Category Archives: figurative language

They Just Don’t Get It

I introduced my seventh-graders to metaphors Monday, using several short poems, including Langston Hughes’ “The City,” in which a great metropolis “spreads its wings.”

“What spreads its wings?” I asked.

“The city,” one student replied.

“No, no, I mean in nature. What creature spreads its wings?”

“Oh, a bird.”

“Exactly! And here in this poem Langston Hughes is giving us a picture of the city as a great big bird spreading its wings. Notice that he doesn’t say that the city is like a bird spreading its wings. If he had said that, he would have been using a simile. He just says that the city spreads its wings—a metaphor—and he gives us a picture in our heads of a bird, without even saying the word bird.”

I thought a simple exercise would help enhance my students’ understanding of metaphors. Together we answered seven questions, including these:

If we say that somebody is a volcano ready to explode, we really mean that …

When we say someone is a pig we really mean that he or she is …

Next, I showed the kids how to construct their own metaphors, writing nearly 20 examples on the board.

Finally, I turned them loose to write five metaphors on their own, using the following prompts:

(fat) She is ______________

(thin) He is_______________

(evil) She is ______________

(kind) He is ______________

(ugly) She is _____________

J-Boy turned in a blank paper. T-Boy and several others wrote: She is a thin. He is a fat. She is a evil. He is a ugly. She is a kind.

Only C-Girl came close to understanding how to put together a metaphor. She described a fat person this way: She is a elephant. Of the thin person she wrote: He is a stick.

Clearly, I have my work cut out for me, because even after three days of direct instruction and guided practice in writing metaphors, my students still don’t get it.

The World of Similes

I usually have several books going at once. It all depends on what I’m in the mood to read at the end of the day. Among the stack of books beside my bed are Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven, and Morgan Llywelyn’s Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas. Both of them are rich in similes.

From Pigs in Heaven:

Cardboard boxes crowd the linoleum floor like little barges bristling with their cargo: pots and pans, mason jars, oven mitts, steak knives, more stuff than Alice can image she ever needed.

Her long hair slides behind her shoulders like a curtain drawn open.

From Grania:

Playfulness rose in Grania like a seal from the surf.

She looked like ripe fruit; it would feed your eyes to see her.

…the carrack swung on her hawser like an overweight dowager, winded and worn.

I’ll be sharing some of the (age-appropriate) similes from these novels with my students. They need to be able to recognize similes and to create their own.

Reading the simile-rich pages of these two novels has awakened in me the desire to use figurative language to describe the children and events in my classroom. Maybe I’ll start a new meme in the blogosphere, Simile Sunday. It would surely include similes such as these:

They scrubbed paint over the paper, wielding their brushes like mops.

The students crowded around the computer like hungry chicks huddling near their mother hen.

Be watching for more similes from the magical world in which I teach!