BY: LIZ KEIPER
Raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled to teach your students about symbolism.
*Hand raise* I have.
And by teach, I mean teaching them to recognize, pull out, analyze, and meaningfully connect symbols in a text on their own. To recognize that an author is implying that something in a story is signifying a larger concept because that is really the author’s intent and not just because you, the teacher, magically says that it is.
I mean, teaching symbolism without telling them what symbolizes what in a story.
It’s hard. Moving young teens from the concrete, plot-based schema of their earlier language arts instruction to an analytical-thematic literature-based instruction is no small task, and I think that in some ways, it’s especially hard for me because I’m naturally inclined to analysis. “Don’t you see the symbolic significance of everything on this page??” I sometimes inwardly yell.
However, I had a lot of success this year teaching motif analysis through Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 film version of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
Now, I know that not every English teacher is a fan of this interpretation of The Bard’s tragic romance. However, this film is near and dear to my heart because for me, it represents a shift in my analytical abilities as a reader. I wasn’t always a fan of it—in fact, when we watched it my freshman year of high school, my teacher told us, “It has drugs, guns, and a cross-dresser! You’ll love it!”
But I far from ‘loved it’… I came away thinking it was one of the most absurd movies I had ever been subjected to watching. How could they say, “Give me my sword!” and pull out a gun? A gun is not a sword. Were the movie producers that insipid that they didn’t know the difference in time period weaponry? Oh, also, they didn’t drive cars in Shakespeare’s day. Major anachronism there.
Then, I took a Shakespeare class in college in which we read a Shakespeare play every week, analyzed it in class, then watched a film version of the play and wrote an analysis of the story’s portrayal in visual form. And when we got to Romeo and Juliet, my professor chose… the 1997 version. Joy. I got to watch the worst movie I had ever seen twice.
But as I watched the film as a senior English major with almost four years of literature analysis under my belt, my opinions on this film began to change.
I started noticing that there were a whole lot of uses of water in the movie. In the beginning of the film, Juliet is submerged in bath water before the party, and at the party, that shot is replicated as Romeo submerges his head in a sink. Then, when they see each other for the first time, it is through a fish tank filled with… water. During the balcony scene, they fall into a pool filled with… water. Mercutio is killed at the beach which contains a lot of… water. When Tybalt is shot, he falls backwards into a pool of… water. Oh yeah, and it’s raining. Water.
So, I wrote my analysis for that play on the use of the visual motif of water in the film and how it was used as a medium of transformation or baptism of the characters in the story. I was astounded that there was so much significance that I had missed in the film as a high school student.
As I began to teach Romeo and Juliet to my students and also show the 1997 version of the film in conjunction with the unit, I encountered some students who had the same reaction that I had in high school. “They shoot guns and drive cars. It’s dumb. It makes no sense.”
I wanted to take them further and challenge them to see the depth of what the movie producers were saying through the film as I had. So, this school year before I showed the film, I started off with a mini-lesson on the word “motif.”
I gave my students the definition of “motif,” which is “a reoccurring symbol.” Then, we discussed the motif of birds/flight in the movie and book Divergent. I asked them first to list the instances in which birds or flight were important in the book or film Divergent.
“Tris gets a bird tattoo,” says one student. “Birds attack her in her fear landscape,” says another. “She’s the first to jump into the Dauntless training center, which is kind of like flying,” says one. “And she rides on that zip line thing, which is definitely like flying!” chimes in another. “Ummm, well, I haven’t seen the movie, but there are birds in the background of the movie cover,” says another timidly.
And there are.
In fact, birds and the concept of flying are woven throughout the film and the text. If it occurred once or twice, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but since it occurs over and over again, that’s a hint that it might be a motif and that, at least, it is significant.
“So, what could birds represent in Divergent?” I next ask my class.
“Well, they could symbolize freedom, since birds can fly wherever they want,” says one student. “Yeah, and joining Dauntless and riding on the zip line were major steps for Tris in finding her freedom!” says another. “Why were there birds in her fear landscape, then?” I ask, playing devil’s advocate. “Maybe because she wanted freedom but also feared it,” a student remarks. Yes, child, yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. Never knew there was so much depth to some bird tattoos, did you?
I then explained to my students that we were going to use a similar model of analysis while watching the film Romeo and Juliet. I gave them a sheet of paper that had four major motifs in the film listed:
While watching the film, students had to write down at least three times when they noticed a use of those motifs.
The day after we finished the film, I broke the students up into groups of four or five. I gave each group a motif to focus on. Their first task as a group was to pool all their examples for that motif and make one long list of all the occurrences of that motif in the film.
Once they had all shared their examples for their assigned motif and had written them down, as a group they had to start discussing what they thought that motif could symbolize and why.
The most beautiful English class conversations then ensued. Some groups determined that water represented a transformation or new life, or that it represented both love and death (like the symbolism of the plant rosemary mentioned by the nurse to Romeo).
Groups talked about fire and light representing the violence and destruction of the family feud, or representing passion—both of anger and of love.
Clothing was determined to portray aspects of a character’s personality. (I mean, is it a coincidence that Juliet is dressed as an angel, Romeo as a knight in shining armor, Tybalt as a devil, or Lord Capulet as a Roman emperor? I think not.)
Some groups determined that the ever present religious figures presiding over almost every scene showed religion as a force of unstoppable fate in the story. Others saw the devotion to religion as a mirror of the devotion of Romeo and Juliet for each other.
Each group shared their motif with the class, and the class took notes on the motifs of each presenter so that at the end, they had a full list of film motifs and their analyses.
This method of film analysis definitely strengthened my students’ understanding both of how motifs work and also how Shakespeare uses motifs in Romeo and Juliet as well. One of my students wrote in her final essay about fire and light in the film, “The first time Romeo sees Juliet, he remarks about her beauty, ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’ (1.5.42) This is interesting because in the movie when they actually meet, they are in a dimmer area before hopping into a bright, gold elevator. This is representative of the strong emotions between the two teens.”
I would highly recommend using this activity with any visually significant film adaptation of a story. I think that this activity would work well with another Baz Luhrmann film, The Great Gatsby, Rupert Goold’s 2010 interpretation of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart, or Sean Penn’s 2007 version of Into the Wild to name a few. Regardless of the film you use, young teens struggle at times to connect symbolic significance to motifs structured in a text, and it is easier for them to connect this way with visual motifs. Analyzing visual symbols in a film can be the scaffolding that they need to understand how symbols work in a text.
Recognizing how an author is using symbolism in a text exponentially increases the message of the themes that he or she is trying to portray. Let’s help our students get more out of what they read… and what they watch.
How do you include film analysis in your English Language Arts classroom? What other skills might film analysis introduce or reinforce?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
by Dr. Louise McDonald
I teach middle school, which means I teach some students who are ready for college and others whose reading got stuck in fourth or fifth grade and who need a good reason to move forward. “Tricks and tips” then, from middle school teachers, have to be taken with a grain of salt—they work some of the time with some of the students. Anticipating what will work without experimenting is an inexact science.
Discussions of Common Core have often focused on non-fiction texts, but literary source material is also excellent for teaching many of the skills outlined in the core.
Poetry for middle school
I taught at a university for many years and used to have a great time teaching poetry, but when I reached middle school I hesitated to do more with poetry than basically treating it like any other complex text to decode.
One of the easiest ways for the students to access poetry is through lyrics. They know lyrics, learn lyrics, and value them already. I really like Paul Gallipeau’s lesson as an introduction to rap as poetry. It can be found here: http://www.paulcarl.com/teaching-poetry-through-rap/ . He brings literary language to rap music as tools that can then be carried on to use with more canonical work.
His lesson plan can be downloaded from the site above, but before you do, pause in the middle of Paul’s blog or watch below Alkala’s TED talk on rap and Shakespeare; which connects Shakespeare, which students often read as inaccessible, to hip hop, in convincing and joyful ways.
Once you convince students to read poetry as well as listen to it, they are ready to take some poems in as friends. I cast about for methods for putting together a whole essay using the literary language, until I found this video from Isabella Wallace somewhere in Australia.
The kids have a great time with Ms. Wallace’s accent and her wayward hairdo and they don’t seem to worry too much that her target audience is older than middle school. They are very intimidated by poetry and like a tangible technique. I have them bring in lyrics from their favorite songs to practice the method before we go on to literary canon.
Performance is another great way to approach poetry in middle school. I have the students pick among poems that I select in a variety of levels and perform for the class. It is useful to learn some poetry yourself to perform, and there are great poetry slams on youtube. One of my favorite performances is by the Canadian poet Shane Koyczan. It inspired a number of students to perform this poem themselves! This is even more remarkable when you see the poem: it has more than 100 lines!
Once the students have analyzed poetry and performed it, I ask them to write some. Of course, they are happier and more successful if they take another work as a model. Maya Angelou has a number of poems that make great models and I guide their writing by asking them to write poems about tangible things at first. The first poem I assign is about someone who is important to them, the second about something they like to do, and the third about the kind of person they want to be. Strangely, these were their favorite assignments of the whole year, when the time came to evaluate at the end. They liked finding out that they “had something to say.”
One of the most important aspects of converting skeptical middle school students to poetry is to bring a lot of enthusiasm. They may laugh at your verve, but it gives them permission to feel the electricity of a good poem themselves.
If you feel the need for some inspiration, try the Academy of American Poets selection: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/anthology/popular-poems-teach
Reading poetry is different than reading prose and I find students are not confident, so it is an unlikely equalizer—which all by itself, is valuable in not only a middle school classroom, but any classroom!
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you approach poetry with your students? What poems work? What activities make poetry click? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Louise received a BA in political Science and International Relation from Carleton College and her PhD in Enlish/Composition, Rhetoric and Literacy. She taught at various universities until 2009, when she started teaching ELA at a middle school in Jefferson County. She finds middle school to be the perfect laboratory for learning about literacy and teaches some stuff there too!
Louise serves as Secretary and as a member of the Executive Committee of WVCTE.
by Karla Hilliard
Oh sweet summertime.
That beloved teacher time-of-year to hit the brakes and relax, to put your toes in the water and your mind on neutral, to sleep in until noon and binge on Netflix until whenever, and of course, to fulfill the English teacher dream of savoring the stockpile of books you’ve been waiting to relish in the sunshine.
But we all know that a teacher’s summer is much more than boat drinks and binge watching. Most educators I know are thinking ahead to next year. They are seeking out new professional texts, tweaking their syllabi, attending or presenting at workshops and conferences, collaborating with colleagues, and engaging in online PD. They dedicate plenty of their summer breaks to developing their craft and discovering new ways to engage their students and to become better, stronger, more effective teachers.
In the spirit of the crazy-awesome-amazing-inspiring dedication of teachers everywhere, here are some of my favorite activities and resources you can take back to your classrooms next fall
For Close-Reading & Analysis
Do yourself a favor and take 15 minutes and watch 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling work her magic in an English 12 class. Her Observe, Find Patterns, Draw Conclusions approach is applicable to any genre of text and any level of student. The kind of thinking this strategy requires is solid, and it nudges students towards identifying the complexity of a work. The best part? The students do the heavy lifting – they develop an intimacy with the text, probe for ideas, and construct meanings. Meanwhile, you use your expertise to coach and guide. Trust me: it’s good.
For Mentor Texts & Literary Analysis
As an AP Literature teacher, I’m constantly searching for ways to elevate students’ writing, specifically analysis. Literary analysis is a sticky wicket of an essay. It’s so easy for students to slip into that “sounding smart” voice or and crank out five neat and orderly paragraphs and call it a day. Teacher and author Rebekah O’Dell of Writing With Mentors pitches a genius idea utilizing current, engaging mentor texts (think The New Yorker and The Atlantic) modeling analysis. It makes so much sense! See what she has to say HERE. You’ll be glad you did.
For Novelty & Creativity
I came across a lovely article on Twitter that said when you’re a teacher you learn that, “An idea you had five minutes before class will be such a hit that your kids learn like crazy and talk about it for months afterward.”
This happened to me, and I wrote it about it HERE. The long and short of it is this: poetry + a table of craft supplies + theme analysis + a time limit. I called it the Quickfire Challenge a la Top Chef, and it’s been serving up some mean analysis ever since.
For Formative Assessment
I confess: I’m a sucker for a listicle. But this ain’t no mindless Buzzfeed click-bait. Click HERE to check out the plentiful ideas provided by Todd Finley on Edutopia. (Todd, by the way, has an excellent newsletter called Todd’s Brain. Click here to check it out.) In this article, you’ll find a brief discussion of formative and summative assessments and 53 (fifty-three!) quick and easy ways to assess your students’ understanding. And if you’re feeling wicked, you can have a student choose an activity from the list to assign to the class. Bwahaha!
Brian Sztabnik of Talks With Teachers is a genius. HERE is his Shakespearean Musical Chairs -- a fun, engaging, and adaptable activity that makes for meaningful instruction. Try it out, and make sure to create your own Shakespearean play playlist. I’ll spare you the embarrassing details of my Othello mix, but to give you an idea, it featured Sean “Puffy” Combs AND the theme song from Wizards of Waverly Place.
WVCTE is wondering...
What are YOUR go-to resources? What activities have you had success with? WVCTE would love to learn from you! Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Karla Hilliard teaches STEM Academy English and AP Literature and Composition at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV. She has been a classroom teacher for 11 years. When she isn't teaching, you can find Karla hanging with family, cooking up a good meal, reading up on educational trends, crocheting soft things, or eating spoonfuls of peanut butter.
Karla serves as Executive Vice President and Head of of Secondary Affairs for WVCTE. See what's happening in her classroom at www.hilliardsclass.com or connect with her on Twitter @karlahilliard.