George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Using Poetry to Develop SEL

From the point of view of social-emotional and character development, poetry can help give our students insights into life and life choices.

November 4, 2015
Photo credit: Daniel X. O'Neil via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the Smart Hearts Social-Emotional Learning Overview video -- one of the best ways to introduce SEL to newcomers -- there is an excerpt from Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken," that includes the last three lines and a teacher saying that the essential point is not whether it was right or wrong to take a certain road, but rather, to "follow your heart." Viewers sometimes are not sure if this is the best conclusion to draw from those lines.

Who could imagine that the meaning of this poem is a current controversy, even to the point of a whole book being devoted to it. I think it's worth revisiting as a way of integrating language arts and SEL. Here are some points to follow up on.

The writer "took the one less traveled by."

How did he come to that decision? What do we know about the two roads based on what he says? A careful look by your students will show that there is no reason given for choosing one road over the other.

The writer says, "I doubted if I ever should come back."

What is he saying about the choices we make in life? What does he mean by, "knowing how way leads on to way"? Again, your students are likely to be able to conclude that the decisions we make in life matter and set us on trajectories that we often can't undo. It's an important asterisk to the value of apology, to recognize that apologies can't undo everything negative or undesirable that may have resulted from one's actions.

There is a great old story to illustrate this that your students might appreciate:

A man who was known as a gossiper was in a butcher shop and complained and said terrible things about a local businessman to everyone who was in the store. Pretty soon, people stopped coming to that person's store. His family was starving, and he went to the local clergyman for help. The clergyman asked the gossiper about what he had said, and the gossiper admitted what he had done and that he had added to what he thought was the truth. "I never thought it would come to that," the gossiper said. The clergyman said, "You need to go around the town and take back what you said, to restore the businessman's good name." The gossiper agreed.
"And you have to do one more thing, to restore your good name. Bring me a feather pillow." The gossiper did not quite understand, but he got one and brought it. The clergyman took a knife, ripped open the pillow, with feathers flying off in all directions. The clergyman said, "All you have to do to restore your good name is to get all of the feathers back into the pillow." "But that's impossible," the gossiper said. The clergyman smiled, and the gossiper knew the message: Once you set something negative into motion, you can't tell where it will go, and even an apology, and trying to make amends, can't fully undo it.

Closing Reflections

The final questions to ask your students are ones that author David Orr feels don't have clear answers, intentionally, so as to make us think deeply about them:

  • How did he decide which road to take, especially when they both appeared to be the same?
  • Why did he say he took "the one less traveled by"? Less traveled by whom?
  • Why did he say that in the future, he would tell the story of his choice with a sigh?

Ultimately, from the point of view of social-emotional and character development, the poem can help give our students insights into what might be influencing even the most "obvious" decisions they make, and how important it is to look at our choices after we make them because the longer we go down a road, the harder it is to turn back -- though by no means impossible.

From some analysis and reflection of Frost's famous poem, students will hopefully come to the conclusion on their own that actions have consequences and often affect others in strong ways that we don't realize. These actions we can't always undo, even if we try to do so.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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