Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Poems that Tell a Story: Narrative and Persona in the Poetry of Robert Frost

Created September 24, 2010

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

--Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" tells an invitingly simple story. But as we read and reread the poem, we are drawn into questions and mysteries. Beginning with the oddly tentative note struck in the poem's first line, we are guided by a speaker who, it seems, conceals as much as he reveals. Who is the unnamed person whose woods these are and why is the speaker concerned about that person's presence or absence? Where has the speaker come from and where is he going? What draws him so powerfully to the cold deserted woods he calls "lovely, dark, and deep"?
In the suggested activities below, students explore such questions and mysteries in journal entries that build upon narrative hints in poems chosen from an online selection of Frost's most frequently anthologized and taught works. By analyzing what a speaker (or persona) in one of Frost's poems includes or omits from his narrative account, students make inferences about that speaker's motivations and character, find evidence for those inferences in the words of the poem, and apply their inferences about the speaker in a dramatic reading performed for other class members.

Guiding Questions

  • What do the speakers of Frost's poems reveal about themselves through the stories they tell?

Learning Objectives

  • Read and discuss poems by Robert Frost
  • Learn the meaning of terms such as narrative and persona
  • Draw inferences about a poem's speaker based on evidence in the poem
  • Write narratives in a journal that explore inferences about a poem's speaker
  • Collaborate in small groups to draw inferences about speakers' character and motives and to gather evidence supporting those inferences
  • Present a poem to other students in the class based upon inferences about a speaker's character and motives

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Literary Terms

On the board, provide students with definitions for the basic literary terms you will be using in this lesson. The central concept taught here is the distinction between Frost-the-poet and the speaker, or persona, that he creates to tell the narrative in the poem. (Related terms you might be or might already have discussed in class are narrative, perspective, point of view, persona, speaker, character, motives, and conflict.)

Persona is a term of Latin derivation, and originally denoted a mask made of clay or bark that was worn by actors. It has come to refer to an author's alter ego, the "person" who speaks in a poem or work of fiction. The persona in a poem is like a character in fiction; and, just as in fiction, we can draw inferences about the motives and personality of this character by hints and clues in the poem. One online source for a definition of persona as well other literary terms is the Glossary of Literary Terms (a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library), which provides the following definition for persona:

The person created by the author to tell a story. Whether the story is told by an omniscient narrator or by a character in it, the actual author of the work often distances himself from what is said or told by adopting a persona--a personality different from his real one. Thus, the attitudes, beliefs, and degree of understanding expressed by the narrator may not be the same as those of the actual author. Some authors, for example, use narrators who are not very bright in order to create irony.
Activity 2. "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening"
  • Read "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" aloud in class. Begin by asking students about the emotional and psychological effects of the imagery in this poem. What effect do the images of darkness, coldness, and stillness have on readers? Next, ask the class to briefly paraphrase the narrative of the poem: what events are actually described? What are the speaker's motives for taking the actions that he does? Does the speaker move on by the end of the poem? Do we know? What effect do the darkness and cold and snow seem to have on him? What is the role of his "little horse" in the poem--what perspective does the speaker attribute to his horse? Help students to distinguish between the narrative details directly described, and those that we infer. What features of this poem encourage us to make such inferences--what is the evidence, in other words, for our inferences?
  • Hand out copies of the worksheet on Robert Frost. In the left-hand column of the first chart are a series of claims about the motives of the speaker in "Stopping by Woods." Work through the first chart as a class, filling in the appropriate boxes with quotations from the poem. The aim of the exercise is to evaluate inferences and claims about the narrative and speaker in this poem. As you discuss the different claims listed in the first chart, make sure that you give students sufficient time to reread the poem themselves, and to mark any phrases or lines that might help to answer this question. Discuss the question with the class, and write your findings on the board below the guiding question.

    On the board, you may wish to write a version of the guiding question for this lesson (above): What does the speaker of "Stopping by Woods" reveal about himself through the story he tells and through the narrative details he includes, implies, or omits?
  • Journal entry #1: Ask students to write a short narrative in their journals that expands upon hints and questions raised by the narrative told by the speaker in "Stopping By the Woods." Some suggestions are
    • imagine the circumstances that have brought the speaker to this place in the wood
    • speculate on what it is that compels him to stop on so cold and dark a night
    • speculate on the nature of the promises the speaker has made
    • or write about the speaker's relationship to the person whose woods these are.
    The only rule is that their inferences must have some defensible basis in the actual words of the poem.
Activity 3. Writing an Imaginary Narrative
  • Divide the class into small groups selected to balance the talents of the students within each group, and provide each group with copies of one of the following poems (links and sources described in "Poems" section of Preparing to Teach the Lesson): "The Road Not Taken," "Birches," "The Runaway," "Out, Out--," "Mending Wall," or "The Runaway."

    If they do not have a copy already (from Activity 2), provide students with the worksheet, "The Narrative Poetry of Robert Frost." Each group then reads their assigned poem, and fills in the blank chart on the worksheet for their chosen poem. Students can use this chart to help them complete journal entry #2.
  • Journal entry #2: Ask students to write their own narrative extending or revealing hidden aspects of the story told in their assigned poem. Their stories should be based upon the facts and inferences they found in the group exercise; their stories should not contradict those facts and inferences, but may stretch them a bit. This part of the journal writing assignment is essentially the same exercise as writing students did for "Stopping By Woods" in Activity 1, above. To give them a place from which to start, you may wish to provide students with a question about the poem. Some suggestions are
    • In "The Road Not Taken," is the speaker young or old?
    • In "The Runaway," who has left a young horse to stray in snowstorm on a mountainside?
    • In "Mending Wall," does the poem's speaker get along his neighbor?
    • In "The Wood Pile," where is the person who left a the mysterious pile of wood "to warm the frozen swamp"?
    • In "Birches," what do we learn about the speaker's childhood?
    • In "Out, Out," does the speaker think that the accident could have been prevented?
  • After writing their narratives and analyzing correspondences with details in the poem, students should gather again in small groups. Using the charts they created earlier, as well as the stories students wrote in their journals, groups should discuss the question: What does the speaker in your assigned poem reveal about himself through the story he tells?
Activity 4. Performing the Poetry of Robert Frost
  • If you have not done so already for Lessons 2 or 3, divide the class into small groups selected to balance the talents of the students within each group, and provide each group with copies of one of the following poems (sources described in step 1, above): "The Road Not Taken," "Birches," "The Runaway," "Out, Out--," "Mending Wall," or "The Runaway." If they do not have a copy already (from Activity 2 or 3), provide students with the worksheet.
  • If you have not done so already, ask groups to discuss the character, or persona, of the speaker of their assigned poem; you can use the activities in Activities 2 and 3, as well as the blank chart on the worksheet, as guides to these discussions. Next, ask each group to brainstorm ways that the speaker's character can be reflected in a dramatic reading of the poem. What lines will their speaker emphasize? Should the poem be read read quickly or slowly? What kinds of emotions will be expressed in different portions of the poem? Groups should be given enough time to practice their dramatic readings of the poem before presenting to the class.
  • After discussing their assigned or chosen poem, each group will present a dramatic reading of the poem to the class and to share with the class the groups' ideas on how the speaker of the poem reveals aspects of himself through the narrative details he includes or omits. Again, reiterate to students that each member of the group should take part in the reading or presentation in some way. A group can perform a poem simply by dividing the reading among group members. Besides reciting the poem, group members can also contribute by sharing with the class some of the ways that their group applied the guiding question to their poem: What does the speaker of Frost's poem reveal about himself through the story he tells?

The Basics

Time Required

4-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Journal writing
  • Poetry analysis
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing