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Literature Lesson Plan: Teaching Symbolism

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 11/6/2012

Moby Dick is about a whale hunt gone bad. The Old Man and the Sea is about a fishing trip gone bad. The Great Gatsby is about a weekend party gone bad. The American flag is a red, white, and blue piece of cloth. Teaching symbolism will eliminate stupid answers like these.

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    We read Of Mice and Men as a class. Everyone liked it. I couldn't wait to read the literary analysis essays about it. After the fourteenth consecutive D-, I realized nobody understood the broader meaning of the novel. I had failed in teaching symbolism. As a punishment, I hanged myself in effigy from the ceiling. I used a rolling chair. It darted out from under me. I fell on my head, received a third degree concussion, and lay unconscious. When I awoke, John Steinbeck stood over me, called me Lennie, pulled out a gun, and shot me, not with a bullet, but with a teaching symbolism lesson plan and strategies.

    I share it with you.

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    Teaching Symbolism Background Information

    Discuss the following concepts. Take notes where applicable:

    Symbolism allows people to communicate beyond the limits of language.

    Humans use symbolism all the time. Words themselves are mere symbols for something else.

    A symbol is a person, place, or object that stands for something beyond itself.

    National, religious, and cultural symbols have standard interpretations as well as a personal significance for each individual. For example, the American flag symbolizes the United States of America. The personal significance, however, varies. A U.S. army veteran cherishes its meaning. A terrorist, on the other hand, finds it despicable. A green piece of paper with George Washington's picture on it symbolizes one dollar. A billionaire considers it chump change. A beggar considers it an elusive treasure.

    This is an excellent exercise for teaching symbolism:

    1. Choose a well known religious, national, or cultural symbol
    2. write a (half) paragraph analyzing its meaning. Include the standard meaning along with a personal interpretation and a personal interpretation from someone else.
    3. The personal nature of the assignment makes it excellent for a paragraph challenge.

    A literary symbol gains its meaning from the context of a literary work and often changes as the work develops.

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    Strategies and Procedures for Teaching Symbolism in Literature

    Strategy: Look for references to concrete objects and analyze whether they could be symbols. Pay special attention to objects named in the title.

    Procedure:Make a two-column chart. In the left column, write down the concrete object. In the right column, write what it may symbolize.

    Strategy: Pay special attention to objects or places accompanied by a lengthy description, repetition, or special placement.

    Procedure:Analyze the title. List objects mentioned more than once. List objects that appear at crucial moments.

    Determine whether a place, object, or character is essential to the theme of a literary work.

    Extension Activity: Write a literary symbol analysis. It should include the following:

    • A topic sentence that names the literary work and the symbol.
    • Possible interpretations for the symbol.
    • The symbol's effect on the work as a whole.
    • The author's purpose in using the symbol.