Teaching figurative language

As a high school student I remember learning to recognize figurative language in poetry by memorizing a long list of figures of speech—an exercise I repeated years later in graduate school but with all the terms in Spanish. It’s a tedious process that pays off when you finally have all the definitions memorized, not only because it can heighten your experience of literature, but also because you will inevitably realize the great extent to which figurative language permeates our everyday speech. Getting there, however, is not much fun.

I want to take a different approach to teaching figurative language by making students more active in the learning process. The strategy is simple: instead of working off a handout or textbook that lists figures of speech with accompanying definitions and examples, my handout will omit the definitions entirely. Students will be asked to craft their own definitions for various figures of speech by examining the examples given (with the pertinent words/phrases highlighted), hazarding a tentative definition, and then sharing and refining their guesses in class discussion.

Here is what I’ve selected for the term simile:Example 1:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

—Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)

Example 2:

I got a question, it’s serious as cancer
Who can keep the average rap dancer
hyper as a heart attack
, nobody smiling,
’cause you’re expressing the rhyme that I’m styling.

—Eric B. and Rakim, “I Ain’t No Joke,” Paid in Full (1987)

You will notice that I took one example from poetry and another from rap lyrics. The choices were intentional because part of what I want to do in my Singing NYC program is introduce students to the mechanics of poetry and the concept of poetic tradition through music, a genre that most young people are familiar and comfortable with. Listeners (and especially hip hop fans) know—at least on an instinctual level—that artists borrow material (lyrics, riffs, beats) from one another all the time and transform it in the effort to express something new.

Comment 1