Using Figurative Language

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SWBAT use metaphorical constructions to deepen tone and theme in their writing through practice with a variety of prompts.

Big Idea

A single strong metaphor or simile can have a dramatic overall effect on the quality of a piece of writing.


Models of Figurative Language

15 minutes

To begin, I will actually remind them of a “group essay” activity they did as sophomores for the Great Gatsby, where they were in groups of three, and each person in the group had written both an essay and a prompted poem (which asked for a number of metaphorical lines) on a theme.  From their they had to read each other’s work and highlight the “best” lines, words, phrases, etc., cut them out, and reconstruct an essay from all their best parts.  I will ask the students today what they remember learning about the value of metaphors when we read those out loud—that figurative language fit right in, and in fact enhanced, the arguments and overall writing in an academic paper (any review of the power of metaphor in non-fiction will work as a activator of prior knowledge here).  Today this is mostly an encouragement to use more figurative language during their final revisions of essays, as well as to set a tone that, while writing figurative language is fun, to also think about the rhetorical appeals they make (common core writing standard 2d in eleventh grade suggests students begin using techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy in their explanatory essays; while they will be writing them in a poetry context today, the discussion about their essays will hopefully get them thinking in that context, too).  Then I will refer them to one of the poems from Losing Season titled "Pacing Before the Game" (pg. 22) where Ridl starts by writing "Like zoo lions/on a hot afternoon,/the players walk/back and forth/in front of/their lockers".  We will talk for a few minutes as a class about the tone and context set by Ridl comparing the players to lions, how it really introduces their turmoil and restlessness at the beginning without coming out and saying that, noting how an opening metaphor can go a long way toward setting an initial appeal for the audience (this practice with poetry will also lead into writing their college essays, where figurative language can be a tremendous asset).

Writing Figurative Language Statements

45 minutes

The activity we are doing today is one I adapted from a fantastic book called The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell; it is a collection of writing prompts from poetry teachers that I have used over the years not only for poetry, but to teach different writing techniques in other contexts, as described above.  The one I adapted today is called “As/Like Finish the Sentence” by Linnea Johnson, which in the book is a series of random parts of similes, metaphors, and analogies (for example, “a spider on an old man’s beard is like_________________”).  The activity asks students to re-write each in their journal and fill in the blank (re-writing in a journal rather than filling in the blanks allows students freedom to write; the blanks would limit them to a couple words) as quickly as they can—to not dwell too much on them, but to write down what comes to mind first.  This is to break that writer’s block of feeling like they have to write a poetic gem every time, to learn to let the words flow and trust their first instincts—and to see the process of going through a lot of different ideas.

To focus the students on the task introduced yesterday of crafting a class set of poems chronicling the school year, I’ve re-written a number of these so they lead to school-based arguments, and their instructions are to write all of them in this context.   The sheet has twenty, but I will ask them to choose 10 prompts to address (when I’ve done the activity from the book in the past, twenty ended up yielding some rather lame ones toward the end—it was too long; having them choose 10 of the twenty rather than giving them only ten gives them more opportunity to be successful, and also to “pass” on some).

To start, I will hand the worksheet out and explain their task, emphasizing the fact that these are whatever come to mind.  I will also share with them one I wrote for one of the prompts as an example:

The Carhardt cloak

In worn, untied work boots

walked toward her down

The satin-tiled hall as if

It were painted with


I extended my example a little bit in order to model that it is okay to go the “extra step”—go beyond a one-word fill in.  After this, I will give them about fifteen minutes to write ten of these, at which point we will share some of them with the class.  NOTE:  when sharing, I will encourage them to write down ones they like—that they can already think of where they would go with it in a full-length poem, since the task tomorrow will be to take one of these “starts” and continue it.