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How to read a poem (or how to teach)

Li Wenlan is in her second year as a middle school ELA teacher in Brooklyn. In this entry, she recalls analyzing the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” with her 7th-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class. If you are a newer teacher and would like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, please email edwize@uft.org!

The education reform movement has an obsessive adherence to rigidly structured lesson plans, bewildering algorithms to quantify teacher effectiveness and the relentless collection and analysis of student data. But in my second year of teaching, I’ve come to realize that a true education is messy — gloriously messy, like a Kandinsky painting.

A true education blossoms at the nexus of wondrous insight, courageous inquiry and dazzling tangents. It eschews the arrogant certainty of algorithms, the military precision of linear thinking and the uninspired conformity of logical progression.

Halfway through my 7th-grade class’s study of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the adolescent Ponyboy runs away with Johnny after the latter accidentally murders a Soc, a member of a rival gang. While sitting in an abandoned church and ruminatively observing a beautiful sunrise, Ponyboy is moved to recite “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a Robert Frost poem about the fleeting nature of life. After his recitation, Ponyboy confesses that he “was trying to find the meaning the poet had in mind, but it eluded [him].”

Here was a chance for my students to help out their beloved protagonist by analyzing the poem’s significance.

I began the lesson by modeling a close reading of the first couplet of the poem on a document camera. I highlighted select phrases that stood out and recorded lingering questions and tentative interpretations in the margins to make personal text-to-self connections. Throughout the modeling, I invited my students to weigh in by asking them to contribute possible responses to my questions or to provide alternative interpretations. Then I asked my students to try to close-read the last three couplets of the poem independently.

When my co-teacher and I initially peered over the shoulders of our students, we noticed that many of them were reticent about jotting down their thoughts, understandably nervous about traversing into deep, unknowable territory. But slowly, questions — and interpretations cloaked in the safe, humble guise of questions — began to emerge.

“What did Frost mean when he wrote ‘So Eden sank to grief’?” “When Frost wrote ‘leaf subsides to leaf,’ did he mean that the leaves were dying?” “Isn’t this line similar to this other line about how the flower can only last an hour?”

My co-teacher and I agreed that it was time for our students to share their thoughts and wonderings out loud with each other.

Despite my students’ initial reluctance to delve into challenging poetic terrain, our whole-class discussion unexpectedly became a safe, nonjudgmental haven within which to share ideas. And though I had prepared a set of text-dependent questions that would guide my students to a more symbolic interpretation of the poem, I quickly brushed those aside as my students unwittingly took the lead.

Unburdened by my carefully-laid plans for a scaffolded discussion, students jumped from line to line, couplet to couplet, making unlikely connections amongst disparate phrases, peers’ remarks, and other works of literature. With only the gentlest of teacher guidance, the discussion flowed wherever my students willed it.

“Gold refers to something that’s valuable or precious, so I think Frost is trying to say that nothing good in life can last forever,” offered a student.

“Well, if that’s the case, what are some good things in Ponyboy’s life that don’t last forever?” I asked.

“Maybe the important people in his life. For example, his mom and dad, who died in a car crash,” suggested one student.

“Or maybe he’s relating it to the sunrise and his friendship with Cherry, because even though they see the same sunset, their friendship still can’t last because he’s a Greaser and she’s a Soc,” suggested another.

“But what about the Garden of Eden? What’s that got to do with anything?” a student asked.

“Maybe it refers to a character from the novel that’s grieving?”

Suddenly, another student who had been quietly observing the discussion excitedly chimed in: “I got it! It’s Darry, when Ponyboy runs away! Maybe Darry is the Eden that grieves when he realizes that he has lost Ponyboy!”

“I’d actually like to share a text-to-text connection I’ve made between that ‘So Eden sank to grief’ line and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus,” said a student. “When Icarus dies after flying too close to the sun, Daedalus becomes so heartbroken that he literally sinks to grief because he gives up flying for the rest of his life. This situation is actually pretty similar to both Ponyboy’s and Darry’s that other students mentioned.”

I have heard teachers bristle at the prospect of teaching struggling students out of the mistaken fear that they will have to sacrifice sophisticated intellectual inquiry for mind-numbing, rudimentary mechanics. Though my students’ writing certainly suffers from its fair share of run-on sentences, nonexistent thesis statements and weak explanations of text-based evidence, I still wish those teachers could see my students. I wish they could see how their burgeoning insights and intellectual courage belie their test scores, see how they are able to escape the fetters of low self-esteem to take a chance on their brave ideas, see how they make breathtaking, convincing connections between “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus” or the Bible.

The process of reading a poem is, I’ve come to realize, a lot like teaching. You don’t know where your mind (or your students’ minds) will wander, what questions will emerge or what imaginative insights will blossom, but you let go nevertheless.

And this can lead you to moments of buoyant incandescence, to life-affirming moments when both teacher and student become equally genuine arbiters of knowledge, to unreal, quite bittersweet moments, in fact, when life imitates art and you realize that this very moment is so, so “golden” that it certainly cannot stay.

And yet, it does.