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Versatile Comprehension Strategies: Using Extended Metaphor Across Disciplines

Updated on
Modified on June 2, 2023
  • General Education
  • Literacy
  • Writing

Teaching poetry to kids of any age is a blast.

Simile? Think of your least favorite subject and your least favorite chore and combine them with “like.”

Personification? Give that chocolate-chip cookie a tone of voice as it calls you to eat it.

Metaphor? If your sister were a dog, what kind would she be?

During my 20 years of teaching high school English and Social Studies, however, I found the power of metaphor stretched far beyond poetry. When extended, a metaphor is more than a descriptive tool; it becomes a system for comprehending and articulating complex concepts.

Compare the difference. Here is a simple metaphor: “Love is a rose.”

Here is the same metaphor, extended: “A rose’s thorns are the facades people put on to protect themselves from being hurt—but those facades themselves can end up hurting other people. The flower itself is a mashup of different pulls on different senses: the velvety petals are our physical attraction, calling to be caressed (but please be gentle.); the scent is our longing, our dream of possibility (there must be someone out there for me.); the color is our specific personality traits recognizing a compatible soul (you love skateboarding, too? Wow.). Roses need constant attention—not too much sun, not too much water, and watch out for bugs—just like relationships need constant awareness, and neglect of any one “little thing” can blight the beauty (“you never tell me what you’re thinking.”).

Shall I go on? I could. The point here, however, is not that I am correct in my description of love. You might very well have been arguing with me as you read the above—“No, I think a rose’s thorns are a test, making sure that whoever wins your heart is willing to sacrifice his/her comfort for you.” Hey—great.

Now, we can argue about the meaning or purpose of pain in love, and in our argument, come to a clearer understanding of this notoriously baffling concept.

Ah, you say—but love is not on the state test. How can I use extended metaphor to teach a concept in history, science or math?

I. History. Pick a concept: Let’s say, Representative Democracy.

            A) Teach the definition: “A system where citizens vote to elect people to represent their interests. The elected people meet to debate and make laws for everyone, instead of the citizens voting on every law.”

            B) Discuss why voting on every single law might not work very well.

            C) Divide the class into small groups. Provide butcher paper and markers, or construction paper, scissors and glue. Have the groups brainstorm any kind of tool or machine that makes a job easier. “Dishwasher.”

            D) Circulate with guiding questions. “Great. So, if Representative Democracy is a dishwasher, what are the dirty dishes? What is the soap? What is the water? What is the plug?”

Answering these questions (to draw or cut out their “dishwasher” with all its parts labeled) will cause the group to discuss and argue about the different components of the concept—campaigning, debating, voting, compromising—thereby refining their understanding. Presenting their Extended Metaphor Poster usually results in arguments that further help kids formulate their opinions on the concept: “Well, the dishwasher doesn’t work very well, because after the vote some of the dishes are still dirty, which is people feeling mad about the new law.”

II. Science. Let’s pick a notoriously tricky and misunderstood concept: Natural Selection.

            A) Teach the term (using, of course, some of those great hooks Darwin used. “Have you ever wondered why there are so many different kinds of sparrows?”).

            B) Discuss.

            C) Divide into groups to brainstorm a machine or a process which takes a single thing and turns it into lots of different versions. (“Popular music.” “Plastic factory.” “Writing a story.”)

            D) “So, if Natural Selection is a plastic factory, what is the power running the machines? Are mutations the rejected plastic shapes, or are they the plastic itself?”

III. Math. How about something simple but hard?: Fractions.

            A) Teach the term. (Can anyone teach fractions without using pizza or pie as an example?)

            B) Discuss.

            C) In groups, think of a food—other than pizza or pie—which you can divide. That is their One. (“A box of doughnuts.” “A handful of gummy worms.”)

            D) “So, if a handful of gummy worms is your One, let’s say there are 10 in that handful. Then, 10 gummy worms = One. So what would five gummy worms be? How about two gummy worms? What if you cut a gummy worm in half—what would that be?”

This procedure also applies individually. One of my favorite assignments was to choose a complex literary character and have students spend several pages, with textual support, explaining why Hamlet was a tropical weather system, or why Huck Finn was a possum. (Hint: choose an intricate, dynamic metaphor if you don’t want to run out of ideas on the first page.)

To reiterate, the point of extended metaphor is the scrutiny and articulation it requires, and the resulting understanding it evokes.

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