January 2, 2014

Interactive Learning: Take-Off Poems

Every year, when I begin my poetry unit, my students begin to gripe.

"I hate poetry!" they whine.

"It's so boring!" they complain.

And the best way I've found to change that mentality is to teach them that music is poetry. They ALL love music, albeit in different forms, so we start by exploring the lyrics to popular songs, using TP-CASTT, so I can prove to them that music does, indeed, contain the literary devices we study.

Then, I introduce them to the concept of Take-Off Poems, which ends up being one the most memorable activities we do all year.

The goal of a Take-Off Poem is to re-write the lyrics to a song about another topic. We start by seeing the Master of Parody, Weird Al Yankovic (and one of few who keeps them school-appropriate) in action:

We discuss what does and doesn't these videos so popular. They are quick to point out that some parts aren't funny because they don't get them, which teaches them to reference things that are relatable for the masses. They also appreciate when the lyrics are catchy and flow easily with the rhythm, which teaches them to not force a line if it doesn't fit with the pattern.

We also talk about what NOT to do.

I want them to understand what makes a good parody and what doesn't. We talk about how just because a line is the right number of syllables or rhymes, it doesn't mean it's a good fit. We want our writing to be meaningful, even when it is funny.

I use this as an example of how I DON'T want my students to write:

And then I give them the freedom to do their own writing. I allow them to choose any school-appropriate song to re-write as a Take-Off Poem. This is when BYOT is super helpful in the classroom because students immediately pull out their phones and ipods to select the perfect song. I allow students to choose partners for this activity so they can bounce ideas off each other.

As soon as my students start their workshop time, they are completely invested in the activity. They don't even complain when I explain that they're required to use the literary devices we study; they're just happy to be using their phones!

A couple of Teaching Tips for this activity:

  1. Believe it or not, it's often easiest for students to re-write the lyrics of songs they like but DON'T know all the words to. This ensures a familiarity with the rhythm and rhyme patterns without getting caught up in the lyrics, which frees up the mind for creativity. I think this is an especially helpful tip for my lower students who struggle with writing. 
  2. I encourage my students to not try to do rap songs because it's much harder to keep with the rhythm when the verses often don't have accompanying music. 
  3. Remind students that they don't have to select a song they enjoy because they're re-writing the words. They really just need a tune to follow. I've had some boys write hilarious Take-Off Poems to the tunes of girly pop stars. 

Of course, after everyone has their poems completed, it's a ton of fun to have a mini-slam and allow students to share their writing with the class. I give my students extra credit if they sing it (with backup singers, of course) or make a music video to share!

One year, I even had a group of students write a Take-Off Poem about me, which they framed with a picture of them as an end-of-the-year gift. I still smile whenever I see it!

Editor's Note: Please check out part 2 of this post here for another song you'll definitely want to include if you teach this!


  1. This idea is pure gold!! I wasn't excited about having to teach poetry at the end of this year, but now I can't wait for October!! haha. Will have to remind myself of this then! Thanks for the share

    Learning to be awesome

  2. This is such a great lesson! I am definitely giving it a try. Thanks soooo much for sharing.

  3. This post just screams AWESOMENESS! I am saving this because I am so doing this with my fifthies! Yep, yep, yep! Maybe I'll even dress up as Weird Al one day...who knows!
    Rockin' and Lovin' Learnin'

  4. That is a brilliant idea - I love using the videos as a hook!

  5. I also use song lyrics as my basis for teaching just about every poem we do.. but I have not seen the Weird Al thing. My kids will totally love it. I think teaching what NOT to do is just as important and sometimes MORE!
    :) Erin
    I'm Lovin' Lit

  6. Songs just make everything easier, right? I haven't seen this one or the one from Part 2 of your post. Absolutely love it!

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