Middle school students are notoriously skittish when it comes to poetry and poetic language. As soon as they see a poem on the page or hear the words "metaphor," "simile" or symbolism," they want to run away screaming. Studying relevant poems with symbolic language that young teens can understand and appreciate may assuage their fears and enable them to more easily grasp the concept of symbolism.
The Right Poem
Finding the right poem to work with is key to teaching a young teen about symbolism. It's best to stay with contemporary works for the sake of language simplicity, but some older classics work as well. Authors such as Billy Collins, Gary Soto, William Carlos Williams, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou write many poems that deal with issues middle school-age teens like to read about: self-esteem, fitting in with peers, love, sibling relationships and unfairness in life.
The first step in speaking about symbolism is to assure students that symbols are usually pretty obvious and to trust their gut instincts about what symbols in literature mean. Start with objects that the students see every day. A coat, for instance, may be used to symbolize warmth or comfort. Diamonds may stand for wealth or love. Once they learn to think about the deeper meaning of objects in everyday life, the students will feel more comfortable interpreting symbols in literature.
An important key to interpreting symbolic language is determining whether the language gives the reader a positive feeling or a negative feeling. These are called "connotations." Give the students some examples. "Glistening diamonds" is a positive image, while "sticky mud" is negative. Sometimes the positive or negative connotation of the language depends on context: "hard as diamonds" may become negative if describing a batch of cookies.
Symbols in Poetry
Now it's time to approach the symbols in a poem. Use a short poem or a short excerpt from a longer poem so students don't feel overwhelmed. Have them write all the objects they think may be symbols in the poem. For example, in Gary Soto's poem "How Things Work," the opening lines are:
Today it’s going to cost us twenty dollars
To live. Five for a softball. Four for a book,
A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls
The softball, book, coffee and rolls are symbols. Next, ask the students what these objects might mean within the context of the poem. The softball, which has a positive connotation, may symbolize fun or exercise.
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