Teachers at Work

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Fifteen Ways of Looking at "The Woods": Jumpstarting Poetry in the Classroom

As a former high school English teacher, I know that even though educators might claim to want to avoid thinking about school for the whole summer, once the end of July approaches, most do spare at least a minute or two towards thinking about next year's curriculum. From my many conversations with students, teachers and teaching artists over the years I also know figuring out how to teach poetry is particularly troublesome, and may be ruining some poor teacher's time on the beach at this very moment. The threshold for frustration over poetry seems to be extremely low, indeed, judging from the groans and complaints from both sides of the teacher's desk.

Perhaps taking a little time now to consider how to work with poetry in the coming school year wouldn't be amiss, in other words. It seems to me that the biggest problem with how poetry is usually taught is that students are easily frustrated by reading something that proves to be difficult to understand quickly — and then that frustration is heightened by a well-intentioned push to figure out "what it means." I know I've been guilty of falling into this trap, especially when teaching test prep (since many standardized tests present a poem and then ask students to "choose the theme" or something similar). The problem is that this is deeply counter-productive: students end up feeling like poetry is a mystery that they cannot solve, and so try to avoid poems…but an ability to engage with the mysterious aspects of poetry can only be developed by engaging with poems frequently!

To help counteract this, I hope that this article — a sort-of-brainstorm-with-me piece — will be helpful for teachers who'd like to try. Here, I'll present 15 different opening exercises for one poem. You might find some of them silly, but because every class is unique, I hope that you may find one or two of the exercises as a possible way in to invite your students to learn about (and appreciate) a poem together. I've decided to focus on a poem that I suspect most of all already know: Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (which you can find here)  It's in every literature textbook I've ever seen, and it's approachable. I hope, though, that you'll find something here to try with more difficult poems, as well. Not once will I ask you to choose the theme, I promise!

The Fifteen Ways:

  1. Choral reading: Have your class divide into two groups, and read the poem responsively. You might have to try this a couple of times to get the group reading in unison, and to make sure all are trying. Ask the class what they notice about the poem. You'll probably find that they'll point to the repetition and sing-song quality (I hear the word "nursery-rhyme" frequently) of the poem.
  2. Divide the poem by stanza and the class into four groups. Ask each group to draw what happens in their stanza. Bring the pictures together, and try to figure out the correct order. Read the poem in the order they create and discuss whether it works or not.
  3. Ask the class to imagine that they are the neighbor who owns the woods by where the narrator stops. Have them write a brief paragraph in the voice of the neighbor, who does happen to see the narrator stop. What does he or she think is happening? What is his or her attitude towards the narrator? (Bonus: Have the class write poems in the style of the original, but in the voice of the neighbor).
  4. Give the class time to map the poem. Where does the narrator start? How far is he from the town when he stops? Is there anything else that happens in the poem that needs to be on the map? (You could pair this with a discussion of the likely setting for the poem and discuss what the weather and countryside might have been that day).
  5. After the class reads the poem, ask them to free write about why they think the narrator stopped by the woods? What was on his mind? If you like, these free-writes could be shaped into poems or monologues in the voice of the narrator's inner thoughts. Or is the poem itself his inner thoughts? (This is a great discussion to have!)
  6. Show the students (or help them figure out) the rhyme scheme of the poem: A/A/B/A, B/B/C/B. C/C/D/C, D/D/D/D. Most students can immediately point out that there's rhyme, but the actual scheme, as you can see, is more complex than what's first glimpsed. Discuss with the class what effect this rhyme scheme has on the poem and its readers. (I usually try to introduce the idea of expectation — how the poem's sets up readers to expect a particular sound which is somehow soothing). Ask the class to explore what happens when that expectation is not met (as in a D/D/E/F final verse).
  7. Replace the words "the woods" with another geographical feature: "the fields" or "mountains" or "the sea." How does the poem change? How does using "the woods" specifically affect the poem? Specificity of word choice is such a big part in poetry, and this consideration really helps students ponder this.
  8. Distribute copies of the poem, glue sticks and scissors. Let the students cut it up to write a new poem. You can decide if they are allowed to add in new words or not (I usually said no, for this exercise). Have the students share their new poems. What changes? What seems to remain in conversation with the original poem?
  9. Have students chose what they think is the most important (or most beautiful, or most meaningful) line in the poem. Have students stand in clumps based on the line they've chosen (you could do this with words first, and move on to lines). Discuss which lines got the most votes and why. (You could also ask the groups to try to "sell" the other, perhaps undecided, students on their particular line — Can they coax more people to join their group?).
  10. Starting with the poet's biography usually elicits impassioned revulsion at the horror of having learning facts AND poetry, but you might be able to get away with a few sentences about how Robert Frost wrote about the countryside of New England, which he knew so well. Then ask students what places they know well — where would they set their version of "Stopping by Woods…"? Can they adapt the poem to their setting?
  11. I am a particular fan of the dawn and dusk of the day, which always seem to me to be the most magical hours. Perhaps because of this, I always picture this poem taking place "in the gloaming," as the long night settles in. It's not entirely clear from the poem that I am correct. Ask students at what time of day they think this poem is taking place, and have them point to justification for their choice in the poem. (This is a sly variation on the kind of question they'll often get on a standardized test!)
  12. Perhaps the most famous lines of the poem are the last two. You could share with students that this was President John F. Kennedy's favorite poem, and ask them why they think it took on greater resonance after his assassination. (I wouldn't try to load them up with new information about JFK before asking this, so if they aren't familiar with that sad part of U.S. history, this probably isn't the best way to begin). Some classes might be interested in considering why we often turn to poetry, more than any other form of literature, at the time of funerals or in grief. (You could point to other historic events that prove this, such as President Reagan's use of poetry after the Challenger disaster).
  13. Ask the class, after reading the poem, to think about the verb tense of it. It often comes as a surprise to realize that Frost wrote it in the present tense: we readers are experiencing the woods at the same time as he does. Have the class rewrite part of the poem in the past tense (or the future tense, or both!). What changes? Which is more powerful? Why?
  14. This poem tells a very short story. I often find it helpful to ask a class to make tableaux of narrative poems (although this can also work with poems that have intense imagery): frozen pictures that they build with their bodies. You could split the class into groups and have each group make a tableau for one stanza, or ask each group to make one tableau to represent the entire poem. I'd choose the last one, because this would lead nicely into a discussion about which stanza is the most important or memorable.
  15. Those last two lines are especially poignant, but poignancy is one of the most difficult emotions to get across to young people. They may feel the tang of it without being able to name it. I'd ask the class was they think the "sleep" that Frost refers to is, and why he uses that phrasing twice. You might give them time to think about and write down an answer. Then have the class turn in their answers and share them anonymously. Usually someone gets the answer I'm looking for, but inevitably, other valid and intriguing answers that I hadn't thought of come up, too. This is a great way to segue into a consideration or discussion of how poetry is the most personal form of literature, both for the poet and the reader/interpreter.
  16. (BONUS!) It re-reading this poem to prepare for the article, I noticed that Frost never uses descriptive words about himself. He only describes the woods. Yet most readers feel that the poem has a very definite tone or mood. It might be interesting to ask higher level students how he achieved that.

Final Thoughts on Poetry

Obviously, not all of these ideas won't work with your particular class, but I bet  something here will. I also hope that something here might spark your imagination for working with other poems; I like to use the character's point of view when teaching Emily Dickinson, and the exercise of drawing each stanza with Langston Hughes, for example. There are more ideas than these, of course. I'm not particularly a music, science or math person, but I know that those fields can yield accessible ways in to poetry too!

One final thought: I found that trying to do a "poetry unit" with my class was a disaster. The students' expectations of being baffled by what they were reading were so high that I couldn't motivate them at all. But sprinkling poems in throughout the year worked splendidly. I'd mention that since we were "between units" we'd just take a look at this one poem for one day. Being sneaky paid off, and by the end of the year, my students actually asked if I had any more poems to share. (You might have heard my shouted "DO I!?" It was a June afternoon? Remember?)

I hope that these ideas work for your classroom, and please share any more than you've found for your students in the comments!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.