Teaching Respect Through Poetry

A few weeks ago my 10 year old brought home a book from her school library, Everything On It by Shel Silverstein. It was something I had never read before, and the two of us spent an hour that night before bed taking in the wonderful, playful poems and illustrations. We were then inspired to grab Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic off the bookshelf in our living room, where they had sat untouched for years, and spent several more nights reading and discussing more poems. As we read, two deeper themes seemed to pop up again and again in the seemingly silly poetry: the importance of showing kindness to others and being true to ourselves.

When I was asked to come up with some learning activities for The Week of Respect, which will be observed October 2-6, my mind went back to several of Silverstein’s poems. This was not only because the themes from his poems mentioned above connect well to the idea of respect, but poetry has the power to inspire and stick with us long after we’ve read it. Poems are also often short enough to be read and discussed in one class period, making them the perfect choice for helping students really dig into what respecting themselves and others looks like.

Below I’ve compiled a list of Shel Silverstein poems broken down by theme. Before diving into reading a poem, you could first have students visit Silverstein’s website as a class or independently to learn about what an amazing, creative man he was. Then I highly suggest approaching teaching the poems with multiple readings. This allows students to think about different aspects of the poem with each reading. I usually follow these steps:

  1. Read the poem once and listen for the rhythm and rhyme.
  2. Read the poem again and think about the images it puts in your head.
  3. Read the poem one more time and think about the message or main idea.
  4. Discuss whether they agree with the poet’s message or how they’ve experienced the message in their own lives.

Elementary students could use this free template to record their thoughts on the different aspects of the poem as they read. Middle and high school students could use this free template to go deeper into the poem’s meaning. You could end by having a discussion about how the poem’s meaning ties back to the larger theme of respect for self and others. Happy reading!

THEME #1 – Showing Respect for Others by Being Kind

Shel Silverstein - How Many, How Much
“How Many How Much” from Where the Sidewalk Ends © 1974
Shel Silverstein - Ations
“Ations” from A Light in the Attic © 1981
Shel Silverstein - Hug O' War
“Hug O’ War” from Where The Sidewalk Ends © 1974

THEME #2 – Showing Self-Respect by Being True to Yourself

Shel Silverstein - The Voice
“The Voice” from Where The Sidewalk Ends ©1974
Shel Silverstein - Masks
**“Masks” from Everything On It © 2011

**Common Lit also has a free set of comprehension questions created for this poem!

– Megan Panek


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