I like starting new units with a literature selection about what it is we do in English class. For example, I might start a poetry unit with "On Reading Poems to a Senior Class" or "Introduction to Poetry." Can we brainstorm a list of short stories, poems or essays that pertain to teaching, reading and/or thinking about literature?
I like to begin a new school year with a really good short story. I try to choose something the class will enjoy, and something that has enough meat to it that I can use to to review and assess basics. It should be reasonably accessible, but have layers of meaning so you can use it for assessment.
I prefer using gripping short stories, such as "The Lottery" for younger students (6-7th grade) or "The Yellow Wallpaper" if older. Once thing that I do within the first few days is decide on a theme for the class, post it so everyone can see it, and then practice referring to it through literature throughout the year. For example, if your theme is "What does it mean to be a citizen?", and you asked your students to read "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegot, you could start the discussion based off the question and springboard from there. Good luck!
Sometimes we start with a reading of e.e. cummings's "A Poet's Advice" which encourages originality of expression of feeling. Then, students write a biopoem in imitation of his advice. This is a good way to introduce the students to their other classmates and teacher, as well.
One poem that works well to show the power of literature is "The Secret Life of Books," by Stephen Edgar. It is a poem that can lead to thoughtful discussion about the positive and possibly negative effects of literature. The poem is artfully contrived, its form cleverly mimics its message, and the more perceptive students quickly catch on to its various levels of meaning. The analogies of books to aliens that choose the reader, or parasites that live through the reader, or invalids that live vicariously through the reader are very intriguing. It's not your normal "There is no frigate like a book." Instead it shows that reading leaves an indelible mark on an individual, forever imprinting thought and possibly influencing action. I like it very much.
Another poem that might work is Anne Bradstreet's "An Author to her Book." It is poem that develops a clever analogy, comparing the author to a mother and the book to a child. If nothing else, this poem teaches the importance of reading the title.
"Simile" by Sylvia Plath is very good in terms of thinking about language and how it is used by poets. Another activity I have used which has worked really well is printing out a number of definitions of literature or about literature and getting students to go round and rank them to think about how true they are or not, and then discussing them and using them to generate their own definition of literature. Certainly serves as a good introduction.
It's not a written element, but I use a scene from the movie Dead Poets' Society to introduce my poetry unit. Remember when the Robin Williams character, Professor Keating, has them rip the introduction pages to their textbooks. Then he says this, in part:
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for....
One that I love using, which probably won't work for everyone, is an excerpt from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Since I use comic books in my literature classes (Maus with 10th grade, Persepolis with 12th grade), and because so many of my students choose comics for outside reading (after I've approved their choices), I like to use an excerpt that pertains to how to go about reading comics. In it, McCloud actually explores the connection between symbols/archetypes and their visual representations within comics. It really gets students thinking about visual literacy in all forms-including visual satire (political cartoons) and concrete poetry. It also allows them to connect structure/form to meaning. I've had great success with that particular selection.
For my poetry unit in my 12th grade course, I use selections from Sound and Sense. Each chapter breaks down devices and forms of poetry, explaining the concept, then using short poems with discussion questions for practice with identification and application. It's a concise but thorough introduction to poetic technique, and I feel that students grow more comfortable with reading poetry after studying the selected chapters.
"Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes - a great start to an "identity" unit - which often works well at the beginning of the year. I've known some teachers who revolved all of American Literature around an identity theme and it was pretty cool.
I like to open my first lessons about poetry reading Dreams by Langston Hughes. It is short, effective and it can be easily understood by students who are learning English as a foreign language. The basic rhyme scheme, the fast rhythm and the simple language give the possibility to make students learn the poem by heart, and this is a good exercise to practise pronunciation; furthermore it offers examples of figures of speech such as metaphor; finally it is a stimulus for class discussionsabout dreams and teenagers' expectations