Making Connections, Part 1: The Road Not Taken

I am guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs while she is away on vacation. I have been enjoying your comments and hope to respond to some of them this weekend. For the next few days I will focus on the topic of “connections” and “relevance” in learning, though other topics may pop up here and there.

I run two lunchtime literature clubs at my school. The fourth graders just finished reading A Little Princess. During our discussions, I encourage delving into the text and discussing it on its own terms. I am not a big fan of “accountable talk,” “making predictions,” “making connections,” and so forth when they assume precedence over the subject matter itself.

One student brought up the part where Sara spends her money on hot buns for a beggar girl. “She made a self-to-self connection,” the student said. I felt sorry that students are learning such ghastly terminology, however well meant. Why are students not encouraged to say, “She understood how the girl felt” or “She felt compassion for the girl”?

There is a great push in schools—in professional development meetings, training literature, evaluation rubrics, and general discussion—to make the learning “relevant” to students’ lives. The assumption is that students will learn more if they can relate the learning to themselves, consciously and explicitly, using applicable jargon (“text-to-self connections,” “text-to-world connections,” etc.). The idea of relevance goes back to antiquity, but its proponents often treat it as a recent and marketable discovery. For instance, the International Center for Leadership in Education owns the “Rigor/Relevance Framework (TM).”

In a sense, there is no arguing with relevance. Learning must pertain to us in some way, or we would be unable to understand it. The problem (to paraphrase Robert Pondiscio) occurs when teachers are required to have students make connections to their lives–when relevance becomes orthodoxy. Forced connections tend to be shoddy, and they presuppose a certain dislike of subject matter. Those who mandate connections assume that learning would be difficult, obscure, and abstract without them. In reality, the best connections are often the ones that come not from deliberate connection-making but from immersion in the topic at hand.

Consider these two contrasting lessons on the well-known Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.” This poem seems to be about choosing the less popular path in life, but there is much more to it than that.

Lesson 1: A class reads “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. After a brief discussion of the poem, the teacher asks the students to think of a time when they had to make a big decision. They “turn and talk” to a partner about it, then write about it, both on a big chart and in their journals. At the end of the lesson they post their charts on the wall and “share out” about their big decisions. The teacher leads the class in a “gallery walk” to view the charts. End result: they have heard about big decisions that others in the class have made. They remember little of the poem except that it was also about a decision. But… they have “made connections.” They have been “engaged” in the learning process. They have “collaborated.” The teacher has used the “workshop model.” They have a chart on the wall as “evidence” of their learning.

Lesson 2: A class reads “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. After they have read and discussed it, the teacher has them read it again, more slowly. She asks them challenging questions. Its meaning is not as clear as before; ambiguities and ironies come up. On the one hand the roads are more or less the same; on the other, the speaker says that at some point in the future he will say, “I took the one less traveled by….” What is going on here? Is there a difference between the roads, and if so, what makes the difference? They read the poem again. Still more questions and contradictions arise. They start to notice patterns and rhythms. They think about the time frame of the poem: what is the past, present, and future? What does it mean for the speaker to anticipate telling a story about the past “somewhere ages and ages hence”? And why the “sigh”?

In the first case, they heard a few personal stories from classmates. In the second, they gained insight into a poem and perhaps thought more deeply about their own lives.

Which lesson offers the richer connections?

Which one teaches more about the poem?

Which one is not encouraged at professional development trainings?

Tomorrow I will write about “making connections” between subjects.

Comments

  1. Thank you. (and, I’m a math teacher!)

  2. “She made a self-to-self connection”…oh, yuck. It’s bad enough that college students are encouraged to talk like this: to do it to a 4th grader is really unforgivable.

    The thoughts of Bruce Fleming, who teaches English at the U.S. Naval Academy, are very relevant here:

    “Literary study in the classroom nowadays offers views of the work of literature rather like the views of Mt. Fuji in Hokusai’s celebrated spring series on “100 Views of Mt. Fuji.” In each view, the mountain, while present, is frequently tiny and in a corner, viewed (in the most famous print) beyond the crest of a wave whose foam seems to make fingers at the edges, or (in another) through a hoop that a barrel-maker is shaping.

    Those are not the front-and-center shots on a postcard. They foreground the angle of the mountain, its treatment, much the way a literature professor does with a funky viewpoint that got him or her tenure. Of course the postcard shot has its own point, but in a real sense it’s more neutral than the angled treatment. It doesn’t push our noses in its approach: It defers to the object it is depicting. We’re far more conscious of the treatment of Mt. Fuji in an artsy Hokusai print than we are in a postcard shot. And that means, we’re all but compelled to see the mountain the way it’s presented, rather than being able to work on our own presentation. That’s why literary studies is intrinsically coercive.”

    Read the whole thing.

  3. If you’re wondering why any teacher would choose Lesson 1 over Lesson 2 consider that teaching is perhaps the only profession in which professional skill is irrelevant.

    A good teacher gets no professional recognition for being a good teacher so those seeking professional recognition, and not concerned with it’s value to the purpose for which they’re employed, will find some other means of exciting the admiration of their peers.

    Edu-fads appeal to the conceits of professionals. Since they’re inevitably free of any educational value there can’t be any other attraction. Edu-fads give the appearance of progress and of modernity without the reality, without the attendant improvements in productivity or quality.

  4. See also Mark Helprin on “equipment weenies”…

    “Modernism is by necessity obsessed with form, much like a craftsman obsessed with his tools and materials. In my climbing days we used to call people like that “equipment weenies.” These days you can see it in fly-fishing, where not a few people go out once a year with $5,000-worth of equipment to catch (maybe) $5-worth of fish. What should have been the story of the man, the stream, and the fish becomes instead a romance between the man and his tools. In this century the same thing happened in art.”

    Helprin is talking here about art, but the same excessive focus on methodology is visible in education and often in business as well.

  5. That’s exactly what I hate about the emphasis on “personal experience” at the expense of learning about the world outside of, and larger than oneself. Too many classrooms are filled with students whose response to being told that they are wrong is “that’s what I think” (meaning that their screwy interpretation is equally valid) or “that doesn’t work for me” – the last is the response to my telling them that they have used the wrong procedure to solve a Chemistry problem.

    It’s all about ME, ME, ME. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to counteract the self-absorption and lead them to learn the skills of impersonal analysis.

  6. Quality post Diana. Not to be a cynic, but I’m wondering where you have seen this “great push. . . to make learning relevant. . .” I teach in Ohio, and all I see is teaching irrelevant standards. All that is relevant has been pushed aside.

    Sadly, I believe we are on a road, but it is one that leads our students to a land filled with info-regurgitating automatons. There’s not much thinnking on this road.

    If I could teach your lesson, I’d put it on a classroom website, with a picture of Frost and audio of him reading the poem. I’d have my students respond on their own private, secure websites. They might even work online in groups and create projects about Frost and his poem, which would be shared on a Smart Board in class. They could post blogs about what they’ve learned or work with students in other countries, using ePals.

    Teaching to a standards-based test, though, doesn’t allow the time it takes for this sort of enrichment.

    Thanks anyway for the thoughtful post.

  7. Robert Wright says:

    Diana,

    Great, thoughtful post.

    Nice going.

    Thanks!

  8. hardlyb says:

    I never thought that the Road Not Taken was about “about choosing the less popular path in life”, although the first time we read it in high school the teacher insisted that it was, and in the end I had to pretend to agree for the sake of my grade. Frost works hard to make it clear in the text of the poem that this isn’t the case, but dopes that want to see themselves as non-conformists seem to latch on to this obviously incorrect, self-serving interpretation.

    Sorry, this is one of those traumatic events from my childhood that I’ve never gotten over. I had been used to teachers being clueless in math and science before high school, but to have a teacher that couldn’t understand something so obvious in the subject that I was by far the least interested in – that was when I began to realize that high school was going to be a useless as junior high…

  9. Margo/Mom says:

    I “learned” The Road Not Taken in high school–that is to say, I memorized it, along with Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. I am sure that there was some teacher led class discussion of both, and an essay (4 points for mechanics, 4 points for content), simply because that is how everything was done.

    But, I can say that, despite “getting” that “miles to go before I sleep” didn’t refer to how long before bedtime, and that the fork in the road referred to broader life experiences, it was truly sometime ages and ages hence before I had the life experience to apply The Road Not Taken as a metaphor in my life. And, in fact, it is one of my favorite metaphors. So–I don’t know that I would have been harmed by a greater production of oral explanation to a peer, which might have opened my eyes to different interpretations, rather than being “led” to the appropriate answers (as I was) by a teacher who did this once a year for every class (as he did).

    Again, Diana, I think that you are far more troubled by outside entities having (or attempting to have) and influence on your teaching methodology than any real deficits as to the specific. I would feel far more hampered if I were prohibited from using (and absolutely there have been times when that was the norm) a lesson like the first. You know–too many students getting up and walking around, no one giving them the right answers, all that.

  10. Robert Frost is well-known to be one of the most mis-read poets. The misreading of “The Road Not Taken” is a classic American experience. Margo/Mom says she would like the opportunity to use Lesson 1, which takes the poem, ignores it, and has student talk about themselves. Lesson 1 is the most important lesson about poetry for American schools: poetry is sanctimonious crap we will pretend to venerate but will not waste our time with.

    “The Road Not Taken” is quite a bit like the first poem in Frost’s first book, “A Boy’s Will.” They are both about, not just self-delusion, but the awareness on the narrator’s part that he will engage in self-delusion in the future. If people were up-front about what these poems are like they would not teach them in public schools, because they are transgressive in a way that people who like officially-sanctioned transgression do not like.

  11. hardlyb says:

    BKY, I think that Frost might be mis-read because he is read. The poems are fairly accessible, not requiring a Classical education or knowledge of Irish history, etc. Also, I would say that while the RNT is about (ironic) self-delusion – (the self-delusion in that the narrator will choose any particular moment as being pivotal, while the irony is indicated by the sigh at the end, which was a private joke of Frost’s), it’s also about the fact that ANY decision affects everything that comes after it. This is a point that takes experience to understand, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a discussion that included these considerations in a class, if only to help understand how poetry can communicate so much in so few words. But I suspect that it’s as hard to get thoughtful people to teach English as it is to get competent math teachers, so there are going to be lots of classrooms where this can’t happen.

  12. Well all come across cross roads and must decided which way to go. From the mundane of which detergent to purchase to which way to go in a career to very deep personal decisions, we take the path we choose. And we will, maybe regret or rejoice that decision, but we will not be back to that spot in the woods to make it again…
    I wonder if I quoted this poem in my class they would even recognize it…
    I often quote things I have read and get puzzled looks (yes I quote them correctly) from students and maybe, just maybe, one student will perk up and say “I remember!” At one time, I could quote a poem and a student would finish it for me…many knew the poem…or story or quote…
    What has happened? Have students make so many “chart walks” that they have never learned the stories, the poems?
    Is all they know is the latest rap?
    What happened to memorizing things?

  13. I don’t think I agree with this post as strongly as many other commenters seems to. I’m not going to get into the meaning of the poem, but for the lesson itself, why can’t your two examples be combined? Yeah, discussions on these topics could certainly be more in-depth, but students also do have to know how to collaborate to be able to succeed in life, so schools should offer that practice to them.

    I also firmly believe that making personal connections to texts is one of the best ways to increase engagement. No, they shouldn’t be forced, but they need practice at doing it, just like at everything else – if you want to shoot a 90% free throw rate, you don’t get there just by doing it once or twice, you gotta do it a lot. And it is forced at first, but then it becomes more and more natural. Why is reading all that different?

    A lot of my kids have no real interest in the meaning of poetry. They haven’t been exposed to it much, or they haven’t been exposed to it effectively. The best way to get them engaged in it is to let it matter to them on their terms. Sharing personal stories is a great way to do that.

    There’s no reason why your sample lesson 1 has to end at a gallery walk – it could then move into another whole class discussion, or even a Socratic seminar (unless that’s something else you consider to be excessively forced), to discuss the deeper meanings.

    Or start with the deeper discussion before a collaborative activity that ends in a gallery walk. The collaboration could involve the text on a level beyond just making connections, but it could still incorporate some sort of connection. These don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

    Teaching doesn’t have to be either A or B. It can be A AND B.

  14. Margo/Mom says:

    bky–I took Diana’s description of the two “lessons” with a grain of salt. I don’t agree that the pedagogy that she cites in lesson one requires students to completely overlook the poem.

  15. Robert Wright says:

    It’s a damn tricky poem.

    I don’t even pretend to understand how I misunderstand it.

    The Wayfarer by Stephen Crane is a heck of a lot simpler.

    The Wayfarer,

    Perceiving the pathway to truth,

    Was struck with astonishment.

    It was thickly grown with weeds.

    “Ha”, he said,

    “I see that none has passed here

    In a long time.”

    Later he saw that each weed

    Was a singular knife.

    “Well,” he mumbled at last,

    “Doubtless there are other roads.”

  16. Margo/Mom — I might have used that trope “hyperbole”. What I mean is that if you have a discussion of important choices you have made, you have left the poem behind. If you want to get students talking about how the sense of the poem might illuminate something in their own lives you would talk about times you rationalized some chance event as foresight on your part, or something like that.

    hardlyb — reqarding your point that Frost is so often misread simply because he is so often read: at first I was going to say, no way, compare to Emily Dickinson. But I don’t know how her poems are read in schools. She also has some poems with irony overlaid on homespun topics so that one might want to just read the happy homespun aspect, which is basically what happens with Frost.

  17. Here in sunny SoCal, my daughter had a teacher who told the class that they couldn’t really understand Robert Frost because they had never really experienced snow. Alas, she was gone before I got the chance to sink my fangs into her at parent-teacher conferences.

  18. Allen (comment number two above) has really nailed it. I’ve been told many times that I was a wonderful teacher, but, in the end, it all came down to the fact that wonderful teachers are not what the public wants. They want someone who tries every little half-fast (read that quickly, will you?) theory that comes down the pike. Never mind that the thing which consistently makes a great teacher great is mastering his/her content area. The fact that I knew more history than the others made me better. The fact that I loved it more than some coach who taught it to round out his schedule made me better. The fact that the people of the past are just as real to me as the people of the present made me better. And the fact that I began to lose my sense of humor about those who didn’t even try to show some respect to the people and events of history brought about my ouster. It is more important that a teacher never, ever show anger to an individual stinker than it is that he/she thrill, inform, and inspire the other few thousand students who pass through the classroom in 20 to 30 years. Oh well, in my twenty years I had half a dozen tell me that they became History teachers because of me. It’s pleasing, but it breaks my heart, too. I know what they’re in for.
    Jim Haeberle
    Chubbuck, Idaho

  19. Diana Senechal says:

    I am enjoying this discussion tremendously. Thank you, Robert Wright, for the Stephen Crane poem.

    Kate, one of my favorite education writers, Michael John Demiashkevich (1891-1938), disputes the idea that experience must be first-hand. Friedrich Schiller never saw the falls of the Rhine, he writes; yet, as Wilhelm von Humboldt notes, anyone who has seen these falls “will involuntarily recall, at the sight, the beautiful strophe in ‘The Diver’ in which this confusing tumult of waters, that so captivates the eye, is depicted.”

    This strophe reads (in an anonymous 1902 translation):

    And it boils and it roars, and it hisses and seethes,
    As when water and fire first blend;
    To the sky spurts the foam in steam-laden wreaths,
    And wave passes hard upon wave without end.
    And, with the distant thunder’s dull sound,
    From the ocean-womb they all-bellowing bound.

    .

    Margo/Mom, I do not agree with you that Lesson 2 involves giving the students the “right” answer. I don’t know the “right” answer to the poem. I only know how to raise questions about it. By contrast, Lesson 1 seems all about “right answers” to me. As soon as a large portion of the lesson is devoted to students’ personal experience, a wearisome reverence sets in. Personal experiences are untouchable.

    My poetry professor in college and graduate school had a particular way of reading “The Road Not Taken.” I remember him playing a lot with the word “difference.” The way he read the last line, especially the word “difference,” left me thinking about its meaning; it turned over and over in my mind for years afterward.

    Comment updated: Demiashkevich quotes Humboldt here.

  20. tim-10-ber says:

    This is a wonderful dialogue!!!

    My only comment is I am glad my kids are out of public school…heck all but out of K-12 period. My concern is this relevance movement is coming to college since so many kids have entered college that have no need to be there. Just one more area of education to dumb down…no wonder this country is in the shape it is…No to get my kids out of college before this happens…

    Keep up the conversation.

    Diana…thanks the posts. I am enjoying them all and looking forward to more…

  21. I don’t think Frost is appropriate for grade school, but I know he is taught there all the time. This is probably why he is so utterly misunderstood (Kate: I’d argue you might have to be a bitter misanthropic New Englander… forget the snow!)

    I do teach the poem now and then. I like to pull a poem apart ala #2 first, then maybe do something like #1 as a brainstorming activity for a written response (no gallery walks, though). I might make personal response a part of it, because with poetry personal response is important, poems are supposed to move us in some way, but usually on the way to an analysis of how the poet pulled it off (ie. why do so many people misunderstand this poem? is the parallell structure effective? What does the meter contribute? the use of assonance? etc.) Then maybe compare it to a poem that uses the same elements to different effect… June Jordan maybe … but it takes years and years to collect the right poems, and I read dozens of books of poetry a year.

  22. Linked, with commentary, at Chicago Boyz: the age of blather.

  23. Lesson No. 1 (albeit without the galleries) is like a lot of poetry discussions I had in HS, where poetry is treated like a fable and the only point of reading it is to figure out what the one-sentence “moral” is.

    On a geek note, I feel constrained to point out that while Demiashkevich’s point about first hand experience is 100% correct (and that students repeatedly make the mistake of assuming that a poem is good because the poet felt some feeling deeply, not because he’s, well, a good poet), his example of Schiller isn’t – “The Diver” doesn’t take place at the Falls of the Rhine, but instead on a cliff overlooking the sea.

    When Goethe visited the Falls, he did write a line from “The Diver” in his diary, though.

    Actually, in a more modern translation “The Diver” could be a great poem for a HS class – there is action, adventure, and a bold youth who gets screwed over by wanting to impress an overreaching authority figure. With the moral being that sometimes there is a good reason why less traveled roads are less traveled. :)

  24. Diana Senechal says:

    Peter, thank you for your point! As it turns out, Demiashkevich is quoting Wilhelm von Humboldt regarding Schiller, “The Diver,” and the Rhine. My error. But D. does use that quote to make his own point about first-hand and second-hand experience.

    And Humboldt does not exactly say that the poem’s setting is the Falls of the Rhine; he only says that the Falls will bring that strophe to mind. So neither Humboldt nor Demiashkevich is mistaken here. Only I was!