to writing. The second week, we each try to write for, say 30 minutes. The following week we bump it up to 40 minutes. And so forth. There are built-in rest days on Thursdays and Sundays. The idea is that students are electing to build up their creative stamina, that they are committing to something they enjoy every day. 

Some other things that have worked this year: having students “transcribe” a song without words; having students write the biography of a tree they interview; opening a class by asking students to write unanswerable questions (i.e., “What’s the best imaginary museum you’ve never visited?” “What color are the electrical currents in a confused person?”). Basically, anything that takes the anxiety out of creativity.

Why is it important for students to have a space to express themselves creatively? 

I worry about the demands being put on high school students. The college process, after school commitments, homework, 24/7 access to social media—there’s such little space for students to explore their imagination. I have two young children and I’m pretty sure I still have more free time than most sixteen-year-olds. So creating space for creativity is actively working against the unfair demands being put on their time. In creative writing courses, I try to protect writing time as much as possible. Every third class, we write together. I bake cookies. We begin with a 10-minute body-scan meditation. And students treat that writing time as a sort of sacred space. In many ways, those classes feel like the most valuable to me. 

Creativity is the bedrock of any human development or solution. And yet, because it takes trial and failure and trail again, it exists outside of many traditional models of learning. Because of this creativity is often brushed aside in the classroom. It’s considered “not serious.” It doesn’t fit within standard models of assessment. But we forget that creativity is a skill that needs to be practiced. We forget that we need to make space for that practice. We forget that creativity is a deeply personal endeavor that requires heaps of encouragement. 

To extend this just a bit further, my dream would be for every school to reserve at least an hour of every school week for creativity. It doesn’t have to be writing. It could be coding. It could be juggling. Anything that allows for students to focus on a creative skill they love and want to develop. 

I recently helped launch a project at the Wellington School called “Wonderlab” that makes actual space for students to focus on their creative interests. I’m really excited by the possibilities. Here’s a video that explains the project in more detail if you’re interested:

How do your students guide your teaching? 

In every single way. I used to come into my classes with a structured lesson plan and not feel right if the lesson didn’t go as well as intended. But I’ve learned that even the most perfectly planned lesson won’t go well if the students aren’t in the right frame of mind for it. This means that I have to listen to my students, to spend a few minutes talking with them at the beginning of class and try to figure out what they’d be ready for on that particular day. I’ve learned that if I’m not flexible, I’m only teaching what I know and not letting students participate in their own education. 

So now, I tend to have a loose plan developed that can be adapted on the fly depending on my student’s energy level and mood. Sometimes they’re just in the mood to analyze a piece of literature. Sometimes they’re ready to write, and we can spend a good chunk of class responding to a piece artistically. 

Sometimes students come up with the most amazing projects and we have to abandon the rest of the week’s assignment to accommodate their strokes of genius. For instance, the other day, after reading a piece on garbage production in America, a student convinced the class that we should all try to do a “no-trash week.” The parameters are that each student has to use as many reusable products as possible. They should try to recycle and compost as much as possible. Their goal—they decided—is to try to see if they can limit their landfill garbage to just a single mason jar. The class has even convinced a number of other students and teachers to join them in the experiment. 

Letting students have license over their education allows for interesting, meaningful projects like that to surface. I don’t think they would be as into it if I had assigned that project, you know?   

Are you aware of any literary journals that consider high school-aged writers? I know The Adroit Journal makes space for young writers. As does The Louisville Review with Cornerstone…

Here’s a list that I’ve been gathering. Would love to hear if you know of any more!

One Teen Story, Scholastic Writing Awards, Teen Sequins, Hanging Loose Magazine, Exit 7, Interlochen Review…

What advice do you have for young writers?

The classic advice is young writers need to read just as much (or more) than they write. That’s true, of course. But I also think it’s important to note that poetry is just as varied as music, probably more so. Not every poem is going to work for you, and that’s perfectly ok. That’s a good thing! There’s a whole lot of poems out there that will work for you, it just takes a little digging.