Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Recognizing Similes: Fast as a Whip

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

American poet ee cummings made vivid use of similes in his work.

American poet ee cummings made vivid use of similes in his work.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress

Similes are used often in literature, appearing in every genre from poetry to prose and from epics to essays. Utilized by writers to bring their literary imagery to life, similes are an important component of reading closely and appreciating literature. This lesson plan can be taught in conjunction with the EDSITEment lesson plan: Introducing Metaphors through Poetry, which will help students recognize both metaphors and similes, and to distinguish the elements from each other. In this lesson students will read excerpts from the work of Robert Frost, William Wordsworth and Toi Derricotte in order to gain an understanding of similes.

Many students begin to learn about similes well before entering high school. This lesson assumes that students will have a basic understanding of what similes are, however it is designed to help students review what they have learned in earlier classes and to begin to engage with similes on a deeper and more abstract level.

Guiding Questions

  • What are similes and how are they used in literature?
  • What makes a simile effective?

Learning Objectives

  • Define similes and identify examples
  • Read and analyze the similes used in poetry by Derricotte, Frost and Wordsworth
  • Create their own similes in order to learn how to apply this tool to their own writing projects

Preparation Instructions

Similes compare one thing or idea to another, utilizing as or like to set off the comparison. For example, one might say that someone rushed across town "like a speeding train." In this case the person’s speed of travel is compared to a speeding train. An important aspect of this comparison is that the two objects which are being compared are essentially dissimilar in all aspects other than the point of comparison. In this example the person and the train do not possess similarities but for their comparative speed.

Students often confuse similes with metaphors; however, while both use one object or idea to enhance the literary image of another, metaphors and similes employ different imaging strategies. If one were to use a metaphor to depict the same situation described as "rushing across town like a speeding train," one might say that "he was a speeding train," conflating the speeding person with the speeding train. More information on similes is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.

Review and bookmark the web pages containing the definition for simile available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library, 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 web site Academy of American Poets.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What's a Simile?

This activity will introduce or remind students of the definition of a simile while directing students to concrete examples of the same.

  • What is a simile? Direct students to the definition of a simile either by providing one for the class, or by having them read the definition available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
  • Have students read William Wordsworth’s poem The Daffodils. Ask
    students to identify an example of a simile in this poem. They may identify the poem’s opening lines:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o’er vales and hills

    Ask students to complete the PDF worksheet—or it's interactive equivalent—which includes the following questions about this simile example from Wordsworth’s poem.

    • To what is this simile referring within the context of the poem?
    • How is this description different from saying simply that “I wandered alone”?
    • How is this description different from saying that the persona was lonely?
    • What makes this an effective simile and why?
  • Have students read Toi Derricotte’s 1989 poem The Weakness, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Academy of American Poets. Ask students to identify a simile in the poem. Students may point out the following lines:

    Through clenched teeth, her eyes
    Bright as a dog’s
    Cornered in the light.

    Ask students to complete the PDF worksheet—or its interactive equivalent—which includes the following questions:

  • To what is this simile referring within the context of the poem?
  • How is this description different from saying “her eyes shined”?
  • How is this description different from saying that the persona’s grandmother had a dog’s shining eyes?
  • What makes this an effective simile and why?

    Students should begin thinking about the similes in Wordsworth’s and Derricotte’s poems by first finding the subject that is being represented and compared, such as the loneliness of Wordsworth’s piece. As they begin to think about how these similes are effective and how they work they should try to concentrate on the ideas and qualities these representations evoke. Is Wordsworth’s lonely cloud a representation of sad or contented ‘loneliness’? What does the flash of a cornered dog’s eyes bring to mind in Derricotte’s poem? What emotions does this image bring to mind in the context of the poem?

    Ask students to return to the Derricotte poem and to think about the theme of the poem as they search for additional similes. After the example used above they may come to this simile:

    She had been
    solid as a tree,
    a fur around her neck, a
    light-skinned matron whose car was parked

    How does the persona’s description of her grandmother as “solid as a tree” in these lines compare- and contrast- with the earlier description of her eyes flashing like a cornered animal? Why do you think that Derricotte uses the past perfect tense in this line?

    Near the end of the poem they may point out the simile contained in these lines:

When my legs gave out, my grandmother
dragged me up and held me like God
holds saints by the
roots of the hair.

What does this simile mean? How do these similes build on the theme of the poem? How do they convey the feelings of the persona and of her grandmother? How do these similes relate to the title of this poem: “The Weakness”?

  • For continued practice with identifying and examining similes have students read Robert Frost’s poem Birches, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Academy of American Poets. A PDF worksheet of questions is also available for this poem. There is also an interactive equivalent available online.

    If you are teaching this lesson in conjunction with the EDSITEment lesson Introducing Metaphors Through Poetry, you may want to have students read Frost’s poem in search of metaphors as well as similes, which may help clarify the differences between the two elements. You can have them answer questions on metaphors from Frost’s poem by completing this additional PDF worksheet, or its online interactive equivalent.

Activity 2. Writing Your Own Similes
  • Have students fill complete this PDF worksheet by creating similes for each of the topics listed. The topics may be used as the subject being represented by the simile, or as the representation of another subject.
  • Ask students to present their similes to the class. Have the class discuss the effectiveness of the similes, explaining why and how they felt each simile 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 their analysis of the similes in Wordsworth and Derricotte’s poetry, as well as their own similes.

You may also want to ask students to keep a journal of the similes and metaphors they find in their class readings with their explanations of how they are effective. Students could collect these examples over the course of the semester or year and turn their journals in at the close of the year as a way of showing their grasp of these concepts.

Extending The Lesson

The American poet ee cummings, known for his humor, odd punctuation and absent capital letters, wrote hundreds of intricately constructed poems over the course of his career. Many of his works evoked vivid imagery of his experiences as a soldier in World War I, his loves won and lost, and his family.

Ask students to read cummings’ poem somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond. Ask students to focus on the second stanza:

your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

Is cummings using metaphor or simile? Ask students to ponder this poem, and particularly this stanza, thinking of the ways in which cummings has intertwined both simile and metaphor to convey blossoming love, beauty, and fragility.

 

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 > British
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Poetry analysis
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)