In this lesson, students will participate in a class explication of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” With my guidance, they will work their way through the poem to achieve some sort of ultimate meaning (which they will use to write a mock-thesis statement for a paper that argues a specific interpretation of the poem).
These students are either sophomore or junior level high school students in a regular American literature course. They are not accelerated students, but they are motivated and (for the most part) hard working when the material interests them.
State Standard 2.B.5a: Analyze and express an interpretation of a literary work.
State Standard 2.A.5c: Analyze the development of form (e.g., short stories, essays, speeches, poetry, plays, novels) and purpose in American literature and literature of other countries.
State Standard 2.B.5b: Apply knowledge gained from literature as a means of understanding contemporary and historical economic, social and political issues and perspectives.
The student will be able to:
participate in and contribute to an in-class explication of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.”
recognize revealing conventions (or literary techniques) of poetry (specifically repetition) that might unlock meaning.
write a detailed thesis (as if they were going to write a literary analysis paper on the poem) that argues for a specific interpretation of the poem.
make a connection between the poem’s theme and an issue/example in our world today.
explicate a poem of their choice.
I have chosen “Mending Wall” as the first poem we analyze because it raises thoughtful issues through language and poetry that is complex but at the same understandable. Students can crack the code of “Mending Wall” pretty easily which should give them confidence in their analytical skills. In addition, “Mending Wall” talks about conformity and how “blindly following tradition” can create unnecessary barriers between people. This issue is applicable to racism, social-class issues, and many other relevant problems in our society that hinder equality.
This lesson probably takes place on the second or third day of an American poetry unit. Before this lesson, students will have had the chance to express their thoughts on poetry (ex: what are their biases towards poetry? Do they or do they not like it? Why? Why is poetry important? What are their experiences with poetry?). This is probably the first day of actual explication and analysis, which makes this lesson very important. It sets the foundation for the ultimate goal of the unit: to create a poetry portfolio filled with explicated poems and written analyses of these poems. It is in this lesson that students begin learning how to “close read” a poem.
Copies of “Mending Wall” for each student
The Shawshank Redemption DVD
“Mending Wall” overhead slide with markers
Set Induction: Ask the students if they have ever seen The Shawshank Redemption. Summarize the movie in a few sentences for those who have not seen it (It’s about a man who is wrongfully accused and sent to Shawshank Prison where he never loses hope and ultimately tries to escape) and then show the scene where Tim Robbins tells Morgan Freeman to go (if and when he ever gets out of prison) to a hayfield that has “a long rock wall with a big oak at the north end. Like something out of a Robert Frost poem.” Watch the scene, and then skip ahead to the scene where Morgan Freeman finds the wall.
Pass out a copy of “Mending Wall” to each student.
Read “Mending Wall” to the class, reminding them to keep in mind the imagery of the wall in Shawshank. Make sure to practice reading beforehand so you can deliver an effective, vibrant reading of the poem.
Begin the in-class explication of “Mending Wall.” Put a copy of the poem on an overhead slide (make sure it’s enlarged and double-spaced so that you can easily circle words and write in the margins). As you touch upon the important lines or important words listed blow, underline them or circle them and ask your students to do the same on their copies. Follow the annotations on the attached copy of the poem. And also write down some notes in the margins as you go on when uncovering meaning (do this when you think it’s very important).
Re-read lines 1-9 (up to “dogs”). Ask the following questions: a) what does the first line mean? This will become clearer as we read on, but what are your first thoughts? b) Why has the wall fallen apart? There are two reasons that the narrator gives (the ground – or nature – swells underneath the wall which shifts the stones out of place, and hunters have demolished parts of the wall to catch hiding rabbits).
Re-read lines 9-14. Ask the following questions: a) who has been introduced here (the neighbor)? What is the narrator going to do with this person (mend the wall)? These are simple plot points; we’re getting to the meatier parts pretty soon.
Re-read lines 15-20. Look at lines 18 and 19. Ask the following questions: a) If he has to “use a spell” to keep the wall in place, what must the wall be like? In other words, what does the wall have a tendency to do? Why would someone need to use magic to keep the wall in place? Look at line 19 for help (the wall has a tendency to fall apart as soon as the menders turn their backs. One needs magic (“spells”) to keep the stones in place because they won’t stay put naturally; one needs the unnatural).
Re-read lines 21-35. Ask the following questions: a) what is ironic about this wall? Why do the two neighbors need it? (they don’t need it, and that’s what’s ironic. One neighbor has apple trees, the other has pine. The reason for having a wall would be to keep cows from crossing from one property to the other, thereby avoiding property disputes. But there are no cows; so the wall serves no purpose) b) what is the neighbor’s response to this? This is important because, as you can see, it is the last line of the poem (it’s also reiterated by the narrator in line 30). It is repeated, which means it must be important. Keep your eye on this line, and be on the lookout for other repeating lines! c) why is “Spring the mischief” in him? What happens in spring? Spring is a time for what (rebirth or change; the narrator has a feeling of rebirth inside of him: a time for something new – the destruction of the wall). d) look at lines 33-35. What does the narrator feel the need to do? (question things that are “set in stone”) When something is permanent, what idiom do we use to convey this? It is “set in ____”? Have you ever been annoyed by something that is set in stone? Why might the narrator be annoyed here (because there is no reason behind the “rule” or the “precedent”)?
Re-read lines 36-39 (up to “himself”). Ask the following questions: a) what is significant here!? (The first line of the poem has been repeated) b) you are now in a position to analyze the first line of the poem. What does it mean? (there is something unnatural about barriers, and nature will naturally break them). Look at the narrator’s sarcastic explanation about “elves.” He cannot explain why walls are not meant to be erected. Why? (because maybe there is something unexplainable about nature; he cannot describe the resistance to walls that nature shows; it just is).
Re-read the rest of the poem. Ask the following questions: a) this last section is devoted to describing the narrator. Underline the descriptions of his looks and what he is doing. What are some traits of the neighbor? What are some traits that you associate with a savage in the dark? (the answer you’re looking for is “unintelligent” or something of that nature). b) play out the metaphor: what does it mean to be in the dark? (blind to the truth; don’t see what’s in front of you or what’s obvious) What isn’t the neighbor seeing? c) what are the neighbor’s last words? What is sad about these words? What is savage-like about them? (he is blindly following tradition – like an unintelligent savage in the dark. He is living in the dark ages; he is archaic; he won’t move forward).
Ask the students if they found anything else important in the poem that they feel would be worthwhile looking at.
Ask the students now to write a thesis statement. This thesis statement should be written for a hypothetical paper that has the following prompt: What is the meaning of “Mending Wall?” Or, more specifically, what is Frost critiquing about human nature in his poem and how does he do this? What two moments in the poem help make your argument? Give the students the following mad lib to help guide them:
In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost” uses (insert specific example 1) and (specific example 2) to show that (what he thinks human beings do) is wrong. Bonus: can you think of a better word to use than “wrong?”
NOTE: Let the students know that they do not need to support the theories we discussed in class. However, if they do decide to find an alternate meaning, they should have specific evidence (in the first two slots) to back up their claim. Let them also be aware that the purpose of this exercise is to see what it is like to explicate a poem and then derive a conclusion from this process (this means they probably should stick to the analysis done together in class; they will get their chance to make their own explications/interpretations tomorrow).
Ask the students to pass their responses up to the front of the class so you can collect them.
If there’s time, ask students to connect the theme of the poem (make sure they know a theme is a generalized statement about humanity) to a modern day issue (whether a personal issue or a more expansive one). Ask them how the theme might connect to The Shawshank Redemption (prison walls; there shouldn’t be these walls).
Assign homework which is – for next time – to: bring in an American poem they find and enjoy (from the internet, a book, etc. as long as it has some depth [i.e. no Cat in the Hat unless they find something enlightening and/or deep!]) They will explicate their poems in class tomorrow.
Assessment/Evaluation: Student learning will be assessed throughout the lesson. After all, each question I ask during the group analysis is a form of formative assessment. This is because each time I ask a question regarding the poem, I am checking to see if my students are meeting objective #1 (participating and contributing in the class explication) and also if they are reaching objective #2 (recognizing repetition and other poetic conventions [especially when step 9]). I am constantly observing the students and how they approach different lines of the poem. By watching students attempt to answer my questions, I am assessing their analytical skills and how they are progressing to reach the ultimate objective (#5). The writing assignment in step 12 is also a formative assessment because it clearly shows me if students are capable of effectively accomplishing goal #4. By grading their theses, I can see whether they understand the meaning of the poem (or, more basically, the analysis done in class) and whether they can write this meaning clearly and concisely in a thesis. Step number 15 also assesses students because it helps me to see if they understand the meaning of the poem well enough to connect it to real-life situations (thus accurately measuring objective #4). The homework assignment puts everything together to see if the skills acquired in class can be used independently by the students. In tomorrow’s class, I will assess objective #5 by watching students explicate their poems and then by collecting their work to grade it. Summative assessment will be used at the end of this poetry unit, when students put together a poem portfolio in which they will include several explicated poems (some written by themselves and others written by professional poets), analyses of these poems, and a self-reflection that describes their experience as poets and poem critics.
Other than IMDB for the movie quote, none. I actually explicated this poem on my own. I did, however, remember a lot of the information from my junior year in high school.
See annotated copy of “Mending Wall.”