After winter break, we are going to be reading a poem-based novel that refers to a lot of poems, so we are previewing these poems with the kids to get started. We’ve read “Dog” by Valerie Worth and “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, and the kids wrote their own wheelbarrow-style poems which I may put up sometime because they came out awesome. Today we read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost.
You have to remember that most of my kids are reading at a beginning-third grade level at this point. Words like “queer” and “downy” are totally unknown to them (though we made them vocab words this week) and backwards sentence structure, like “Whose woods these are I think I know” is really confusing. When I read it out loud the first time through, they were all like, “Um…what? Also, did you make a mistake, ‘cuz you said that last line twice.”
But then we went through it, line by line. We figured out all the confusing pronouns (“he” means the woods owner, now it means the horse. Geez, Bob, make up your mind). We figured out the setting and made a mental picture, and then we started slowly adding to it with each line. They got really into the idea that the horse and the man were a team, and that the horse was confused to stop without a farmhouse near. We talked about what it sounds like when it’s snowing, and how even that quiet can be so still it feels like a sound itself. They totally got that the narrator wants to stay there in the woods.
Me: “Well, so why can’t he stay there?”
(I’m expecting things about how it’s so cold, he has no food, and so on, and they did mention that eventually, but this was the first answer, from one of my typically low comprehenders.)
Student: “He can’t stay, because he made a promise to somebody. So now he’s got to go miles and miles away so he can keep his promise.”
After we had totally discussed the meaning and exactly what is happening in this poem, painted our mental picture and all, I told them we were out of time but we were going to read it one more time today. Tomorrow we’ll talk about structure and rhyme and so on. I invited them to close their eyes if they wanted to, and picture in their head.
And I read it out loud.
“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Dead silence. My students are lying on the carpet, eyes closed, picturing the dark, snowy woods. Nobody moves. Nobody talks. Just breathing. And for one brief, peaceful moment, my little classroom in Gallup, New Mexico, 2012, is transported to Robert Frost’s beautiful, haunting woods.
But all too soon we broke the silence, moved back to our desks, and took out our reading books to learn about generalizations. After all, we’ve got some promises to keep ourselves.