These Robert Frost poems are very difficult for students to get the theme. I rely on a lot of scaffolding to help them see the deeper meanings to the poems. I mention this in one of the poem's explanations that I look at poetry like the eight layer dip at Friday's. When you first read the poem, it's like dipping into the sour cream; our goal is to get to the beef and bean mixture at the bottom of the bowl. That's the real meaning. The only way to get there is to completely dismantle the poem. I use a graphic organizer to scaffold toward theme, but once students make inferences from the word choice, they are able to "see" Frost's true meaning.
Note: "Stopping By Woods" is included in the CCSS Appendix B recommended for a lower grade level. Because I teach that one of the central ideas of the poem is suicide, I feel comfortable using it in a junior English class.
Before we read two poems by Robert Frost, I will take this opportunity to give some notes on his life and style of writing. I also think it's important to emphasize that his poems are sometimes referred to as pastorals, but nature is often employed as a guise to mask more deeper themes. Additionally, he does have a tendency to use more traditional verse such as blank verse. We will review that as well in the notes.
Again, I use the two-sided notes format as indicated in prior lessons. The note paper is divided into two sections: main idea and details. Students use the heading of each slide as a main idea and then add details as we progress through the PowerPoint.
I will pass out copies of the poem along with a graphic organizer that picks apart the poem phrase by phrase. This is an extremely difficult poem for students to grasp, especially getting them to realize the poem is about suicide. I try to explain to them that sometimes poetry is like an eight-layer dip at Fridays. When you first read it, you're just sampling the sour cream. You need to keep analyzing it until you get past the guacamole, lettuce and tomato, all the way down to the ground beef at the bottom of the dip. The suicide reference is the ground beef. We will read the poem and again complete a critique sheet to look at structure and answer questions on the poem. Again, to reinforce the poem and images present, I will show the YouTube video. Then, I will pair up students and have them fill out the graphic organizer. The graphic organizer explicitly asks them to associate tone and connotative meaning to many of the lines in the poem. I am hopeful by the end they come to some sort of indepth meaning that is behind the poem.
When students have an opportunity to negotiate the poem via the graphic organizer, we reconvene as a class to review their findings. I usually have them work with a partner so that they can bounce ideas off each other. To be honest, they have a problem with gleening the idea of suicide from the graphic organizer. So, I ask them to circle all the adjectives that they have extracted from the text to describe the woods, lake, sounds, etc. Students will come up with words such as frozen, silent, dark, deep, and lovely. I write these words on the board and then I ask students to think of these words outside of the poem. What else could they describe? I ask them to come up with a noun which can be described by silent, dark, and deep. Almost always a student will shout out "death." I then ask students what type of death is lovely to the soon-to-be deceased. Again, someone will shout out "suicide." This poem is a great example of how Frost uses nature as a guise to escapism--in this case, death.
Again, I follow the same routine as the other poem. We read it together as a class and then I will play the Youtube video to reinforce. Students will answer questions individually and then I will pair them up to have them go through the graphic organizer. As with "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," I am getting them to infer tone and connotation from certain lines in the text so that they may arrive at theme. In this poem, I want them to see how the speaker sees the birches as a symbol of escape. Literally, the birches signify the speaker's childhood, but figuartively they are an escape for him. He longs to go back to his childhood when he is "weary of considerations." Meaning, he wants to be a kid again when his adult life gets to be too much.
I would like students to connect both poems and see how Frost uses nature to guise his real meaning. In these two poems, nature masks the speaker's need to escape. In "Stopping by the Woods," escape is suicide; in "Birches," it is childhood. Students will write a reflection of the day's lesson answering the following question: "Describe the themes in both poems (death as an escape and childhood as an escape) and indicate how Robert Frost uses nature to disguise these themes as he delivers his true message." In their reflections, I will instruct students to use at least two text examples from either poem. Students will also discuss, per CCSS alignment, how the two themes of suicide and childhood conflict with each other and are developed similarly in each poem. Students will see that in both poems the speaker concludes that the escape he desires must be temporary and not a permanent escape such as the suicide reference. In "Birches," the speaker specifically states that he just wants to get away for awhile and "return to earth." In "Stopping by the Woods," the speaker's message is more inferred. He comes to the conclusion that he desires a temporary respite as indicated by the poem's last two lines, "And miles to go before I sleep." Students will also provide an example of what they do as an escape to relieve stress.
I will give students a summative assessment on the Modernist poems read in this unit. Specifically, the test will encompass Prufrock, River Merchant's wife, Richard Cory, and the Frost poems. These poems are required in my curriculum, but I find it difficult to teach them without bringing in the other poems.