Looking for a poem to teach, a way to teach literary terms, or just want a quick lesson to fill a gap? Look no further than "Metaphors" by Plath. I'm sure you've read and may have taught it before, but in case you are not familiar with it, here it is:
by Sylvia Plath
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,An elephant, a ponderous house,A melon strolling on two tendrils.O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
This works really great with a SmartBoard-like projection or even an overhead since marking up the poem as you read it as a class is easier for the students to visualize.
Students tend to be intrigued by it when you build it up as a mystery to be solved. You can even up the ante by putting something up to win for the first person to figure it out. With that objective, I do not tell them this is about a pregnancy.
First thing, have students read the poem to themselves and have them write down what they think the poem is about, just so they have an reason to try and process it.
Title - Metaphors are often missed by students because, while it is easy to understand most comparisons, many metaphors leave off what is being compared, like in this case. We get one of the objects for comparison, but not the whole thing.
Line 1 - Plath wastes no time handing out the clues. I say to the kids, "This poem is way over nine syllables! What is this about?" Eventually some student will figure out that the line is nine syllables long. Then I have students check the other lines and yep, all are nine syllables exactly. A clever student might point out that there are nine lines. A super clever student might point out that there are nine letters in the title. So we mark on our clue board that nine must be important.
Line 2 - We take the time to figure out what ponderous means. I usually at this point do not point out that people live in a house. I wait and let someone pick up on that or we just move further.
Line 3 and 4 - We take the time to look up what "tendrils" means. Then maybe draw a quick doodle to get a visual. Students usually focus on these first few lines about she is fat. We do focus on the tendrils are pale because they must not be getting sunlight.
Line 5 - So they start to put together that whatever she is, she's getting bigger.
Line 6 - Students often have to be told what minted means.
Line 7 - We touch on what it means to be a "means to an end". My more rural students at this point figure it out since they know what it means for a cow to be in calf. I sometimes skip over this clue to prolong it a bit, if no one points it out.
Line 8 - While apples do come in the green variety, I ask them if we take the idea that apples are typically red, what do you think happens if you eat a bunch of unripe one?
Line 9 - With abortion being in the spotlight, you can choose how close you want to dance on this line that there is no getting off. However, I do like to talk about getting on a train is an archetype for a major life change/decision (like Polar Express).
If students figure it out early, you may want to see if they notice how her viewpoint of this situation seems to spiral downward as the poem goes on. At first, she talks about how fat she feels, but by the end, she feels trapped with no way out of the situation.
I often do this with ninth graders, since the idea of being pregnant isn't the first thought that pops into their mind, but I have used this before with other grade levels with much success.
If you are looking for more texts to use in order to teach students inference, try Ordeal by Cheques.