Nothing Gold Can Stay
Recently, I revamped a poetry analysis lesson using feedback from the other Transition Fellows. I asked my seventh grade students to analyze the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost, which appears in chapter five of the novel, The Outsiders. My goal was for students to connect the poem’s theme to the novel’s recent events, which touches on the Common Core standard:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.
Ultimately, students showed their level of mastery on a creative writing homework assignment (I’ve included a range of student samples below). First, let me run through what students did in class.
First Things First: Plot, Summary of Poem, Attempt at Theme
As a whole class, we recapped the major events from chapter five (Where are Ponyboy and Johnny now? What has happened in the recent past?). I sequenced major events on the board, which set the context for the poem and exploration of its theme. Then, partners spent about four minutes summarizing the poem’s two stanzas and taking a stab at the poem’s theme. I intentionally did not ask students to share their predicted themes because I wanted them to make this first attempt at theme on their own and then explore the poem without having a preconceived idea in their heads. A few students got the “gist” of the poem and its theme with one read-through.
Next: Dive Deep and Analyze!
For the next fifteen minutes, students worked in homogenous small groups to break down the poem on a larger piece of paper. There was a healthy buzz in the room—peers used one another as resources, they enjoyed standing instead of sitting and displaying their work for the rest of the class. As a whole class, students shared their findings from each stanza. We recorded our findings together on the classwork sheet so that student could use it as a resource for the homework. picture below). I gave students general tips for annotating (“you should clarify difficult words, analyze metaphors, paraphrase lines so that they make sense to you”).
Now We’re Talking: Theme Creation
Finally, I asked students to come up with the theme. Before doing so, I clarified the definition of a theme (from a recent Doug Lemov blog):
- A theme is not just a one-word answer. “Justice” is not a theme (it is a topic). A theme could be about the topic of justice.
- A theme is debatable. Some people may agree, while others disagree that “justice is hard to find when people torment each other.”
- A theme is the message conveyed by a text that applies to multiple other texts. A theme should be found in other texts, TV shows, movies, etc.
Students formulated theme statements like “Nothing precious or valuable in life will last, so you should appreciate these precious things while you still can.” I asked students, where else have you seen this theme? They mentioned Pixar movies like WALL-E and Toy Story 3. Lastly, I asked why did Ponyboy recite the poem at this point in the novel? Students realized that the narrator, Ponyboy, values several things that are at risk of disappearing (his identity, his innocence, his brothers).
Homework/Extension Activity: For homework, students wrote short poems that conveyed the same theme as “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” We brainstormed other impermanent things (friendships, bruises, clean sneakers, etc.) so that I didn’t have to read 100 poems about nature. The second part of the homework asked students to choose a character from The Outsiders and explain, at this point in the novel, what would your character say about the theme in your poem and Robert Frost’s poem? Would he agree or disagree? Find at least one piece of evidence from The Outsiders to support your answer and include the page numbers. By reflecting on theme through a character’s perspective, students once again connected the poem’s theme to the events in the novel.
Reflecting on Student Work: Please find example of student work below.
Excellent Student Examples The strongest student examples included creative poems with unique topics emphasizing the transience of beautiful things in life—love, childhood, a cherished electronic. The poems’ themes were clear and strongly connected to the theme of “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Moreover, strong student examples accurately explained why a character would agree or disagree with their poem’s theme and supported their explanation with specific evidence from The Outsiders.
Mid-range student examples: Many students fell in the average range. Mid-range examples had poem topics that were very general, like “life.” Some poems were written in paragraph form, rather than poetry form. In the character response, some students explained why a character may agree or disagree with a portion, but not the entirety of their poem’s theme. For example, a student explained why Dally agreed that you should “live life to the fullest” but omitted how Dally felt about the notion that “nothing precious in life lasts.”
Lower-range student examples: These student examples had a few commonalities:
- An inaccurate understanding of Robert Frost’s poem theme (for example, one student thought the theme was the literal interpretation that “during spring, golden objects disappear”). This inaccurate theme would clearly prevent students from creating their own poem that matches the Frost poem.
- A weak or irrelevant poem topic that does not convey the impermanence of life (see the poem below, “Nobody’s perfect…”).
- A poem theme that does not connect to Robert Frost’s idea that “nothing gold can stay.” One student wrote a poem about candy saying, “Candy is so sweet/ It is a treat/ If you eat it everyday/ It is here to stay/ It will make you very flabby/ which will make you crabby.” This student should have taken the next step and talked about how one’s health, teeth or physical appearance can quickly deteriorate if you eat candy.
- Character responses that summarize recent events or explain what the character thinks of the students inaccurate theme.