Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Introducing Metaphors Through Poetry

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Celebrated American poet Maya Angelou makes extensive use of metaphors in her  poetry.

Celebrated American poet Maya Angelou makes extensive use of metaphors in her poetry.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Metaphors are used often in literature, appearing in every genre from poetry to prose and from essays to epics. Utilized by poets and novelists to bring their literary imagery to life, metaphors are an important component of reading closely and appreciating literature. This lesson plan can be taught in conjunction with the EDSITEment lesson plan: Recognizing Similes: Fast as a Whip, which will help students recognize both metaphors and similes, and to distinguish the often confused elements from each other. In this lesson students will read excerpts from the work of Langston Hughes, Margaret Atwood, and Naomi Shihab Nye in order to gain a deeper understanding of metaphors.

Many students begin to learn about metaphors well before entering high school. This lesson assumes that students will have a basic understanding of what metaphors are; however it is designed to help students begin to engage with metaphors on a deeper and more abstract level. The lesson will begin with a poem containing metaphors accessible at all levels, and with each poem the lesson will progress in difficulty, so that teachers will find material to suit their classes at all skill levels.

Guiding Questions

  • What are metaphors and how are they used in literature? What makes a metaphor effective?

Learning Objectives

In this lesson, students will

  • Define and identify examples of metaphors.
  • Read and analyze the metaphors used in poetry by Langston Hughes, Margaret Atwood, Naomi Shihab Nye, and others.
  • Create their own metaphors and apply this tool to their own writing projects.

Preparation Instructions

Remind students that metaphors utilize the image of one subject as if it were analogous to another, seemingly unrelated, subject. Note that figures of speech, such as saying someone is "green" to mean that they are new at something, are often metaphors. A key component of this element is that a metaphor conflates rather than compares the two objects. Point out that for example, a new recruit is green, rather than being like a green shoot or branch. More about metaphors, including an in-depth definition of the term, is accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.

Review and bookmark the web page More about metaphors as well as the poems that will be discussed in this lesson. All of the poems discussed in this lesson are available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Academy of American Poets.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What's in a Metaphor?

This activity will introduce students to the definition of metaphor and simile while directing students to concrete examples of both tools.

  • What is a metaphor? Direct students to the definition of a metaphor either by providing one for the class, or by directing students to read the definition available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
  • Have students read Langston Hughes' poem Dreams, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Academy of American Poets. Ask students to identify a metaphor in the poem. The poem contains structurally simple metaphors which follow the formula a is b. These can be found in both stanzas. The first contains this line:
    Life is a broken-winged bird
    While the second stanza contains the following line:
    Life is a barren field
    You may want to begin this exercise by leading students through the metaphors contained in this short poem. Ask them to think about the following questions:
    • What is this metaphor referring to within the context of the poem?
    • How do these metaphors work in relation to the poem's title, "Dreams?"
    • How is this description different from saying simply that when dreams are unfulfilled life is difficult?
    • How is it different from saying that a life without dreams is like a broken-winged bird? Would using a simile rather than a metaphor negate or weaken Hughes' poem?
    • Can you describe how or why this metaphor works?
    • What makes this an effective metaphor and why?
  • Have students read Margaret Atwood's 1978 poem You Begin, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Academy of American Poets. Ask students to identify a metaphor in the poem. The poem contains structurally simple metaphors which follow the formula a is b, such as in the lines:
    Your hand is a warm stone I hold between two words.
    You may wish to discuss with students the structure of the entire poem before focusing on the lines highlighted above. This poem effectively models the development of language and how metaphor enables us to deal with increasingly abstract concepts. In the opening stanza of Atwood's poem each of her lines introduces the child and the audience to the concrete world: this is your hand, this is your eye. Next, she moves to more abstract notions: Outside the window is the rain, green because it is summer. Thus the concrete objects- the rain, the green (trees, grass)- signify the abstract concept summer.

    Ask students to concentrate on the following stanza:
    Once you have learned these words
    you will learn that there are more
    words than you can ever learn.
    The word hand floats above your hand
    like a small cloud over a lake.
    The word hand anchors
    your hand to this table,
    your hand is a warm stone
    I hold between two words.
    • Does this stanza parallel the development of language, from the concrete to the abstract? How?
    • What does the cloud in the simile represent?
    • What does the warm stone signify? Is it only the child's hand?

    Ask students to complete the PDF worksheet, or the online interactive version, which includes the following questions:
    • What is this metaphor referring to within the context of the poem?
    • How is this description different from saying simply that the hand is warm?
    • Or that it is like a warm stone?
    • Can you describe how or why this metaphor works?
    • What makes this an effective metaphor and why?
  • Many metaphors do not follow the structure of a is b. Students should be alert to instances where one subject is being represented or replaced by another. Have students read Naomi Shihab Nye's 1986 poem Blood. Ask students to identify an example of metaphor in this poem.

    While it does not follow the same structural formula as the metaphor noted in Atwood's poem, students might identify the following line as a metaphor:
    Today the headlines clot in my blood.
    Ask students to complete the PDF worksheet, or the online interactive version, which includes the following questions about the metaphor example from Nye's poem.
    • What is this metaphor referring to within the context of the poem?
    • How is this description different from saying simply that the headlines shock me?
    • Or that her blood runs like molasses?
    • Can you describe how or why this metaphor works?
    • What makes this an effective metaphor and why?

      Students should begin thinking about the metaphors in Atwood's and Nye's poems by first finding the subject that is being represented and replaced, such as the child's hand in Atwood's piece. Nye's poem also sets in place the substitution of one subject for another, seemingly dissimilar, subject. In this case it is the substitution of newspaper headlines about her father's homeland for an agent with the power to clot or stop her blood from flowing. As they begin to think about how these metaphors are effective and how they work, students should try to concentrate on the ideas and qualities these representations evoke.
  • For continued practice with identifying and examining metaphors have students read Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night and Luis J. Rodriguez's The Concrete River. Ask your students to identify as many metaphors as they can in each poem. Working in pairs, assign each pair some of the metaphors they have found in these works. Have students explain how the metaphors work, and what makes them effective. These poems are both available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Academy of American Poets.
Activity 2. Writing Your Own Metaphors
  • Have students complete this PDF worksheet by creating metaphors for each of the topics listed. The topics may be used as the subject being represented by the metaphor, or as the representation of another subject.
  • Ask students to present their metaphors to the class. Have the class discuss the effectiveness of the metaphors, explaining why and how they felt each metaphor was or was not successful. For larger classes it may be most effective to divide the class into smaller groups with each group conducting a peer-review session.

Assessment

Ask students to complete the PDF worksheets provided in Activities One and Two, including both their analysis of the metaphors in Atwood's and Nye's poetry, as well as their own metaphors.

Extending The Lesson

Maya Angelou's well known poem Still I Rise speaks to the persistence of the writer despite adversity. She employs similes and metaphors throughout the poem, and in the final stanza she includes these lines:

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

How does Angelou's declaration of herself as 'the dream and the hope of the slave' both echo and contrast with Dr. Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech?

Maya Angelou's poem is available from the American Academy of Poets, while the text of Dr. King's speech is available from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute web site at Stanford University.

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Modern World
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Poetry analysis
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)