We know that poetry can be a wonderful way to provide students with the opportunity to truly think and dive into meaningful conversations. Some of the most meaningful conversations stem from poems that challenge students’ values and really ask them to reflect on what they feel, what they believe, and why that is. One poem that fully allows for this opportunity is William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark,”an iconic, short poem that captures a raw moment of moral dilemma.
By the end of the poem, following hesitation and self-mediation, we see the speaker make a decision, “my only swerving,” and are left with a chance to react and evaluate.
Optimally, I have found that this poem works well as a great whole group read-aloud, breaking it up into stanzas with multiple voices pulling us through the suspense. Often, I hear some students gasp to themselves when the reality of the final couplet settles in.
Challenge students to talk about the pros and cons of the speaker’s actions. It can be interesting to ask students if they agree with the speaker’s choice, or, conversely, what realistic action they would have personally taken.
Discuss the qualities of moments in life that make us “hesitate” and push us to “hear the wilderness” or the world around us “listen.”
Dig into the depth of that last couplet: “I thought hard for us all -- my only swerving.” It’s a splendid springboard for conversation. Invite students to think about how we “think hard,” make difficult decisions, and “swerve” in our own lives – as a society and as individuals. As humans, why do we swerve? What is worth swerving for?
Ken Bui is an English teacher at Central Bucks High School South in Warrington, Pennsylvania. He enjoys teaching a variety of courses such as English 11, AP English Language & Composition, Creative Writing, and Debate. You can find him on Twitter @kenbuiCBSD.