A New Look at "Grass," Robert Frost, & the American Dream

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SWBAT analyze two Modern poems for tone, theme, and figurative language and debate moral issues associated with The Great Gatsby using an anticipation guide as a catalyst for class discussion.

Big Idea

Want to fuel discussion in today's anticipation guide for Gatsby? Tell kids you'd refuse to marry a poor guy. Does the trick every time!


20 minutes

Today we will start off the hour with discussion over "Grass" and "Out, Out--" which were assigned as reading homework last class period.  While reading, students were supposed to consider the following questions:

  1. Is the grass in "Grass" a simile, metaphor, or personification?  How do you know? 
  2. What's the tone of "Grass"?  Positive?  Negative?  Find just the right word and have evidence to debate this.
  3. What makes "Out, Out--" such a disturbing poem?  Do you think this was Frost's intention?
  4. Why would Frost write this poem?  Consider the historic context, then use your best judgement to decide.

Today we will begin to answer those questions as students share their own responses, then comment on or ask questions of their peers.  After students share their responses, we will go further into detail to confirm their answers.  Any questions already generated and covered by the initial student-led class discussion will not be repeated.  This list is only to make sure that they touch on all the important ideas.

  • What do Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Ypres, and Verdun have in common?  (Students need to do research on these places to determine the connection if they did not already do so while they were independently reading.  Usually, students are familiar with Austerlitz and Gettysburg and can put together the connection that they were both extremely violent battles.  Based on that connection, they should just be confirming that their inference was correct by looking up the other battles.)
  • So what type of figurative language is the grass?  What was your evidence?  (The grass is actually narrating the story, so it is personification.  Good clues to this are that the grass is actually taking part in action that REAL grass really could do--like cover dead bodies--and that no other symbolic meanings really "fit" in the poem.  The grass is just this character that wants to cover up the bodies, thereby doing its job.)
  • So is this a positive or negative poem?  Is the grass covering things up positive (like in Lowell's "The First Snowfall" from earlier this year), or is it negative?  What evidence would you use to support that?  (Students will definitely bicker about this, but in a good way!  Ultimately, while "The First Snowfall" had similar imagery where the earth was covering up a grave, developing a scar, and eventually "healing" the loss, the incident described with the conductor and his passengers demand that it's read in a negative way.  In situations where so much brutality and violence took place in the name of freedom, it's horrific that only two years or ten years from them, people riding along that area wouldn't even know that a battle occurred.  Such important battles deserve to be remembered for much, much longer so that history does not repeat itself.  Because of this encounter, the grass seems like it's trying to conceal, NOT heal, which is almost sinister feeling.)
  • Can someone summarize what happens in "Out, Out--"?  (Students should summarize the poem.  A boy is outside on a farm sawing wood towards the end of his "shift" when his sister comes out to call them in for supper.  The boy loses control of the saw and cuts off his own hand, then raises it above his head and begs to keep the hand, but ultimately the doctor arrives and cannot save him.  He dies, and his family continues with work again immediately.)
  • How is this poem different from other poems you've read by Frost?  (Most students have only been taught falsely-positive readings of poems like "The Road Not Taken," so this poem appears to be a HUGE change for Frost's writing style.  It's dark, somewhat violent, and even political.)
  • What features of this poem make it particularly disturbing?  (Students will have many answers, and if they don't, I will push for more.  Usually their horror is so uniform that they have no trouble listing all the surprises or twists in it, but you never know!  Some of the features they will list follow.  First, it was a gorgeous day outside.  We're trained to use the setting as an indicator of tone, so when it's sunny, we don't expect tragedy.  Also, the whole setting was so picturesque that it is extra stunning and tragic that this horrific accident happened.  There is a lovely breeze, mountains, a sunset, sweet smells...all there to witness this tragedy.  Another feature that adds to the disturbing nature of the poem is that the narrator seems sort of flippant about the incident.  He's so casual when he says "call it a day, I wish they might have said," and other lines like "since he was old enough to know...he saw it all spoiled" that somewhat dehumanize the boy.  The personified saw that seemed to be purposefully vengeful and the boy's reaction of laughing, trying to keep his hand [though it was too late], pleading with his sister, and their reaction to his death all seemed surreal.  Students will be especially angry that the family continued about their merry way after his death as well.)
  • So do you think Frost was trying to make this poem purposefully horrific, like even more horrific than the story HAD to be to communicate this message?  Why?  (Students will have to admit that this was his intention.  All of these features make the tragedy stand out more.  They also all work together to dehumanize and take the emotion out of the picture.)
  • So why would he write this DARK poem?  (Students will connect this poem with child labor conditions relatively quickly, so that knowledge paired with the dehumanizing, sickeningly-objective tone of Frost can be put together to read this as a commentary on the horrors of child labor.)

After we discuss each of these poems independently, I will ask students to relate their individual themes to one another.  They will identify a common theme of trying to move on from tragedy by simply covering over the problem and dehumanizing the dead.  

Building Knowledge

45 minutes

After our look at the poetry homework, students will continue to utilize discussion skills through a Great Gatsby prereading activity.  We will be beginning the novel next class period, so I want to spend the rest of this period getting students revved up to critically read this novel.  It's legitimately one of my favorite books of all time (so much so that it was my wedding theme this summer!), and my love for it is one of those things that students know about me before they ever arrive to my class because of last year's outgoing juniors!  This year will be no different, so I want to start with an anticipation guide to get students thinking about their perspectives on themes and ideas that come up in the book.  All students will take a few minutes in class to complete the Great Gatsby Anticipation Guide form in Google Forms.  Once all students are done, I will project the "Summary Report" that Google Sheets generates for me onto the front board, and we will review the results as a class.  (I've copied this report into the presentation in the resources section so that you can see how these results appear!)  The questions that show the greatest degree of dissent will be our targets for class discussion today.  Also, if there are any cases where an incredibly high percentage of students share the same belief (like 90% or more), I will also take the opposing view of these items and discuss those as well.  

If you're new at generating summary reports from Forms in Google, check out this brief tutorial on how to do it.  I promise you'll never go back to the short way! Students can even use their phones to quickly complete these forms if you're not in a 1:1 environment.


20 minutes

Following our discussion, students will dive right into reading "Winter Dreams" by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Actively Learn format, answering the embedded questions and discussion questions while they read.  While they MUST answer the embedded questions to earn credit, they can choose one of two ways to answer the discussion questions.  They can either answer the prompt as I have written it, or if they would prefer, they can write a comment on a peer's comment to clarify, question, or provide a counterclaim against what they have said.  Both types of questions for this story are attached in the Resources section for your reference, but Actively Learn no longer allows members to "share" their marked-up stories in a downloadable format unless they pay for the premium version.  (Sad times!)  Before reading, I will explain that this is a great "warm up" story to get into F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing style, themes, and ideas.  They will have approximately 20 minutes to get started on reading this text in class since it is a longer short story.  I have heard from students that the first section drags a bit, but students will be MUCH happier to continue reading by the second section, as Judy Jones becomes more and more like characters from top reality television shows as the story continues!


5 minutes

In the final moments of class, students will share their "first impressions" of the story so far.  Then, I will remind them that it needs to be completely read with questions answered in Actively Learn by the start of next class period.  Also, I will share F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald's Biography website with them and ask them to preview this site to learn a little more about this extraordinary couple before we meet again.  It's such a wonderful resource that it just has to have time to be explored, so I will encourage them to begin their exploration now if they want to take a break from reading.

Next Steps

I will intermittently check in on student progress within the Actively Learn platform over the next few days, emailing students that I see have no started (or finished) their work before it is due.  We'll be formally starting our unit on The Great Gatsby next time, so I want to make sure all students have a general understanding of Fitzgerald and common themes in his writing before next time.  Reading this story will be an important part of understanding The Great Gatsby on a deeper level.