Tag Archives: schema building

Teaching Metaphorically

In response to my prior post about Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject, I received an email from Adriana who asked, “Can you give an example of a metaphorical lesson? Not a lesson that teaches about metaphors, but a lesson that uses the idea.”

While I had a few ideas, I thought the best way might be to show a lesson in action. Check out this clip from Mr. Langhorst’s 8th grade in Liberty, Missouri. It’s a perfect example of an extended metaphor.

I love this approach! In my third and fourth grades, where I’ve taught the Revolutionary War as well, I’ve taken a slightly different approach. Students were presented with a letter from the school board, announcing that due to last year’s low test scores several drastic measures would be put into place: extended school hours, summer school for all students below a 3.5 average, school on Saturdays, and no more Physical Education. Students became quite upset that neither they not their parents were in attendance at this meeting, and that they were being punished for last year’s bad scores (purely fictitious as well). Seeing how distraught my students were, I graciously allowed them to draft letters to the testing coordinator (Mr. Itzal LaSham) expressing their feelings. Without fail, students created the most articulate, persuasive writing of their lives! When read aloud, the letters of protest were impassioned and convincing.

But then I wondered aloud, “I’m not sure if we should have done this. Perhaps Mr. LaSham will get upset, and call your parents. Are you guys really willing to take that risk?” Out come the erasers, but not for all. Most students are so adamant in their beliefs that they refuse to erase their names, no matter what the consequences!

It’s usually at this point, although sometimes much earlier, that some student will exclaim, “This is exactly what happened to the colonists! We’re being forced to live by rules that we didn’t help to make.” And eventually, of course, I do let students in on the secret: The letter is fictitious, and so is the testing director (Mr. It’s All a Sham). We then discuss the similarity between their letters and the Declaration of Independence. Both documents express extreme dissatisfaction, but the latter is further expressing outright rebellion. Should the colonists lose this war, the bold Declaration will serve as King George’s hanging list.

In nearly twenty years of implementing this lesson, students have been faithful to not share it with their siblings or friends, and each year’s new class faithfully falls for the trick: hook, line, and sinker. But the real payoff is that years later, when students return from high school and college to visit, they’ll ask, “Did you do the letter yet?” and they’ll vividly recall every aspect of the lesson, including (here’s the clincher!) its point.

Now that’s a lesson that sticks.

If you’re a social studies teacher, check out Eric Langhorst’s blog for more great resources and insights. You may also want to check out the six elements of “stickiness” found in Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

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Metaphorically Speaking

Metaphors and AnalogiesStenhouse has put out a new book that I can’t recommend enthusiastically enough. Rick Wormeli’s Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject adds to the canon of distinguished titles which deal with the topic of metaphor. His work, however, is so far the most practical title I’ve seen on the topic, offering teachers simple steps for improving their instruction through the use of metaphors and analogies. Every page provides subject-specific examples, allowing readers to easily understand the real-life applications to the classroom.

My own forays into this topic began with George Lakoff’s now-classic Metaphors We Live By, which plainly illustrated the pervasiveness of metaphor in everyday language. While critics argued that the book was not well supported with research, just a brief look into its pages will convince Metaphors We Live Byany reader that what Lakoff was attempting to prove through discourse alone was pretty self-evident (once exposed) and pretty remarkable as well. People do speak unconsciously in metaphors, all the time, and the metaphors they choose can tell us a lot about their preconceptions, perspectives, and prejudices on a topic. My personal copy of Metaphors We Live By contains hardly a page not scribbled with a comment or question; it did profoundly influence the way in which I approached reading and language arts instruction.

Next came Marcel Danesi’s Poetic Logic: The Role of Metaphor in Thought, Language, and Culture, which was arguably more research based than Poetic LogicMetaphors We Live By. Discovering the scientific and linguistic basis for everything Lakoff argued reinforced for me that metaphorical language is neither coincidental nor arbitrary. In Danesi’s own words:

The main goal of this book has been to take the reader on an excursion through an amalgam of facts, ideas, and illustrations that reveal how poetic logic works in making the world visible and thus understandable in human terms. Metaphor is a trace to poetic thinking, which constantly creates connections among things. This is why metaphors and metaforms have such emotional power—they tie people together, allowing them to express a common sense of purpose in an interconnected fashion.

What Rick Wormeli now brilliantly accomplishes through Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject might be seen as a currency exchange. He takes the “hundred dollar ideas” of Lakoff and Danesi and turns them into “spending money” for the classroom. Wormeli shows how students can use metaphors to make connections between the concrete and the abstract, prior knowledge and new concepts, and language and image (neither Lakoff nor Danesi discussed visual metaphors at any length). Wormeli also goes beyond the passive museum experience of “let’s notice and appreciate the beauty of metaphors” to a workshop mentality of “let’s throw some clay on the wheel and see what we can form on our own.” Ultimately, his work is an impressive how-to on the subject.

But what’s in it for teachers of literature? So many of Wormeli’s examples are based in math, social studies, and science that Reading and Language Arts teachers might wonder what’s in it for them.

Rather than construct an argument, let me instead offer a simple example. FlippedBelow is an excerpt from Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped (grade level equivalent 5.5). How many single and extended metaphors can you spot? And more importantly, what additional (between the lines) information can they provide if the reader is alert enough to notice them?

My sister, on the other hand, tried to sabotage me any chance she got. Lynetta’s like that. She’s four years older than me, and buddy, I’ve learned from watching her how not to run your life. She’s got ANTAGONIZE written all over her. Just look at her – not cross-eyed or with your tongue sticking out or anything – just look at her and you’ve started an argument.

I used to knock-down-drag-out with her, but it’s just not worth it. Girls don’t fight fair. They pull your hair and gouge you and pinch you; then they run off gasping to mommy when you try and defend yourself with a fist. Then you get locked into time-out, and for what? No, my friend, the secret is, don’t snap at the bait. Let it dangle. Swim around it. Laugh it off. After a while they’ll give up and try to lure someone else.

At least that’s the way it is with Lynetta. And the bonus of having her as a pain-in-the-rear sister was figuring out that this method works on everyone. Teachers, jerks at school, even Mom and Dad. Seriously. There’s no winning arguments with your parents, so why get all pumped up over them? It is way better to dive down and get out of the way than it is to get clobbered by some parental tidal wave.

The funny thing is, Lynetta’s still clueless when it comes to dealing with Mom and Dad. She goes straight into thrash mode and is too busy drowning in the argument to take a deep breath and dive for calmer water.

And she thinks I’m stupid.

The fact is, for students to read with comprehension and appreciation, they must be able to recognize and dissect both simple and complex analogies. And for students to be able to explain their own understandings of difficult concepts (no matter what the discipline), they must be able to describe those concepts through metaphors and analogies.

I highly recommend Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject for teachers looking to advance their own practice as teaching professionals. As always, Stenhouse offers you a preview of the entire book at their site.

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Teaching Novels Thematically

For a novel to be compelling now and memorable later, it most work at a thematic level. That is, it must address a universal concept to which students can relate. Is the book about a dog that pulls a sled? No; it is about Determination, and Loyalty, and Overcoming Challenges. Those are ideas to which students can relate. Is it simply a tale about a pig and a spider? No; it’s a story of Compassion, and Sacrifice, and Identity.

In order to make literature meaningful, teachers must find a way to help students connect it to their own lives. Universal Themes and their accompanying Guiding Questions are one way of doing this. Regardless of the novel you choose and its innate merits, you must ask yourself, “What makes this story accessible to everyone? For the kid who couldn’t care less about spiders and pigs, what does this story say to him about experiences which we all share in common?” That’s getting to the theme, or the universality, of the novel.

Houghton Mifflin has an excellent article on Thematic Instruction which lists several major advantages to using themes. One that I feel is especially important is theme’s ability to build connections and relationships:

Thematic organization helps to account for the concepts of schema theory and prior knowledge. By having related, focused literature, students are able to build connections and relationships about a given theme, which is how one develops prior knowledge and uses it to construct meaning (Anderson & Pearson, 1984).

But which comes first: the novel or the theme? That’s entirely up to you. Many teachers have strong allegiances to certain novels, so they let the novel “lead” the curriculum. Other teachers prefer to select several themes for the year (often one per marking period) and then build a collection of novels, picture books (aka Mentor Texts, Wisdom Books), poetry, drama, and accompanying activities around that theme.

Another consideration is how far a theme will extend into other curriculum areas. This is where Universal Themes (Balance, Change, Patterns) prove to be somewhat more authentic than Topics (Spiders, Autumn, Tall Tales). Themes more naturally tie disciplines together.

If you’re crazy for a topic such as penguins, ask yourself, “What is it about penguins that gives them universal appeal? Why would anyone care to learn about them?”

Penguins live in cooperatively in groups, so community, relationships, and collaboration could be themes; the role of the penguins in relationship to their polar neighbors introduces the themes of cycles, survival, and balance; and their very unique bodies and behaviors can relate to themes of adaptation, identity, and uniqueness.Because of Winn Dixie

Consider the theme of Identity, which was selected from many possible themes related to the novel Because of Winn-Dixie. This penguin-free chart illustrates how the universal theme of Identity can easily be incorporated into the four major subject areas. I also suggest you download my famous Universal Themes list. While not meant to be exhaustive, this list provides dozens of possible themes for your consideration. Have more to add? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment or drop me a line.

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The Power of the Preview

I recently read how one teacher provides her students with the entire plot of a new novel before beginning a study. Her thinking? If her students understand the basic story line, they”ll better be able to focus upon deeper aspects of the novel.swindle

Not a crazy idea. Think about the last movie preview you saw. Did it really leave you wondering about the film’s outcome? On the contrary. It presented you with enough bits and pieces that you could likely cobble together a reasonable summary of the entire film. So why bother seeing the movie?

To that question, a multitude of answers. Me, personally? Nothing beats watching a movie on the big screen with a big tub of buttered popcorn warming my lap. 95% of the time I know exactly what will happen (especially if the plot line follows the universally popular Hero Myth). What I’m there to see is how the pieces fall into place. I’m there to see what lies between them.

With this in mind, I took a different approach to introducing a new novel recently. Rather than share thematically related picture books, or draw out prior experiences relating to the book’s topic, I showed them a preview. And you know what? It really got them psyched. More importantly, just as my colleague hypothesized earlier, it helped my students to relax and focus on elements beyond the basic plot.

See Scholastic’s preview of Swindle for yourself. See if it doesn’t create some excitement for the reading experience. (This book trailer is just one of sixty-five book video previews available at the Scholastic site).

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