Today, I want students to work on analyzing symbols in Their Eyes Were Watching God. This will be the last activity for this novel before students begin writing their final essay on it. I chose a lesson on symbolism as the final one for several reasons. One reason is that we have not talked about symbolism yet. Another reason is that this novel has rich language and analyzing symbolism is one way of getting students to pay close attention to the language. Finally, any new concept I address with this novel is an additional opportunity for students to engage with the text, which is very important to do before they begin to write an essay on it.
I begin by explaining what symbolism is. They have all studied symbolism before but they always need a refresher. This is because to understand language that is not literal requires the type of solid reading and language skills my student population is still developing. I give them this simple definition of symbolism, which I post on the wall after I show it to them. The basic idea I try to communicate is that a symbol stands for something other than itself. From this quick definition, I break down different aspects of what qualifies as a symbol. I point out that the definition on the paper I showed them indicates that a symbol is a person, place, or thing, in addition to other things. I point out that this part is basically the definition for a noun and that this means they should be looking for nouns as they work to identify symbols in the novel. I then engage them in quick brainstorming of examples of symbols. The typical ones that come up are symbols associated with American nationalism, like the flag or the eagle. Today, someone brings up the eagle. I affirm that this is a symbol and together we describe the symbolic meaning of the eagle, that it represents freedom and majesty and strength. They also bring up other things that do not qualify as symbols, such as a stop sign or the peace sign. I tell them that there is a significant difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign is more simple and it basically represents itself. A stop sign means that one must stop. A peace sign represents peace. I explain that a symbol represents something other than itself and that what it represents is a big significant idea. I emphasize that when we look for symbols we are looking for things that stand for big things that are central to the story at hand. This can confuse them because peace is a big significant idea, but I remind them that a symbol stands for something other than itself and that the peace sign doesn't quite meet this criteria. I tell students that they will be identifying symbols in Their Eyes Were Watching God today.
I ask students to work in small groups of three to identify symbols in Their Eyes Were Watching God. The first step I give them is to brainstorm with their group members to identify possible symbols in the novel. I give them a couple of minutes to talk. I then interrupt them and ask them to show me with their fingers how many symbols they have already identified. Most of them show me one or two fingers. I do this to check in on their progress. It is helpful to do this in order to avoid students getting off task. I tell them that there may be more symbols and to keep talking. I do this to push them to look for more. I give them a couple more minutes and then ask them to show me fingers again. They now show me three or four or five fingers. I tell them we probably have more than enough between all of us so I ask them to share what they came up with. I begin a running list on the board. As I do this, I ask students to raise their hand if they also selected the item I am adding to the list. This is helpful in getting students to see that different groups arrived at similar conclusions and it will help me make the point that even though there can be many possible symbols, there is a short list of the most important ones to the story and these are the ones we will focus on. The list includes nouns that do have symbolic meaning as well as nouns that don't but I leave them all up there. This is a brainstorming part of this activity and we will be evaluating our list to narrow it down to the most significant items.
I ask students to evaluate our list by identifying the top 6 items that definitely have symbolic meaning. A student suggests the pear tree and I ask the class if they agree. The class overwhelmingly says, "Yes" so I put a star next to this item. Someone else suggests the store Jody owned and I also ask the class if they agree. Many disagree so I just draw a line under this item because we don't all agree. We follow this process until we end up with this list of symbols on board. Together, we were able to identify the most important symbols in Their Eyes Were Watching God. I communicate this to students and praise them for their work. From this list, students will be able to select one to focus on.
I ask students to continue working with the same group. I explain that groups are to select one symbol and work to illustrate it in the middle of a blank page and use colored pencils to add details. I provide the materials. I explain that they are to illustrate the symbol according to the way Zora Neale Hurston described it. I also explain that illustrating it will help them picture it, which is one effect of symbolism and which is necessary to understand its symbolic meaning. Those who believe that they have zero artistic ability freak out when I assign things like this. Because they are working in groups, this is easily addressed. I tell students to put the best artist in the group in charge of the illustration. Students breathe a sigh of relief. The two students who are not illustrating need a job so that they do not just sit there and watch the illustrator work. I give them two jobs. One is to help the illustrator identify the details that must be illustrated. The other job is more important. Students must select several quotes that can help them understand the symbolic meaning of the item illustrated. These quotes will be written in the space around the illustration. Now that they all have work assigned, I let them work. During this time, they need support finding the variety of quotes necessary to give a full picture of the symbol. I tell them that if they already have a quote in mind, I can help them find the quote. I am much faster than they are at finding specific quotes and my personal copy of the novel is fully annotated for easy navigation. I do not want students to spend 20 minutes searching the novel for a quote that I can find in less than a minute. I want them to focus their energy on making the selection and paying attention to the details that will guide the illustration. Some will want me to suggest quotes and I refrain from this. I suggest they talk to the people in their group to select quotes or to look through the list they have been gathering throughout their reading of the novel.
Once students finish gathering their quotes and illustrating their symbol, I call their attention and tell them they will be analyzing the meaning of the symbol. They need a little more support to be able to do this successfully and I offer support in two ways. First, I model an example using a symbol they did not identify, the gate. I explain that to understand its symbolic meaning, we have to do pay attention to the following:
I model for them in a think aloud. I remind them that there was a gate in Nanny's front yard and that Janie walked up to it and "leaned over" to see Johnny Taylor whom she ended up kissing presumably over the fence. I tell them that the image this should paint in their minds is of Janie standing on one side of the fence, Nanny's side, and reaching out over the fence to do what she really wants to do, kiss Johnny Taylor. I also remind them that when Janie leaves Logan Killicks to run off with Jody, there is a description of Janie running out the gate. Together, I explain, these two images let me know that the gate can symbolize the barriers imposed on Janie's freedom by the people who wanted to control her. Students understand this example and it is an "aha" moment for them.
The second source of support I give students will come during tomorrow's lesson and it will guide them to think big when they are determining the symbolic meaning of the item they selected. For today, I want students to make themselves focus on the specific language the author uses when describing the symbol. This will be necessary for them to understand the symbolic meaning. For this, I add a step to their work. I ask students to identify the words in the quotes they selected that are packed with meaning and highlight them. We have talked about this before so they know what I mean. What I mean is that there are specific words that are very powerful and convey the central meaning of the entire quote. Basically, we are identifying words with strong connotations. I point out to students that this is asking them to think of the connotation of words. Once the words are highlighted, these together with the illustration should be enough to help them figure out the symbolic meaning of what they illustrated. They will be doing the actual analysis tomorrow.