De-Frosting Poetry for the Classroom
On the occasion of his March 26th birthday, EDSITEment celebrates American poet, Robert Frost.
Robert Frost is one of two poets (along with Emily Dickinson) whose poems appear on the list of CCSS text exemplars for every grade level. Little surprise there as Frost has been deemed “the American bard” and remains one of the most beloved and widely taught poets of the 20th century. We can find a “way in” to the poetry of this formidable American master by using active reading strategies.
The following EDSITEment lesson, Poems that Tell a Story: Narrative and Persona in the Poetry of Robert Frost, provides the keys to unlocking grade-level poetry of Robert Frost. Centering on Frost’s Poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." It offers a portal to access his bucolic landscapes and a compass to navigate the terrain of his language and fulfill the following Common Core Anchor Standard:
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
The lesson covers this rubric and more. The preparation instructions include brief comments on teaching narrative poetry and discerning character and motives from narrative, as well as offering direct links to a short list of individual Frost poems, biographical information, and critical commentary.
Let’s now look at the some ways to approach the lesson’s four student activities. Students are first asked to draw inferences about a poem's speaker based on evidence in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." (A video clip of Robert Frost reciting this poem is available from PBS’s Poetry Everywhere.)
First, know your terms
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2. Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
Begin by discussing terms needed for the lesson activities. The central concept taught here is the distinction between Frost-the-poet and the speaker, or persona, which he creates to tell the narrative in the poem. “Persona,” a term of Latin derivation, 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 EDSITEment’s Literary Glossary.
Second, gather the evidence
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8-1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
We can be sure that Frost thought very carefully about which details to leave in or out of the story he tells in this poem. There are times when he deals out details directly. At other times he keeps them close to the vest. Students are forced to deduce his cards by means of direct textual evidence as well as by inference from the hints and clues he has left us in the poem.
As the poem opens, we find ourselves in the middle of the snow-covered woods in the dead of winter, expressing uncertainty about exactly where we are and why we need to stop. We need to discover what the effects of the images conjured here are: how does the darkness and cold and snow impact the speaker and, by default, us?
Accompanied by the speaker’s "little horse"—your students will need to figure out what perspective to attribute to a horse that seems to “ask if there is some mistake.” A three column chart is provided to work this out: the narrative details that are directly described; the evidence that leads us to make inferences; and, the inferences that are arrived at with no supporting evidence.
Write it down!
Common Core Writing Standard 1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Once the poem has been “read closely,” students are ready to journal about this woodland experience using hints and questions raised by the evidence in the narrative. They can:
- 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
- write about the speaker's relationship to the person “whose woods these are”
The only rule is, their inferences must have some defensible basis in the actual words of the poem.
Moving on to additional examples of Frost’s poems, students can work in groups to determine what stories are revealed through the narratives of those poems.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RL.8.3. Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
A potential culminating activity would be to deliver an oral presentation in the form a dramatic reading with a discussion on how the speaker of a poem reveals aspects of himself through the details he/she includes or omits.
The Common Core is concerned with the fundamentals of craft in poetry. It's interested in giving kids a toolbox for how to read a poem. A masterful poet such as Frost poses great challenges to readers of any age. His poetry, though deceptively simple on the surface, demands an understanding of craft and structure that leads to deeper reading. By bringing in poetry as part of their fluency, CCSS has students perform poetry orally with accuracy and expression. Students’ dramatic poetry reading is grounded by prior investigation into the craft and structure that went into composing it. The poet himself said it best in this quote take from lectures given at Dartmouth College in the 1940s:
Somebody will say to me, “I understand your poem, but … but,’ they want to know, ‘what are you getting at?’ I think they mean under what head does that come? See under what head? How is it classified? Is it pessimistic or optimistic or something like that?’ I can’t find out. But I always say to them defensively, you know, ‘if I wanted you to know I’d had told you in the poem.
- "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening;" (annotated version from University of Toronto Electronic Library (UTEL))
- "The Road Not Taken," from Academy of American Poets
- "The Runaway,"Bartleby.com
- "The Wood Pile,"Bartleby.com; (annotated version).
- “Out, out—,”the Poetry Foundation; (annotated version).
- "Mending Wall,"Academy of American Poets; (annotated version).
- "Birches," from Academy of American Poets; (annotated version).
ABOUT THE IMAGE: Winter Fairyland Parts of these woods (The Roughs and Walnut Tree Bottom) were named "Fairyland" in the past on account of the many impressively large, old and spreading yew trees. This was a winter fairyland, looking through yew branches along a path flanked by birches. Photographer: Colin Smith.