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Here’s a great lesson on the science of addiction that uses poetry – part of a full curriculum on prescription drug abuse


Language Arts, P.E. & Health, Science  


6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12  

Title – Science of Addiction
By – MacNeil/Lehrer Productions (with the National Association of School Nurses)
Primary Subject – Health / Physical Education
Secondary Subjects – Science, Language Arts
Grade Level – 6-12

“Science of Addiction”

Segment Two

Grade Level: Middle/High School

Content Areas: English/Language Arts

Key Concept: Understanding addiction through imagist poetry


Addiction: A chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences, and by neuro-chemical and molecular changes in the brain.

Diction: A style of speaking or writing as dependent upon choice of words.

Imagery: A literary device which uses words to create a picture in the reader’s mind.

Imagism: A movement of poets in the early 20th century who believed that poetry should be composed of clear, concise and concentrated images in order to create a feeling in the reader.

Imagist poems are defined by their concreteness, their careful diction and their vivid sensory language.

*Definitions from

Background: The second video segment of the.Medic series presents information on the physical consequences of prescription drug abuse. Experts give the biological reasons behind addiction and discuss the symptoms of addiction and withdrawal. In addition, teens who were formerly drug abusers discuss the physical effects of their addiction.

This Language Arts curriculum asks students to use the intense and disturbing words and images from this segment and other sources to create powerful poems that convey what they learn as well as serve as “messages” from the body to resist prescription drugs. It can also help students to develop vocabulary and to grasp the techniques that poets use to convey meaning.

McRel Learning Objectives: Standard 1 – Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Level III (Grades 6-8)

  • Uses a variety of prewriting strategies
  • Uses a variety of strategies to draft and revise written work
  • Evaluates own and others’ writing
  • Uses content, style, and structure appropriate for specific audiences and purposes

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

  • Uses a variety of prewriting strategies
  • Uses a variety of strategies to draft and revise written work
  • Evaluates own and others’ writing
  • Uses strategies to adapt writing for different purposes
  • Writes descriptive compositions


  • Computers with Internet access
  • Descriptions of physical reactions to drug abuse (from novels, memoirs, online medical descriptions, etc.)
  • Thesauri and dictionaries
  • Examples of imagist poems (poems by William Carlos Williams, H.D., Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, among others-some are included as part of this lesson)

Procedure: (Time frame: 4-6 class periods)
Pre-viewing Writing Activity: Think of a time when your body was under a large amount of stress, for example because of illness, lack of sleep, over exertion while playing a sport, etc. Describe the physical aspects of this stress- what did various parts of your body do? How did it feel? Try to be as vivid as possible in order to make your reader feel the physical pain, exhaustion, exertion, etc. (For middle school students especially, or classes in which students have not spent much time writing descriptively, it might help to hear a teacher’s example.)

Have some volunteers share their descriptions. Ask students to react-what words or phrases stand out to them in a way that made them feel the physical stress?

Explain that one significant way some people cause severe stress to their bodies is through drug abuse, including prescription drug abuse. Show the.Medic Segment Two. Ask students, as they are watching, to make a list of strong words, phrases, images and descriptions that stand out to them. These could be both things that are said aloud and images that are shown through animation and photography.

McRel Learning Objectives: Standard 2 – Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Level III (Grades 6-8)

  • Uses descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

  • Uses precise and descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas and supports different purposes

Post-viewing Discussion: Use the questions below to check for comprehension and to encourage students to clarify their ideas about what they learned and to ask questions.

  • What is addiction?
  • Why is it particularly detrimental for teenagers to become addicted to drugs?
  • What kind of development is hindered at this age? What could this lead to, do you think?
  • How does the body react to high levels of pain medication? Why does this make it difficult to break the addiction?
  • What kinds of reactions might a body have to withdrawal?
  • Why is it particularly bad to mix prescription drugs with other drugs or alcohol?
  • What role does genetics play in prescription drug abuse?

What have you experienced or observed in relation to addictions? How are your experiences/observations similar to/different from the experiences related in the video? (Although students may not be able/willing to talk about their own experiences with addiction, they quite possibly have seen family members, friends and other acquaintances struggle with physical addictions, even if it is just cigarette smoking. Sharing a few personal observations/stories can help make the reality of addiction stronger for all of the students.)

McRel Learning Objectives: Standard 9 – Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Level III (Grades 6-8)

  • Understands a variety of messages conveyed by visual media
  • Understands how language choice is used to enhance visual media
  • Understands how symbols, images, sounds and other conventions are used in visual media

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

  • Uses a range of strategies to interpret visual media
  • Understands the conventions of visual media genres
  • Understands how images and sound convey messages in visual media
  • Understands effects of style and language choice in visual media

Explain that students are going to write an “imagist poem” from the point of view of a drug-addicted body as a way of conveying what they have learned from the video as well as outside sources. As Dr. Geidd explains in the segment, “addiction isn’t about wanting or craving. It is a physical and mental dependence on a drug.” The poem’s ultimate goal will be to vividly show this dependency in such a way that it discourages young people from subjecting their bodies to drug abuse.

Define “imagism”-Imagism was a movement of poets in the early 20th century who believed that poetry should be composed of clear, concise, and concentrated images in order to create a feeling in the reader. Imagist poems are defined by their concreteness, their careful diction (word choice), and their vivid sensory language.

Split students into groups of 3 or 4 and give each group an exemplary imagist poem (some samples are included). Students should do the following:

  • Have one person read the poem aloud to the group.
  • Have a designated member of the group look up words the group is unfamiliar with, if necessary.
  • Spend a few minutes rereading the poem quietly and individually.
  • Take notes on the poem: what do you see, smell, taste, hear, feel, etc.?
  • What emotions are created by these sensory experiences?
  • Discuss reactions to the poem as a group.

McRel Learning Objectives: Standard 5 – Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level III (Grades 6-8)

  • Establishes and adjusts purposes for reading
  • Reflects on what has been learned after reading and formulates ideas, opinions and personal responses to texts

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

  • Understands writing techniques used to influence the reader and accomplish an author’s purpose
  • Understands influences on a reader’s response to a text

Please note: Depending on how much experience students have had with reading and discussing poetry, this lesson might require a few moments to emphasize how poetry – especially imagist poetry-is up for interpretation, depending on the individual reader. Group members may have differing interpretations, and that is fine. It is more about the gut reaction to the images and how the individual reader feels as s/he is reading it.

McRel Learning Objectives: Standard 6 – Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

Level III (Grades 6-8)

  • Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary passages and texts
  • Knows the defining characteristics of a variety of literary forms and genres
  • Understands the use of language in literary works to convey mood, images and meaning
  • Understands the effects of an author’s style

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

  • Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary texts
  • Knows the defining characteristics of a variety of literary forms and genres
  • Understands the effects of author’s style and complex literary devices and techniques on the overall quality of a work

Ask a member of each group to read his/her poem aloud-slowly and clearly-to the class. If it is very short, it may be beneficial to read it twice. Then another group member should share a few key ideas from the discussion. Allow students from other groups to respond to the poems as well before moving on to the next group.

As practice for the “addiction” poem that students will write, they should return to the Pre-writing Activity and write a very brief poem that uses words and phrases from that description of physical strain (you could give them a very small word limit to encourage them to choose accordingly, such as only using the four most vivid, concrete, specific words from the description). While having a few students share these practice poems, it would be helpful to talk about word choice-how some words are more specific and concrete than others. Students can use one another as well as a thesaurus to hunt for even better words, more vivid and concrete nouns and more active and vibrant verbs. Depending on the level of the students, a quick review of the parts of speech may be helpful.

Before beginning the poem, students should read at least 2-3 more sources that describe physical addiction in detail and should take notes as they did with the video. These sources could be found on the Internet, selections from memoirs or fictional short stories or novels and more medical-based descriptions of the body’s reaction to addiction. (See “Resources”).

McRel Learning Objectives: Standard 7 – Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

Level III (Grades 6-8)

  • Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts
  • Summarizes and paraphrases information in texts
  • Uses new information to adjust and expand personal knowledge base

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

  • Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and evaluate a variety of informational texts
  • Uses text features and elements to support inferences and generalizations about information

Have students write the poem in class or for homework, based on the video segment and the other resources they have consulted. Once a draft of the poem is finished, have students do the following (perhaps in collaboration with a partner):

  • Select at least 2 nouns that could be made more concrete, vivid, or specific. Use your partner and/or a thesaurus to replace them OR add an adjective that helps to amplify the effect of the noun.
  • Select at least 2 verbs that could be made more active or interesting and do the same as above.
  • Examine your diction. In what ways do your words convey a physical feeling?
  • Examine your imagery. What pictures does your poem paint in the reader’s mind? What other senses are activated through the language?
  • Revise your poem accordingly.

Once poems are finished, they should be posted around the classroom. Students can browse one another’s poems and come away with an overall poetry-inspired feeling of the harrowing physical effects of drug addiction.

Assessment: Students should be assessed based on their ability to understand and imitate the imagist style, their willingness to expand their vocabulary and examine word choice, and their comprehension of what they have learned about drug addiction and the physical ramifications.


Imagism Resources:

“A Brief Guide to Imagism” from The Academy of American Poets. An overview of imagism as a movement and a style and links to popular imagist poets and their poetry.

Imagist Poetry: An Anthology. Ed. Robert Blaisdell. Dover Thrift Editions: 1999. A definitive, but brief and selective, collection of popular imagist poetry.

Drug Addiction Resources:

Burgess, Melvin. Smack. An award-winning young adult novel that profiles two British teens who use drugs as an escape from the hardships of life and who spiral into addiction. Passages throughout would be useful for illustrating physical addiction.

* Burroughs, Augusten. Dry: A Memoir. Burroughs’s memoir is mostly focused on alcoholism, but particular passages can provide students with a keen insight into the physical struggles of addiction.

Carroll, Jim. The Basketball Diaries. This memoir is particularly appropriate as it is based on Carroll’s actual diary entries from his teen years, when he struggled tumultuously with drug addiction. The teenage narration, vivid descriptions of the physical effects of addiction, and the compelling story could make it a good choice as a supplementary reading assignment to go along with this lesson. There is also a film version of the book that provides visual illustrations of Jim’s body’s struggle with the addiction, which could be useful especially for reluctant readers.

* Frey, James. A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s controversial memoir-although apparently fictionalized in large part-can provide for some intriguing and disturbing descriptions of drug addiction and withdrawal.

NIDA InfoFacts from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIH). A list of factual information on prescription pain medicines and other prescription medications, including the physical effects of addiction, A Resource for Individuals and Families. This links specifically to the “Stories of Recovery” page, which gives a series of interviews/accounts from individuals who struggled with prescription drug addiction and who have since recovered.

* Wurtzel, Elizabeth. More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction. A memoir by the author of Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America. The book gives an in-depth look at the horrors of a prescription drug addiction and its spiraling after-effects.

Please note: The books that are marked * are more appropriate for a high school reading and maturity level.

Activity Designer: Jenny Chrest
Jenny Chrest is a writer and a high school English and creative writing teacher in New York City.

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