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Notes to Notes: Teaching Poetry Week 2

By: Brooke Davis, Spring Program Intern

For my second week of teaching poetry at Northeast Elementary, we focused on metaphor and simile.  Being the intelligent fifth-graders that they were, the kids already knew all about figurative language.  However, few of them had ever really tried writing metaphors or similes themselves.

They knew that metaphors and similes are meant to compare two things, but I think that it is sometimes more helpful to think of them as drawing connections.  Poets try to help readers see and understand what they’re seeing, so similes and metaphors are a good way to draw connections between the world of the poem and the world of the reader.

Thinking about making connections is particularly useful when the content of the poem is outside of the everyday realm.  The girl who wrote about her unicorn last week thought that her poem would benefit from a description more grounded in reality.  She said his fur was as “white as a golf ball” and “soft as pillows,” thus creating a clear picture of something that readers have never seen for themselves.  She utilized last week’s lesson about the five senses, focusing her metaphors on sight and touch, to draw us into the moment she wanted to create.

In Maya Angelou’s poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the speaker compares captivity to a caged bird.  Angelou could have been straightforward and said, “I know what it’s like to feel trapped.”  Instead, she gave us a concrete image—a bird in a cage—which makes readers feel trapped.  Using a metaphor instead of stating direct meaning makes readers work to understand instead the author’s intent.  Instead of letting the reader glaze over a description, she draws them in deeper by making them see the connection between a feeling and an image.

Figurative language is just one of many methods that help poets reach their readers.  Uniting different images and ideas help writers explain the unexplainable, from impossible fantasies to complex emotions.

And, as a bonus, the fact that learning to write similes and metaphors will help students identify them on standardized tests never hurt anyone either.

June 24, 2014
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