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September 13, 2010 Making Connections Using Similes and Metaphors By Nancy Barile
Grades 6–8, 9–12


    Making connections to their learning is absolutely essential for high school students. If the literature has no relevancy, and students cannot envision its use in a contemporary context, interest levels — as well as the learning — drop off significantly. For this reason, it is always fun to find new ways to help students understand figurative language in an up-to-date way.

    And what better way to make that connection than through the music that teens listen to each and every day? (This post contains videos.)

    This is a popular assignment for both teachers and students, and you can see why. It's a fun exercise that asks students to explore popular culture, and they are usually anxious to dive in. I use the packet "Finding Metaphors and Similes in Today's Music" to get the project rolling. First, as a class, we define simile and metaphor and students are presented with several examples of each. Then students examine the music they listen to every day, pulling out similes and metaphors, and deciding what is being compared. The most important part of the assignment comes next, when students must decide what the author's purpose was in choosing that particular comparison.

    I usually use Billy Corgan's (of Smashing Pumpkins) lyric "Despite all my rage, I'm still just a rat in a cage," to launch the discussion. While students recognize immediately that this is a metaphor, it's Corgan's choice of animal that makes this metaphor so compelling. "What would be the difference," I ask, "if Corgan had used 'a lion in a cage' as opposed to a rat? Why exactly did Talib Kweli say 'Coming from the deep black like Loch Ness/now bring the apolcalypse like darkness'? What meaning was he trying to convey?"

    The Common Core State Standards require that students be able to determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings, and to be able to analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone. This exercise is a great tool for meeting that goal. Further, the Standards ask that students apply knowledge to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening. This assignment also meets that standard. Finally, students must be able to interpret figures of speech in context and analyze their role in the test, analyzing nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations. Finding similes and metaphors in today's music, therefore, is a wonderful standards-based lesson that will help students achieve these benchmarks.

    This year, the students did extremely well with this project. Problems arose only when students didn't go far enough in examining the author's purpose. For example, Alexa pulled this metphor from the song "Zombie" by the band, Pretty Reckless: "To all of you who've wronged me, I am, I am a zombie." But when it came time to decide the author's purpose in using the metaphor, Alexa didn't go deep enough when she wrote "The author's purpose in using this metaphor is to show her feelings." With a little questioning, Alexa was able to point out that the author "chose the metaphor to show how she cuts herself off from the wrongdoing bestowed on her by others by becoming cold, distant, and deadened to it" ÃƒÂ¢Ã‚€Â” a much better analysis.

    Students truly enjoy the opportunity to share the music they love, and the songs that affect them so much, with the rest of the class. This simple and enjoyable assignment is a great way to ensure that students will not only remember the meaning of simile and metaphor, but that they will now realize the reason authors choose to use them in their artistic works.

    Scholastic has a great printable on a variation of this assignment called "Author Tools." If you want to take this exercise one step further, focusing on rap music, Philip Clark's lesson plan "Teaching Poetry through Rap," taps into the use of figurative language in this genre especially well.

    Happy simile and metaphor hunting!

    ~ Nancy


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