No, "she likes sexy times" is not a simile...siiiiiiiiigh...
October 3, 2011 7:08 PM   Subscribe

What are some interesting, unique, different and effective ways to teach figurative language to high schoolers?

By "figurative language" I'm really talking about metaphor, simile, personification, symbolism, imagery, allusion, etc.

I have 10th graders who probably could give some kind of definition like the following:

a simile is a comparison using like or as

They may or may not be able to distinguish a simile from a sentence that just uses like (e.g. I like peas).

As 9th graders, they have done note-taking on literary devices, worksheets to practice with examples, and they've had to identify them in a text (Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet). But I think that stuff takes the life out of figurative language. you have any activities you've done with students or you remember from high school that stood out to you and helped you understand the purpose of figurative language, as well as how to recognise it and explain its appeal?

I've tried using songs and videos that use a lit device in a prominent way, and I've even done a few poems with lots of sexual imagery/metaphors, but we still end up going over the definitions a million times.

If it's relevant, the next stories I'm teaching (which are all recommendations from my last askme - thanks everyone!):
Happiness Machine (Bradbury)
The Dowry (Maupassant)
Harrison Bergeron (Vonnegut)

Hope me.
posted by guster4lovers to Education (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A metaphor is a breath of fresh air.
Probably not good teaching material.
posted by Nomyte at 7:19 PM on October 3, 2011

what I remember is:

a [S]imile is the [S]ame as.

no idea if that helps though!
posted by alan2001 at 7:30 PM on October 3, 2011

A simile is like a metaphor.

That being said I had an english teacher at about the same age that made us play drama games which I generally loathed but there was one of those group-tells-a-story-one-line-per-person-at-a-time games that wasn't bad. Typically every sentence would have to include a subject, verb and the arbitrary-noun-of-the-day.

Getting very many rounds in without descending into gibberish required some creative use of language.
posted by mce at 7:38 PM on October 3, 2011

Sandra Cisneros' (very) short story Eleven [pdf] is a great intro to a conversation about simile and symbolism. There is plenty of wonderful figurative language in there:
  • the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one
  • today I wish I didn't have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box
  • I wish I was anything but eleven, because I want today to be far away already, far away like a runaway balloon, like a tiny o in the sky, so tiny tiny you have to close your eyes to see it.
And to get the students talking about symbolism--ask them what they think the red sweater represents.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:10 PM on October 3, 2011

Can you have them naturally produce figurative language/symbolism - say writing a paragraph. Have a partner read it and underline all the examples they can find and then in small groups, the pick one example and have the group identify which type it is. (in other words, let them start with their own creative and desire to express themselves and then figure out which techniques they are using instead of having to aritficially produce examples.)
posted by metahawk at 8:39 PM on October 3, 2011

For this, I always use The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisernos. Tons of figurative language used effectively. We read through it like detectives and search for each kind of fig. language. Extremely rich text for this kind of thing.
posted by brynna at 8:49 PM on October 3, 2011

Show them. They are used to seeing. Then make them write.

But give them easy things to see. Show them something like this. Then ask them what the woman and the girl's hands are supposed to be? What about the beads and glitter? How about the wings the little girl is wearing? So the arms are like a seatbelt. The glitter is like glass. The angel wings show the daughter as a savior. Move them conceptually to 'her arms enclosed him like a seatbelt..she held him as tightly as a seat belt...she held him like a belt." The simile/metaphor is sort of a goofy one, but it gets the job done.

You are scaffolding them incremetally from literal to figurative.
posted by oflinkey at 8:52 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I remember having to read from the Song of Solomon and draw the woman as if she were being literally described. ("Your eyes behind your veil are doves, your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead," etc). For some people, drawing can be really helpful... other people would rather die than draw in public, so YMMV.
posted by hishtafel at 10:06 PM on October 3, 2011

Ha...forgot to mention that they also use House on Mango Street in 9th grade, so it's out for 10th. Even then, a lot of the kids struggled with just finding and identifying the literary elements - and that's sort of what I'm trying to avoid (it's highly possible that I'm the one who sucks at teaching rather than my students sucking at learning).

I really want some stand-alone lessons, along the line of oflinkey's video/scaffolded lesson - I might actually use that tomorrow to go over metaphor/simile/symbol (so thanks for doing my prep work for me!). If other people have suggestions for video clips along the same lines (or as a clear visual example of another literary device) that would be great!

One other thing that I've done that worked moderately well is to have them draw the literal and figurative meanings for sentences like "You are an asshole." They like that and I'm always entertained by the artistic genius that results. If you've got suggestions for other sentences that would have a clear (and entertaining) difference between literal and figurative, that would be great to see too.

on preview: hishtafel, I used Song of Solomon last year (the breasts being little deer stands out in my memory) and we had a lot of fun - thanks for reminding me...I might pull that out tomorrow too. :-)

Thanks to everyone so far!
posted by guster4lovers at 10:14 PM on October 3, 2011

I always thought Scrubs would be really good for this kind of thing. Episode 11 in Series 7 is a bunch of extended metaphors (starting around minute 5, but I would show the lot, firstly because it gives you the “real life” reason for the double-headed monster metaphor, the village idiot, the knight in shining armour etc., and secondly because it gives you the “plain language” context within which the metaphors are active, and highlights the interaction between the two planes). There are many, many moments in “Scrubs” which could serve your purposes: here is feeling like you were hit with a ton of bricks, here being somebody’s punchbag, here is the fight between good and evil, here is your head exploding, here is being a hero. Some of these might be inadequate and/or inappropriate, and you might want to edit them.

A friend of mine who specialises in teaching methodology, specifically in foreign language methodology, tells me that there is a big difference between passive and active knowledge, recognition and production, the former preceding and generally exceeding the latter. She also talks about two other things that are important for student participation: one is working towards success rather than failure, and the other is being mindful of the relevance of taught material to the student’s life (you probably know this, just trying to say what I had in mind with the exercises below).

So, emphasizing the whole passive reception thing: you could prepare three groups of cards for the students, each card with one expression/quote on it. The groups are: metaphor, simile, and “false simile”. For instance: “My love is like a red, red rose”, “my love is a red rose”, “I like red roses”. You could use anything as your source: literature from any period (Shakespeare, Romantic poets, modern poetry, prose etc., maybe include stuff from a couple of texts they are familiar with), current pop-chart lyrics, stuff people say, stuff you say and they have heard it, stuff they/one of them said and you overheard. Attribute the quote to the extent that you can, so your cards look something like “Juliet is the sun”, W. Shakespeare, or “bla, bla, metaphor/simile”, person they know/student’s name etc. Have them split up into small groups, each group gets a number of cards (say, 10), and has to arrange them into three piles according to whether the quote is a metaphor, a simile, or a false simile. As they finish, they bring their three piles to a central place (for instance, three pinboards, or even just the wall – just a main area where they can display the three groups separately), where everyone can peruse them. Get each student to chose three favourites, and mark each favourite on its card. Hopefully, you will get a clear bias in favour of the two figure of speech groups, which you can then discuss with them (for inspiration, here is a link to David Miall’s homepage, who has done a lot of fascinating empirical research on reader responses and figures of speech, building on the Russian formalist tradition – here is an excerpt from Shklovsky’s Art as Technique, great discussion of the relationship between figures, perceptual habituation and defamiliarisation). An added bonus of this exercise is that it is quite hard to fail, so figures are no longer those boring things I don't get, but rather fun, relatively easy, and I'm quite good at it (it's much harder for a group to get stuff wrong, you can check on their progress and subtly correct, and noone can go wrong by chosing favourites).

You could also introduce them to the idea of dead metaphor (here’s the Wikipedia page), which shows how successful figures can be in “real life” – so much so that they become absorbed into our day-to-day speech. You could then get them to shout out dead metaphors, whilst you or someone else writes them on the blackboard (you can get them started with the punchbag clip from Scrubs, or with some examples: something is a piece of cake, a village at the foot of a mountain, the head master, losing face, etc.). This could also be useful for a discussion about how/why metaphors and other figures come about – they fill a void, sometimes because there is no plain language way of saying something, at other times because the existing plain language options seem insufficient and don’t convey quite the same nuance or intensity of emotion the speaker/writer wants to get across, etc.

Exercises which are further along on the receptive-productive continuum: prepare a few fill-in exercises, one set with the first term lacking (When enraged, ….. is (like a furious bull), the other with the second term lacking (Homework is (like)…., Sundays are (like), Such-and-such person of their choice is (like) etc.). Another one, which can also be done in small groups: give out to each group one or more sets of (random) words. Using all, or some of these words, get them to come up with as many metaphors/similes as possible. A variation: write a dialogue that is interesting to them (humorous, about a topic they are engaged with, etc.), leaving one of the lines unfilled – they have to fill it by building a figure-of-speech sentence out of the words you have supplied.

The more productive end: get them to chose one quote from each of the three groups resulting from the card-arrangement game (one metaphor, one simile, one false-friend simile) and get them to write a small text including each of them. This can be an email, a riddle, a poem, whatever. Then get them to swap texts between themselves, and guess at which quote from which group was used.

In terms of relevance to their lives: maybe chose a few pop-chart songs that they would be into, write out the texts in advance, and get them to figure-hunt in the lyrics. Once the figures are identified, get them to replace them with plain language equivalents. Get them to drum out the rhythm of the song on their desks, first in the original version, then the plain language version. This would also give you an opening into discussing why figures are used (different expressive power, rhyme, rhythm, etc).

Finally, something I think might make for interesting discussion points comes from John Searle’s book Metaphor (which is quite technical, it’s just this tiny bit which you might be able to use). He talks about how we interpret metaphors, basically, how do we know what features of the comparison term are salient to our interpretation of metaphor. The point is illustrated by using “Juliet is the sun”, and he points out (as part of a different kind of argument, really) that we somehow know that this is not intended to mean “Juliet is for the most part gaseous”, or “Juliet is 90 million miles from the earth” etc. I used this once when I was explaining metaphors to a 15-year old (totally informally), and she found it a hoot – plus, for some reason, it seemed to get her more friendly with figures in general.

Good luck, this sounds like a great lesson.
posted by miorita at 5:45 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

This TED talk on metaphor is interesting and a nice length for high school students. I've used it successfully with my classes in the past.
posted by katie at 5:53 AM on October 4, 2011

What about doing drawing activities that make them create their own symbols for something? I've done something (for social studies, not English) where students read a text about a person/event, and then on a giant sheet of butcher paper they create a body outline and have to fill it in with drawings that symbolize what they've just read. Sometimes it produces obviously literal results ("I drew him standing on a bridge because he had to cross a bridge to get to his exile on the Forbidden Island"), but more often than not I've gotten good results ("I put a collar and leash on his neck because he always did what his mom told him to do"). Perhaps taking it outside the realm of "now we will work on similes and metaphors" will help them get around their roadblocks, and once you have those drawings you can help students turn them into more explicit metaphors and similes.
posted by lilac girl at 7:24 AM on October 4, 2011

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