Sketch of African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This one goes out to all the English teachers and poetry lovers in the crowd, so let me know if this was useful or interesting to you!
Here’s how I recently began an introductory unit on metaphors and similes with my ninth graders, adapted from an Edsitement lesson on introducing metaphors through poetry. We are about to begin Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel, which is rich with figurative language, and so I like to make sure they have a working understanding of similes and metaphors before we dive in. I chose this particular grouping of poems because the novel also touches on the idea of freedom and how we yearn for it, but don’t always know how to achieve or preserve it, and I liked the idea of using variations on a theme to help them think about the metaphor in different ways.
First, I gave them Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for homework, with modified response questions, adding the final question, “In your life, do you most often feel like a caged bird or a free bird?” I added this question to build on the metaphors in the poem and ask students to make a text-to-self connection, a strategy in I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers that I love and try to use it whenever possible, after reading that great book.
Day One In Class: They sent me their homework, we reviewed the poem together and made sure we understood the metaphors and how they were used; this included reviewing what they could have annotated, making sure they were adding to their annotations as we went, counting lines and stanzas, discussing metaphors, titles, refrains and repetition. This took about twenty minutes, and involved my whiteboard.
Next, I split the class in half: one half got Well, I Have Lost You, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the other half Sympathy, the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem that inspired Angelou. I gave them that background, and also that there is a high school in Baltimore named after Dunbar, and their sports teams are called the Poets (text-to-world connection!). I asked them to silently read and annotate their poems for several minutes. Next, I asked them to get into pairs and compare annotations, and then write 3-4 sentences together comparing either the Dunbar/Millay poem to the Angelou poem they had read for homework, thinking about metaphors, structure, repetition and more. I gave them about ten minutes to write their sentences and walked around the room, checking understanding and encouraging them to expand and add detail.
Next, I asked them to pair up in different groups with someone from the other “team”; so if student A had read the Dunbar poem, she now needed to pair up with someone who had read the Millay poem. Their next task was to share the sentences they had written in their groups and merge them together in one (semi) cohesive paragraph. This took us until the end of class.
For homework: they completed this Edsitement worksheet on creating your own metaphors. They also read I Go Back to May 1937, and answered response questions, which included, “If you could go back in time, what would you say to your parents before they had you?” We spent the next class period reinforcing similes by reviewing the poem, discussing the metaphors they had created, and then reading aloud the first few pages of the novel, which features an abundance of figurative language alongside passages in dialect. We annotated and discussed, and I previewed the structure of the novel (flashback) and encouraged them to think about examples of dialect in their own lives.
Tasks I was striving for: to expose them to some beautiful poetry, encourage them to think about metaphors and understand this literary tool and why it can be powerful, practice close readings of poems and responding in writing, practice comparing one text to another, begin to think about the themes of our next novel and connect those themes to their own experiences.
I think this lesson shows how many complex tasks I’m asking my students to perform in one class period, but also how much scaffolding I am giving them to support them in doing so. Clearly, I benefited a lot from Internet resources while planning this lesson, and I think it also shows how much can go into planning a lesson, designing tasks, finding materials, figuring out how to extend the learning experience with relevant and creative homework. I get a lot of search terms for lesson plans, and so I thought this would be a good example of how I map out a class and teach or reinforce several different important skills during one period. It’s a good representation of my style with my ninth graders: a mix of small group work and discussion, switching from activity to activity, incorporating writing and reading tasks, and having them collaborate while also being responsible for individual contributions.