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We all teach that imagery is the use of vivid or figurative language to represent objects, actions, or ideas, but teaching mastery requires learning more than just a definition. Here are the levels of learning in regards to teaching imagery:
- Define imagery: You can teach a monkey to recite a definition. It's simple memorization. It is necessary for mastery but does not come close to achieving it.
- Find examples of imagery: You'd have trouble teaching a monkey to identify imagery (unless it's a really smart monkey). Most high school students know it when they see it. Simply identifying it, however, has no practical application outside of a classroom. It is not mastery.
- Interpret imagery: Now we're approaching mastery. Students who can explain the author's purpose in using a particular image, the connotative meaning of the image, and how the image relates to the overall theme of the literary work are using critical thinking skills, skills that can be applied outside of the classroom.
- Create imagery with a purpose: Students who can use imagery to suit a specific purpose in writing or in speech have mastered the concept and are one step closer to becoming a master of words.
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Short Stories & Examples
Once students are able to define imagery, it's time to model the above skills by using short stories with examples of imagery. For the purpose of teaching imagery, read as a class and stop when you find examples of imagery. Write it on the board. Discuss its interpretation and purpose. For some examples you may need to wait until the story's finished.
"The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst opens with "It was in the clove of seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree." Hurst uses personification--"summer was dead"--an ominous beginning. The image of a bleeding tree, the clove--a red flower--and the ibis--which we know to be scarlet--are connotative of blood and death. The remainder of the opening paragraph contains the following images: rotting brown magnolia petals, rank iron weeds, an empty cradle, graveyard flowers whose smell drifted through every room of the narrator's house. It doesn't take Shakespeare to figure out this story will be about death.
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"Catch the Moon" by Judith Ortiz Cofer uses imagery in the title. A title analysis to begin the story inspires thinking beyond facts and events. Drawing pictures on white boards or discussing what the phrase "catch the moon" might mean make good motivation activities. The narrator's description of the food his mother cooked before her death lend the passage a sense of nostalgia and alerts the reader to the protagonist's longing for his mother. The image of the moon in the tree outside of Naomi's window is another important image worth discussing.
Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales," although not technically a short story, reads like a narrative and contains multiple examples of imagery. One reads of "Christmases [that] roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street," and other images that evoke a sense of nostalgia. Because of its numerous examples, identifying images should be easy.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber employs imagery to enhance the quality of Walter Mitty's dreams: "The commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye."; "A door opened down a long, cool corridor and Dr. Renshaw came out. He looked distraught and haggard."; and "War thundered and whined arond the dugout and battered at the door. There was a rending of wood and splinters flew through the room" all provide a stark contrast to the mundane life Mitty actually leads.
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The preceding examples of imagery come from the following works.
Hurst, James. "The Scarlet Ibis." Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 2002, pp. 554-64.
Thurber, James. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 2002, pp. 347-52.
Cofer, Judith Ortiz. "Catch the Moon." Glencoe Literature. New York: McGraw Hill. 2002, pp. 63-72.
Thomas, Dylan. "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Glencoe Literature. New York: McGraw Hill. 2002, pp. 433-442.
Short Stories for Teaching Imagery
Teach the elements of literature by teaching great short stories.