Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Great Way to Teach Symbolism

Sometimes we need a bit of magic to get that light bulb going.  Often students will here the word SYMBOLISM and shut down.  So what is an extreme English teacher to do?

Well, just in case you can't get your hands on the right aquatic hardware*, you may wish to try out this story - "Hills like White Elephants" by Hemmingway.  I have a copy here already highlighted into reading parts.  I took out some of the "said the man" and "said the girl" for the sake of reading it out loud.  It is very short, so give it a try right now.

So, when we read it, we know right off the bat what the two are talking about.  When you give this to ninth graders, they have no idea (or at least lower level ninth graders - I've never taught honors freshmen and just assume that they are all brilliant individuals).  At this point, I have them go back and find the three paragraphs that give imagery on the setting.  I draw it on the board.  Then we talk about what we think each thing means.  They give different answers and sometimes I have to guide them on a river being an archetype for time passing and such.  When we get to the rail road tracks, I explain that major forms of transportation usually means a major life choice.  Polar Express is a great example of this concept.  At one point the conductor says something to the effect, "It doesn't matter where the train goes.  What matters is if you get on or not."

Sometimes this is enough to get them to realize that the operation Jig is considering is an abortion.  If not, we continue with pointing out that she says the world is not theirs anymore when she is standing in the sun and he wants her to get back in the shade.  This usually triggers a discussion on the sun possibly meaning truth.

Finally, if they haven't gotten it, or if someone wants to know why the only thing not labeled is the mountains, I tell them this story:

There was once a clever emperor who had a problem with one of his noblemen who was stirring up trouble.  The emperor knew he couldn't scold or punish the nobleman outright for the nobleman had many influential friends.  So instead, the emperor praised the nobleman for his intelligence and the example he set for all others in the kingdom.  He then said he wished to honor the nobleman with a gift - something of great value and rarity.  The nobleman, feeling very proud of himself, gladly accepting the emperor's praise and was excited to get the gift.  At this point, the emperor presented the nobleman with a white elephant.  The nobleman was in a bind.  He could not refuse the emperor's gift.  That would be insulting and he would lose standing in the court.  So he accepted it with false graciousness.  The elephant was very difficult to keep up and eventually the nobleman went bankrupt trying to care for the beast.  The clever emperor got his revenge upon the troublesome nobleman.  Ever since then, a "white elephant" means something that you do not want.

At this, many students may mention that they have played "White Elephant" at Christmas.  Once they know this is an optional operation that symbolically deals with life and death and that time is running out and it deals with something the the guy does not want, but the girl seems to want it, they often get it.  My board usually looks a little like this:

I understand that you may not be the artist that I am, but I am sure you could get the point across.  If nothing else, try not to let the train tracks converge like I did here!

Anyone else out there teach this story?  Do you have another way to get symbolism into student heads?  Let's hear it!

* I talked to my 7th grade biology teacher years after taking his class and he told me this story - for his first teaching job, he brought in an expensive salt water tank and filled it with exotic fish he had procured over years of scuba diving.  He was so proud of it and thought about how cool the kids were going to think his classroom was.  On the first day in the first period, two kids got into a fight and one was pushed right into the tank, knocking the whole thing over and shattering it.  The fish all died, the equipment was ruined, the floor had water damage, and the kid was sent to the hospital.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Inference Using "Ordeal By Cheques"

One of my son's middle school teachers gave this to him and I think it is absolutely brilliant.  I've used it ever since in my ninth grade short story unit.  Students who do not read well, can handle this one.  It is an excellent story to work inference skills.  I like to put it on the SmartBoard and do the discussion about what is really happening and who are the characters.  I do have to review a little bit about what are the components of a check, since these objects are becoming obsolete.

"Ordeal by Cheques" by Wuther Crue is a visual story that must have the entire plot inferred as we only get to see a series of checks written over a period of 28 years. The checks look like this:

Over the course of the story, little things change, such as the name that signs the check, the date, etc.  The students are left to figure out why these check are being written and who these people are that are having checks written to them.  Certain people get checks in the same amount while some checks are way too high for the time period.

Here is a copy of the story.  It is not long and if you teach inference skills or short stories, I encourage you to give it a shot in your class.  Let me know if you have any stories similar to this.