Teach Poetry with a March Madness Competition - EB Academics

Teach Poetry with a March Madness Competition

Are you an ELA middle school teacher looking to add some excitement to your classroom’s poetry experience? Then get ready for the March Madness Poetry Competition! In this competition, your students will have the opportunity to engage, analyze, and appreciate poetry as they vote on a winning poem.

Before you Begin

Get ready for the March Madness Poetry Competition! 

In this March Madness Poetry Competition, your students will get to vote in multiple rounds of Sweet 16 fun, learning all about poetry analysis and appreciation along the way, as they ultimately vote on a winning poem. 

Keep in mind that the timeline of this activity will vary by class depending on how long your class periods are. For example, the first round may take a few class periods, as students are reading and discussing 16 poems. 

Each round will get shorter as students narrow down the poems. As you listen to how to organize this activity, think about how it might work best in your classroom…is it a two week unit where this is the main focus? 

Is it stretched out for the whole month along with other curriculum, with a little bit of time spent on it each day, after the initial introduction? 

The beauty of this activity is that you can easily be adjusted to meet your needs! For example, if starting with a  Sweet 16 set-up seems like it would take too long, begin the activity with an Elite 8 instead! 

Now that you know you can adapt this if needed, let’s walk you through the activity!

Select Your Poems

To set this up in your own classroom, you want to begin by selecting any 16 poems for your students to read, analyze, and ultimately vote on in multiple rounds as they choose their final favorite.

If that seems daunting to you, here are 16 poems we recommend, chosen because of their diverse authors and topics and use of figurative language and imagery. 

“Dreams” by Langston Hughes

“He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by W.B. Yeats

“Sympathy” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

“Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou

“Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost

“After the Winter” by Claude McKay

“A Loaf of Poetry” by Naoshi Koriyama

“An Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins

“I Am Offering this Poem” by Jimmy Santiago Baca

“What Love Isn’t” by Yrsa Daly-Ward

“Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco

“Willow and Gingko” by Eve Merriam

“I Ask My Mother to Sing” by Li Young-Lee

“Unfurling People” by Elizabeth Acevedo

“Love and Friendship” by Emily Brontë

“Since Hanna Moved Away” by Judith Viorst

You’ll want to print out copies of all the poems for students and/or display them. 

Making Predictions

On the first day of the March Madness activity, simply have students read the poems individually and make a prediction about which poem they think will be the champion! This initial read is for enjoyment and connecting with the poem on a human level, which we talked about in the last podcast episode. 


On day two and beyond, students start analyzing the poems.

For the first round of voting, which may take a few class periods, students will work with a partner or small group and read each poem again.

They will focus on a topic found in the poems such as friendship, dreams, uncertainty, etc . It will take a bit of prep on your part because you’ll want to pair up the poems before students read and analyze them.For example, you can pair up “Dreams” and “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”

Time saving hack if you’re using the poems we suggested earlier, just work your way down the list in the order we shared the poems, pairing every two together. We’ve already done the hard part of pairing the poems for you to make this first round easier!

Then have students read both poems in each pairing and answer questions exploring the topics in the poems:

1. What is a topic that these two poems share?

2. How does the author of each poem explore this topic? (Think about the details they use to highlight the topic, and anything they may be saying about the topic)

3. In your opinion, which of the two poems in this match-up best explores this topic? Why?

After students read  and analyze the 16 poems with a partner and you have a whole class discussion, students will vote on their top 8 poems! 

Just a reminder that this round will take the longest in the whole activity. So, you may want to dedicate 2-3 class periods to it. 


This takes you to round 2. Students will re-read these 8 winning poems and this time consider the imagery used in each poem. 

Students should discuss:

  • Which of the 5 senses does this poem appeal to? What details show you this?
  • Why do you think the author is appealing to these senses? What effect does this choice have on the poem and the reader’s experience?
  • In your opinion, which of the two poems in this match-up best uses imagery to engage the audience and enhance their poem? Why?

After students re-read and analyze the 8 poems with a partner and you have a whole class discussion about imagery, students will vote on their top 4 poems!

Figurative Language

This leads you to round 3. In this round, students will be considering the figurative language of the 4 poems that have moved on in the tournament. 

Students will be re-reading these 4 poems and looking for examples of figurative language that the author uses. They will discuss what effects these examples have on the poem and the reader’s experience.

Finally, students will discuss which 2 poems in this round best use figurative language to engage the audience and enhance the poem and why.

This will take you to the final round, the championship, where 1 poem will be crowned the winner!

Making Connections

In the championship round, students will re-read the final two poems and consider connections they can make with them, since the poems that usually have the greatest impact on us are the ones we can make connections with!

Students do not have to connect personally with a poem to make connections, They can also connect a poem with another poem or text, or they can connect it with events going on in the world. 

Students can work in pairs or small groups and answer the following questions:

What connections were you able to make with each poem? 

  • Were any of these connections particularly powerful? Explain.
  • Do you think a wide audience would be able to make connections with this text, or only a particular type of person? Explain.
  • After a whole class discussion, students will vote one final time to select the championship poem!


Finally, after the final round of voting, students are bound to have opinions on whether the final poem deserved to win! Have them record their thoughts in a Reflection

They can reflect on the following questions:

  • How did this March Madness activity affect the way you read poetry? Will it change the way you read poems in the future? 
  • During the rounds of voting, you considered topic, imagery, figurative language, and connections. Is there anything else that a reader should consider when reading a poem? 
  • Do you agree with the final winner? If so, why? If not, which of the original 16 poems do you think is the best of all of them? Why?

When students are finished filling out their reflections, discuss their thoughts as a class. 

Bonus Ideas for More Engagement

On the first day of the activity when students are simply reading the 16 poems for enjoyment, have some fun audio playing. 

You can search on youtube for basketball sounds to play and students will walk into your classroom hearing balls dribbling and crowds cheering. It’s sure to pique their interest about the unit! 

You may even want to wear some sports-themed clothing or have a whistle ready and play the role of referee!

Then, at the end of the unit, consider really celebrating that final round of the tournament! 

Display some March Madness Décor in your classroom. You could also serve popcorn or pretzels to the class, if this is allowed and you have the resources. 

If you have the time, maybe even have a little basketball competition with crumpled up scrap paper and your recycle bin! You can add a little rigor by having students write their favorite line of a poem on the scrap paper, along with why it’s their favorite, and read it to the class before crumpling and throwing.

Incorporating a March Madness poetry activity in your lesson plans is incredibly engaging and still standards-aligned. 

If you or your students aren’t thrilled about reading and discussing poetry, this activity may just change your mind!


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Then, pick the date you’re going to teach it in your classroom, and sit back while you watch as your students show up to your classroom pumped about what the day holds…and gush about your class to their parents on the car ride home!

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