Teaching High School and Middle School Students Metaphor in Poetry

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Teaching metaphor goes beyond memorization and identification. It requires metaphor mastery. Use the following guidelines for assessing your student’s knowledge:

  1. Students should know and be able to explain what a metaphor.
  2. Students should be able to identify metaphors in poems.
  3. Students should be able to explain the purpose for the metaphor and analyze how it contributes to the theme of the poem.
  4. Students should be able to write poems containing a metaphor.
  5. Students should be able to use metaphors in their own writing to communicate more clearly.

Caged Bird Poems

  1. “I know why the caged bird sings” by Maya Angelou - This metaphor poem is perhaps the most famous. Angelou uses a caged bird and its song of freedom as a metaphor for her people. The metaphor of a caged bird can be applied to any opressed group or individuals. Paul Laurence Dunbar uses the metaphor in “Sympathy,” and Susan Glaspell uses it in “Trifles."
  2. “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar - Dunbar takes up the caged bird metaphor and uses a first person perspective to explain how the caged bird feels and why the caged bird sings.
  3. “Well, I Have Lost You; and I Lost You Fairly” by Edna St. Vincent Millay - Since we’re discussing caged bird metaphors – Millay uses the bird in a cage metaphor to explain why she lost her lover.

Lesson Ideas:

  1. Read any or all of the above poems.
  2. Instruct students to draw the metaphor. The drawing could be strictly a bird in a cage, what the bird in the cage represents, or a combination of the two.
  3. Brainstorm a list of things that represent freedom.
  4. Have each student create an individual list of what represents freedom.
  5. List what is preventing each student from achieving his or her personal definition of freedom.
  6. This assignment can be done with a goal setting activity.

More Poems to Use

  1. “Alley Rats” by Carl Sandburg - Sandburg satirizes the use of metaphoric nicknames used for gangsters and their facial hair. Read carefully, for the ending is metaphorically ironic. The title of the poem refers to the lowlife scum that inhabit certain cities, yet receive favorable press through the use of “cute” nicknames.
    • Lesson Idea: Research different ways newspapers and other media outlets use language to make the base seem exalted and evil seem good or innocuous.
  2. “The Glory of the Day Was in Her Face” by James Weldon Johnson - Johnson uses metaphors associated with living and nature to describe how the woman he loves makes him complete. Since his lover is gone, he no longer enjoys the very things she reminded him of.
    • Lesson Idea: Nothing like a good, sappy, love poem to motivate teenagers. Instruct them to list 5-10 metaphors regarding someone they care for.

For a more detailed analysis of these poems, check out the poetry study guide.

For a complete semester standards based curriculum guide, follow the link.

This post is part of the series: Poems for Teaching the Elements of Poetry

Make the elements of poetry meaningful and painless by selecting quality poems.

  1. Poems for Teaching Imagery
  2. Poems For Teaching Similes
  3. Lesson Plan: Poems Containing Metaphors
  4. Teaching Poetry: Poems Using Personification
  5. Teaching Poems with Figurative Language