Free Verse and Figurative Language: Understanding Whitman's Use of Metaphor

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SWBAT interpret extended metaphor through analysis of its use in Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing"

Big Idea

Whistling while we work, singing while we study, we analyze Whitman's poetry.

Introduction & Welcome: It's National Puzzle Day & Thomas Paine's Birthday!

3 minutes

I open class today letting students know it's National Puzzle Day, and wish Thomas Paine a Happy Birthday. Using Paine's line, "The Summer Soldier and Sunshine Patriot," I point out the use of alliteration and parallel structure in the line (both of which students have addressed in context of "The Crisis, No. 1"). I also foreshadow Whitman's use of poetic devices, as he uses alliteration and--especially--parallelism and to create rhythm in his poems. By setting up the students' understanding of structure and diction within a text, they can prepare to analyze its impact on the meaning and tone of the work (RL 9-10.4, RL 9-10.5).

As always, Daily Holidays serve to encourage students to participate and to build a sense of community and trust within the classroom.


Figures of Speech & Understanding Whitman's Poetry

35 minutes

Students have received copies of Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" and "When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer," having read and responded to the poems in order to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1a). 

To begin, I ask students to find a partner and identify the figures of speech Whitman uses in these two poems (RL 9-10.4) and to analyze the role they play in the text by explaining what they mean, and why Whitman may have chosen to use them. (In the video, the student attempting to beat out a rhythm to the poem has just identified the central extended metaphor driving "I Hear America Singing," impressing both his partner and me.) Students have five minutes to review and hold this discussion. I provide this time to students and ask them to work in pairs to 1. ensure everyone has managed to find an example, 2. most importantly, provide opportunities for collaboration in the classroom, with students exchanging ideas and drawing from each other, and 3. allow students an opportunity to refresh the poems in their memories, as we are returning today from a four day weekend/snow day break. 

In order to ensure students remember the figures of speech, I ask them to have their notes sheet out in front of them, and project the notes sheet and poem on the front board ("I Hear America Notes 1", "I Hear America Notes 2") (The projector image straddles a blackboard and a whiteboard  in the classroom. I set the image so the left half of the screen, just out of frame on these images, shows the figures of speech definitions, and the right half, whiteboard, shows the poem. The whiteboard is much neater and easier to annotate the poem as we discuss in class.)

Once students have had a chance to review the poems in pairs, I ask them to return to their seats and we begin by identifying and explaining the use and importance of the figures of speech, especially focusing on personification (of America "singing" in the first line) and the central extended metaphor of singing as hard work in "I Hear America Singing." In order to check their understanding, I also ask students to explain why "as" in the second, third, and fourth lines is not a simile (it's not used to compare, but to mean "while"). We do not address figures of speech in "When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer," as Whitman is quite clear and direct in stating his meaning.

We also review and discuss the discussion questions as a whole class; the students propel this conversation by responding to the assigned questions and asking their own, reacting to each other's ideas as well (SL 9-10.1c). During the conversation, I make sure students explain how Whitman uses alliteration and parallel structure (particularly in the first three or four lines of each poem), connecting back to the introduction. Additionally, students address the central idea of the text and explain how Whitman develops it (RL 9-10.2): this is addressed in questions #1 & #2 of "I Hear America Singing" and question #1 of "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer."  In order to react to Whitman and to each other, I also ask students to share their personal reaction to each poem. The responses students prepared are not collected today, as they, and this discussion, serves to provide students with a clear notes set to use on the homework as they read and analyze a selection from Whitman's "Song of Myself."

The Charts and Diagrams and Webcomics: Visual Connections

10 minutes

In order to provide students with the opportunity to analyze the representation of Whitman's poem in different media (print and visual) (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7), I project Gavin Aung Than's "Zen Pencils" webcomic for "When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer". Because the screen is significantly smaller than the comic itself, I give students thirty seconds or so to read and investigate each frame/line before scrolling further. Once students have seen the entire comic, I ask, "We have talked about who you agree with more: the astronomer or the speaker. In this version, who does the artist seem to agree with more? What is your personal reaction to the comic?" I give students a minute or so to process before seeking volunteers or calling on them and share their reactions to the webcomic. This discussion focuses on how Aung chose to include/illustrate the aspects of the poem into his comic, and what impact those illustrated images have on the students' reading of the comic--what does Aung seem to emphasize, especially? I chose to address this as discussion primarily to continue the momentum from our earlier look at the poem; the transition from discussion questions to the webcomic should be seamless. 

Two-Minute Warning: Introducing "Song of Myself" & Homework

2 minutes

As we wrap up out conversation on Zen Pencils, I pass out copies of the "Song of Myself" study guide. I let the students know the page in their textbook, and tell them a quick Google search will turn up an abundance of etexts they can use. 

I also inform the students "Song of Myself" is considered Whitman's most famous piece. Students are only reading a small selection of the poem: Stanzas 1, 6, and 52, as the beginning and end, and stanza about the connection of man and nature, cover the primary themes of the piece. I tell students that they're free to read the entire poem, it's a great read, and they might enjoy it.

The study guide to be completed for homework gives students specific details to address, so they can effectively prepare for discussion (SL.9-10.1a) especially continuing our look at figurative language (RL.9-10.4), requiring students to find examples on their own; the development of central ideas in the work (RL.9-10.2) in this case, tone; and asks students to react to the poem, giving them an opportunity for further short-form writing (W.9-10.10).