Tracing Literary Elements through Music & Origin Myths

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SWBAT recognize and explain examples of figurative language (metaphor, simile, and personification) by analyzing a variety of texts including contemporary song lyrics and Native American origin myths.

Big Idea

Could combining your students' love for music and childhood memories of "story time" really help you teach figurative language? You betcha!


At this point in the unit, students will have taken two learning preferences assessments (one which we have gone over the results, and one which we haven't gone over results), completed a school-required benchmark exam we use to track student progress toward mastery of skills throughout the year, and been introduced to the historical context surrounding the Early Americans.  Today we will continue on our quest to better discover our learning strengths and weaknesses, and students will apply some of the historical context they have built since last time to our first set of readings, "Earth on Turtle's Back" and "When Grizzlies Walked Upright."  I will also continue to pre-assess their recollection of literary skills previously taught to determine which concepts need refreshing.  I have found that simply asking students if they remember a process or term often yields a negative answer, but building brief assignments that connect to current skills while reviewing older material allows me to see students in action and evaluate if they have or have not mastered this skill in application.


15 minutes

Bell Work (5 minutes): As students enter the classroom, I will have them look up the definition of six literary elements and add them to their "Unit 1 Notes."  I will encourage them to use whatever source they are most comfortable with, be it the online textbook, hard copy of the textbook (which "lives" below their desks), or  In addition to a shortened definition written in plan, understandable language, I will also ask students to craft and include examples for each vocabulary word.  The examples must have to do with our high school, which will cut down on the number of students who may feel somewhat disengaged by the simple act of copying dictionary definitions into their Google documents.  I do not have a problem with students copy/pasting text directly from online dictionaries, but the example must be their own.  During this time, I will take attendance and deliver any last-minute Canfield Inventory results to students.  The words students will be defining are:

  • origin myth
  • archetype (must choose definition related to literature!)
  • figurative language
  • personification
  • simile
  • metaphor

I don't usually have students copy dictionary definitions as part of an assignment, but I chose to use this tactic this time to allow students time to review the definition and application of these literary terms.  My intention will be to have students apply terminology listed here to today's "Music Journal" and reading of Native American origin myths.  If I do not have students take the early step of looking up these words before we jump into this assignment, I will have a less clear understanding of how much the students actually know and how much they have actually just forgotten over summer.  Students that complete this activity prior to discussion who still have no idea how to pick out a metaphor, for example, will be prime students for remediation.  Students that are able to refresh their memory and pick up on this task easily will have less of a need for remediation on these specific skills.  I try to build in "tricky" ways like these of testing their knowledge rather than just asking them if they hold the knowledge.  The results of applications like these will be much more useful and time-sensible than reteaching everything they claim to have never been taught!

Canfield Inventory Results Discussion (20 minutes):

When five minutes have elapsed or it looks like most students are finished with their definitions, I will ask students to hang on to this assignment while we review our learning preferences results.  Last class period, students completed the Canfield Inventory within a Google Form, which was the second of two learning preference surveys they take for me.  The Canfield does not deliver instant results at the time of completion, but I have emailed all students the "conditions," "content," and "mode" results in which they ranked higher than the 50th percentile.  Students will begin this class period by reviewing their results and reading through applicable strategies and tips for their selected preferences on the Learning Styles handout.  Then, we will as a class view the Canfield Inventory Learning Preferences Results presentation to compare individual results with overall peer results.  This process will mirror our investigation of the Multiple Intelligence Survey results we reviewed as a class last time.  We will discuss as a class what this data suggests about the larger question, "How can we learn more effectively as a class and as individuals?" and suggest causes for the trends in evidence between different courses and graduating classes.  Some of the questions I will ask during this discussion include:

  • Do any of these results surprise you?  Which results?  Why?  How might they have differed from your prediction?
  • Do you feel these results are typical of most students at our school?  How about nationally?  Explain your logic using evidence.
  • Why do you think the "numeric" content area is most strongly preferred?  If you prefer the numeric content area, how are some ways you might approach a more subjective course, like English, that mirror the ways you approach numeric content?
  • Do you think the learning modes have changed or evolved over the years?  Why or why not?  Do you see it in yourself?  In the future, do you think they will change or stay the same?  Explain.


This discussion will have a few goals.  First, the Common Core requires students to be fluent with reading information in all formats, including data from charts and graphs.  Evaluating and discussing this information will help my students practice that skill in a relevant, interesting way.  Next, students will build on the idea that we began to develop last time, which was that all students learn differently (and can evolve their learning styles), to apply this new information to themselves and their classmates.  Students will be grouped, in part, by using the data from these assessments, so it is important that students see the value in knowing and using the information they provide.  Another purpose for this discussion is to show students that even if they rank lower in skills typically thought of as "English Language Arts" skills and higher in other skills like numeracy, it doesn't mean doom for the year!  Our discussion should highlight that many of the same strengths present in someone with a numeric learning preference (like attention to detail and linear thinking) could be applied to help them in English class.  Even recognizing subtle differences, like that literary analysis can really mirror a very linear process and that determining appropriate grammar use is typically based around concrete rules, can help students "re-frame" their notions of English to better match their learning style.  

Once our discussion has concluded, I will ask students to note their learning preferences in their agenda, shared folder, or myHomework profiles to keep them "top of mind" as the school year progresses.  I will use these learning preferences to shape how I instruct and group my students, and I will encourage them before tests and quizzes to employ study strategies that are most effective for their learning preferences.

Building Knowledge

25 minutes

Next, we will review the definitions for the six literary elements students defined in their "Unit 1 Notes" earlier.  While we better explain and give examples of each item, students will be amending their definitions to better capture the meaning of the term.  See the "Literary Terms Lecture Notes Additions" in the resources section for my list of "extra" ideas we will discuss during this part of class.  While students will already have the definitions of these words, I want to give them a truer sense of context to understand the concepts more fully.  To do this, I find sharing stories and current examples really does the trick for lodging words and ideas into students' brains.  Investigating these words that they already "know" the definitions for also gives students the chance to see connections in actual word structure and meaning, which can be difficult for students to see in a completely unknown word.  Ultimately, this vocabulary activity then becomes a way to review literary terms and build solid connections between terms and relevant examples.  While my notes below will cover primarily what we will talk about, student suggestions and questions will largely guide this discussion, making it very personalized to each separate classroom.


35 minutes

After our extended discussion on literary elements, I will have students practice distinguishing between different types of figurative language by listening to two different modern songs.  I wanted to give students a chance to examine figurative language within a context in order to determine its type rather than simply look at examples on a worksheet or some other task, so I developed this activity.  Another benefit of this particular activity is that it forces students to provide evidence for their evaluation of the language, which is a massive component of Common Core.  This is new territory for many students, but I make a point to ask "Why?  What in the text tells you that?  What evidence does it give you?" for nearly every inference, judgement, or assertion students make in my classroom.  My hope is that eventually it will become a habit (though I can honestly say that this has not happened yet this early in the school year!!).  Both of these songs contain statements which could be interpreted as metaphor or personification out of context, (i.e. "I am a highway" or "I am a lighthouse") but students have to use details from the rest of the song to decide if this is a case of a personified highway or lighthouse singing a song or if it is a metaphor to describe the narrator.  I use music journals like this throughout the year to practice specific skills, because it allows students a less-conventional way to really gain control of the skill before applying it to more complex texts.  Music is often a medium that is more approachable to students, so there is less resistance to practice these skills in this way.  

In order to carry out this music journal, I will follow this procedure:

  1. Students will open a Google Doc and name it "Music Journals."  This document will be where all music journals go for the duration of the year.  
  2. Within the document, students will write today's date and create two headings for today's songs, "I am the Highway" (Audioslave), and "The Lighthouse's Tale" (Nickel Creek)
  3. I will introduce our first song, "I am the Highway" by asking students to listen to the song while reading through the lyrics.  Since this is the first time we're attempting an assignment like this, it will be modeled with them by stopping the song at different points in time.  While listening, students should note what type of figurative language it uses and include evidence from the song to support their assertion.  
  4. I will play "I am the Highway" for students, stopping after the first chorus to discuss their initial thoughts on what type of figurative language they are certain is not being used in the song.  Students will rule out simile right away, as the key words "like" or "as" are missing.  I will ask if they can decide between a metaphor or personification at this time as well, and students will debate their ideas so far.  Students will conclude that it cannot be personification because so many "I am" statements are used, comparing the "I" to multiple things instead of the "I" being described in-depth as just one thing.  
  5. Once students have reached this conclusion, I will continue playing the song, instructing students to now start collecting solid evidence to back this assertion that the narrator is using a metaphor and to try to determine what overall point or theme he is trying to make.
  6. While the song plays, I will make a T-Chart on the board with "I am" and "I am not" columns.  I will also include a place labeled for "Narrator Information" and "Audience" to help students better understand the song and link together the metaphors.  
  7. At the instrumental break, I will turn down the song to a lower volume and have students shout out what he has said he is and is not.  I will write them in the T-chart as they list them, then I will turn the volume back up to conclude the song.  I have to say that after doing this once, it made me always want to have a background track playing in the background of my teaching!  You feel so important!
  8. As the song concludes, I will help students walk through the process of interpreting the song as I model my steps.  In order to do this, I will ask them the following questions:
    • Can someone summarize what happened in the song for me?  (Students will say that a man is talking about leaving a bad relationship.)
    • What do we know about the author?  How would you describe him?  (Students will probably say that he's sad or mad, but I always push them for more specific, "grown-up" words.  Mad could mean a plethora of things.  How is he mad?  In what way?  Is he bitter?  Hateful?  Resentful?)
    • Who would you say his audience is for this song?  Who is he talking to?  (Students immediately say an ex, but I always ask why.  They often point to the line where the narrator talks about "millions of miles" between them, but still feeling too close, which is a kind of sentiment usually reserved for relationships.  They may also say he's talking to his friends, which he is leaving behind.)
    • For each of the items on the T-Chart, I will go through a similar process.  I will explain to students that as they become more adept at making meaning of figurative language, there is not as much need to go through text line by line, but in the early stages it is critical to linking the meaning in each metaphor.  For each item, I will ask, "So if I said I was 'rolling wheels,' what would that say about me?"  We will list what that might mean, then I will move on to the corresponding item of each pair and ask the same question.  ("So if I said I was a 'highway,' what would that say about me?")  We will repeat this procedure until we list out all items.  I'll include a representation of this in the resources section.
    • So what do all of these "I am not" traits have in common?  (Students will say that they are all being depended on, carrying people along, and pinned down to being one specific thing.  You'll start to see the lights go off at this point if you haven't already, which is so thrilling!)
    • And how about the "I am" traits?  What do they have in common?  (Students will say that they are all elusive, continuous, hard to define, powerful, and independent.)
    • So what would you say the overall theme of this song was?  (Students will suggest that the narrator is leaving his relationship because he felt trapped and used.  This song expresses the desire to be independent and something greater!)

After students have had their minds sufficiently "blown" by how much more there is to hear in songs and read in literature when they're listening, they will try one more song more independently.  For the second entry, I will play "The Lighthouse's Tale" while students read along with the lyrics with the same purpose--to figure out what type of figurative language is being used and how they know it's that type rather than any other type.  During this song, I will stop it only once, right after the first chorus.  At this time, I will ask students what type of figurative language is definitely not being used.  Again, they will rule out a simile since "like" or "as" were not used.  Then, they will debate if it fits more with metaphor or personification.  Ultimately, the clues of only one thing being compared in an extended way, the lighthouse having memories, and the lighthouse having feelings will point students toward personification.  After that is settled, I will ask students to continue listening to the song through its conclusion, focusing on collecting more evidence of this personification and determining why the writer of this song would have chosen to personify a lighthouse to tell this story rather than some other character in the story or an omniscient narrator outside of the action.  When the song concludes, I will ask students the following set of questions:

  • If I weren't yet convinced that this was personification, what other evidence would you show me that points in that direction and rules out a metaphor?
  • Why would the writer choose to personify a lighthouse to tell this story rather than have one of the characters in the story or an omniscient narrator tell it?  (Since he was always with the couple, he had the chance to see them in all stages of their relationship.  He would have also gotten the chance to hear the personal lives of both characters when the other was away.  Furthermore, the lighthouse's job was to protect and watch over things, but he was unable to do that for the keeper's fiance, which left him with terrible guilt.  He also has to go on feeling guilt for passively taking part in the keeper's suicide.  All of this added sorrow makes you feel more than you ever could for a third person or invisible narrator.)
  • What do you get for the theme or central idea of this song?  (Students will say it relates to feeling powerless while watching things that you cannot control happen.  They may also suggest that even if you lose someone or something and feel "empty," you can still carry on like the lighthouse.)



15 minutes

Though students will likely be begging for more songs (music journals have historically been quite a hit!), we will continue on with our look at figurative language by reading a Native American origin myth in class.  This class period is structured so that the main focus areas of today's class period, origin myths and figurative language, will have time to be explored individually, then addressed simultaneously using the Onondaga origin myth "Earth on Turtle's Back."  Students will already be on the lookout for figurative language since so much of the hour has been devoted to investigating it, so they will have a greater appreciation for this story at the end of the hour.  They have also had practice picking out themes and considering the author's intended audience, which are both activities which pair with our study of this work.  

In addition to looking out for what landforms are being created in this myth, figurative language, theme, and intended audience, students will have to pay extra attention to their reading style as we read this short text aloud.  To introduce this concept, we will quickly recall the reason why being read to in elementary school was always so fun: the AWESOME voices your teacher would make while reading (and the artful way she managed to hold the book to display the pictures while reading, of course).  While we read this story out loud, students will be required to alter their voices whenever reading a dialogue section.  The voice does not have to necessarily match the character being portrayed, meaning "tiny muskrat" could, indeed, sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Students definitely get into reading as a class this way, and it makes the story so much more interesting (which is a point I always make, since many students do not mentally change voices or create a "mini-play" in their mind to "watch" the book as they read).  

After reading, I will ask students what type of figurative language was primarily used in the myth, who the intended audience was, and what the overall theme seemed to be.  This information will appear in the homework tonight as well, as students will create a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting two origin myths.  If there is not time for ample discussion on this, this information will only go on the Venn Diagram until it is discussed at the beginning of our next class period.

Next Steps

For homework, students will read one final origin myth, the Modoc tribe's "When Grizzlies Walked Upright."  After reading the text, they will create a Venn diagram which discusses the similarities and differences in these two myths.  Entries will include information on the audience, themes, items created, and figurative language found in each story as well as other material, but plot differences are NOT to be included.  Without this requirement, I typically receive diagrams that discuss how one story had a muskrat while the other had bears, so I will be sure to explicitly state that plot elements are not to be included.  We will review these Venn Diagrams to start the next class period.