AP Skill Spotlight: Contrasts

One of the six featured skills in Poetry Unit 1 of the AP* Lit CED is STR 3.D: the function of contrasts. This skill seems difficult and hard to approach, but it’s actually one of the most widely applicable skills in the whole CED.

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Teaching contrasts with the “odd couple” archetype

Contrast is a difficult skill because it doesn’t seem like a skill. It’s like repetition or literal meanings of words, kids know they’re there, but don’t know what they’re supposed to say about them.

To introduce concepts, I love applying movies and television. Ask students to name friendships or couples from pop culture that showcase the idiom “opposites attract.” Some of my favorites from modern shows are Nick and Schmidt from New Girl, David and Patrick from Schitt’s Creek, or Mindy and Danny from The Mindy Project. The pairing of two opposites often creates something beautiful and humorous, and it can even be seen in relationships within students’ own families.

I’ve got three clips you can choose from to demonstrate the idea of an “odd couple,” or opposites attracting. I have no idea why but all of my favorites are all-male relationships. The first is from New Girl:

Nick and Schmidt are best friends but complete opposites. Nick, a law school dropout, has been bartending for years while he figures out his life. Schmidt is focused on his career and channels organization into everything, even his fitness regime.

The second is from my absolute favorite show, Schitt’s Creek:

David is dramatic and neurotic, but his boyfriend Patrick is even-tempered and simple. The two match each other perfectly, as demonstrated in this clip. (I’d show only the first clip, there is strong lhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LeYkEK9rY8&ab_channel=XTimeGoesByanguage in the second one).

And finally, the original Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix!

After Felix’s wife leaves him he moves into his friend Oscar’s house. Felix is a fastidious neat freak and Oscar is an easy-going slob. The idea of opposites attracting takes a while with these two, as they drive each other crazy most of the time.

Ask your class, how are the two characters opposites? And yet, how do they function well, despite their drastic differences? These differences are called contrasts, and when we study them we learn more about a text or concept.

Focus Poem & Questions

If I had to select one poem to use in approaching contrasts, I’d pick Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This poem is simple and many will have read it before in junior high or ninth grade, so returning to it makes it more approachable.

Questions for Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”

  1. What is this poem about?
  2. What two images does the speaker use to drive the poem?
  3. Name some connotations of fire. Of ice?
  4. In line 3, the word “desire” is used in connection with fire. And in line 6, the word “hate” is suddenly used as a placeholder for ice. Here’s where we study another contrast. What is changed by referring to desire as “fire?” What about hate as “ice?”
  5. Can you find any shifts in this poem, be it in structure, tone, meaning, imagery, or something else?

Teacher’s Guide

Literally, this poem is about the end of the world. Broadly, many apply this poem to the destructive forces of science or of hate. The two central images are fire and ice, polar opposites and a great example of a central contrast driving the poem. Fire, when combined with desire, often connotes feelings of uncontrolled passion. Ice and hate means cold calculation; phrases such as “cold-blooded” or “cold-hearted” often crop up. Studying the similarities and differences between these central concepts is another form of contrast. Finally, contrast can also arise from shifts in tone, setting, structure, imagery, or almost anything else. Ask students what shifts they notice and if they can derive any meanings or claims from them.

Poem Suggestions

Here are some other poems that can help you teach contrasts. Thanks to the Facebook community for helping with suggestions:

Looking for more AP® Lit poems? This blog post lists my 10 favorites!
  • “pity this busy monster, manunkind” by e. e. cummings
  • “I Ask My Mother to Sing” by Li-Young Lee
  • “Prelude” by William Wordsworth (use excerpt from 1992 exam)
  • “For Julia in the Deep Water” by John Morris
  • “Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks
  • “Coal” by Audre Lorde
  • “Oxygen” by Mary Oliver
  • “Teeth” by Phil Kaye
  • “February 12, 1963” by Jacqueline Woodson
  • “Weight of Sweetness” by Li Young Lee
  • “On the Subway” by Sharon Olds
  • “Green Chile” by Jimmy Santiago Baca
  • “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • “the drone” by Clint Smith
  • “Digging” by Seamus Heaney
  • “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden
  • “Heroics” by Julia Alvarez
  • “Complaint of the El Rio Grande” by Richard Blanco
  • “The Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed
  • “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton
  • Sonnet 129 or Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare
  • “The Harbor” by Carl Sandburg

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