Thursday, 27 October 2016

That essay is missing something.... a metaphor?!?

I am in that phase of getting students to develop their essay writings skills in preparation for the mock exams. It is a fraught and arduous task sometimes, but, occasionally, you get students who make you see things in a different light. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those teachers who Instagram every insightful thing a student a student writes independent of what the teacher taught them in the classroom. However, a student wrote a line and it got me thinking. Thinking about how we get students to write academically. And better.  

So, what was this nugget of gold? Simply it was this line:

The Inspector attacks the foundations of the Birling family.

Honestly, it isn’t going to win awards for insight, but what it does is develop understanding. On a simple level, the Inspector does attack the Birling family. However, the use of ‘foundations’ makes us see that the Inspector is attacking the principles and values that are hidden inside / beneath the family. The principles they have grown up with. The principles that were passed on to them by the rest of the family. The principles they grew up with, like every other family in society. ‘Attack the foundations’ becomes a nice metaphor to describe the actual purpose of the Inspector. He doesn’t want to openly attack the people. He wants, instead, to attack what has made them the people they are. The foundations.

Although the metaphor is probably a bit predictable, it made me think that maybe it would help students if we got them to develop interpretations through metaphors. Is there space for metaphors in academic essays? I think we can agree there’s no room for similes or personification at the moment. But, metaphors could be a way to extend the use of interpretations and, especially, developed interpretations. We want creativity and originality with interpretations, but that’s hard without some level of shortcut to abstract thinking. We might do this by using shortcuts like vocabulary, but surely metaphors are an instant way to get students to think abstractly. All too often vocabulary leads us down the path of dictionary corner. Yes, a student has learnt what the word ‘socialism’, but do they understand its relevance to the play, society and context for using it.

Let’s take the original metaphor and rework it for a lesson. What happens if we explore the choice of verbs?

The Inspector destroys the foundations of the Birling family.

The Inspector attacks the foundations of the Birling family. 

The Inspector picks away at the foundations of the Birling family.

The Inspector blows up the foundations of the Birling family. 

‘Destroys’ and ‘blows up’ suggests a sense of maliciousness and evil intent which against Priestley’s purpose behind the play. ‘Picks away’ suggests things are slow and slight. ‘Attacks’ is certainly less aggressive and it is possibly neutral. A better word might even be ‘challenges’. However, ‘attacks’ is probably better because Priestley wants to reduce the foundations of the Birling so they are level with the Smiths, or Joneses

A colleague picked up a great little starter from a school. A teacher shows a slide of objects and students have to explain how the object is a metaphor for an aspect for a part of the text. It is a great idea, but not helpful when getting student to use metaphors. Sheila is a paperclip; she keeps things together but she can easily change shape. Eric is a vase; he holds a lots of liquid and every so often something splashes out. Mr Birling is a clock; he follows the same routine and is focused on one thing only. I could go on. If a student writes one of these in an essay, they’d be intellectually jarring. From this quote we can see that Mrs Birling is cherry on a tree. Therefore, it would probably help to talk about the suitability of metaphors to use. Metaphors relating to buildings tend to work. Household objects and things in the kitchen rarely work. Or, provide a few to start with.

Eric is a ticking time bomb.

The Inspector is a cat amongst the pigeons.

Sheila is a lighthouse in the storm.

Sheila is the crack in the wall.

I am toying to see what students make of the following ones:
Smashing through the glass ceiling
A bomb waiting to explode
A mirror
A painting
A lighthouse
A steam train
A wrecking ball
A torch
A magnifying glass
A microscope
The great thing about using a metaphor in non-fiction is you automatically feel the need to explain the metaphor after its use. All too often, I have seen students with great ideas in essays, but their lack of description hinders their ideas. A metaphor creates an interpretation and then, because the student feels uncomfortable with the extract, they explain what they mean. In a way, we combat this assumption students have that we know what they are talking about.    

Sheila is the crack in the wall because she sees the potential of treating people fairly. She sees what is on the other side. The rest of the characters are fixed and immovable. However, she can see beyond this fixed attitude. A crack getting bigger over time will cause a wall to fall down. Sheila is the start of this wall falling down. The events of the play shows the crack forming and starting and possibly later, after the play, the cracks will get bigger.

The great thing about this use of metaphor is that you have to develop and extend the metaphor in the explanation. A student will have to talk about the crack, the bricks, the other side of the wall and the change in the crack to make themselves clear. In fact, the metaphor crosses the whole play and relates to the structure. At the start Sheila is part of the wall. Then, she becomes a crack. By the end of the play, she is an even bigger crack. A crack not quite big enough to break the wall, but in time with a bit of help she might get better. Add a few quotes and we are having a reasoned and developed interpretation.   

What are the pitfalls of teaching students to use metaphors in essays?

Overuse – they could use them all the time and it distract the thinking.

The metaphors are not suitable or appropriate – jarring for the reader (Eric is a bike without the stabilisers).

They use them as a shorthand for explanations and don’t explain their meaning.

They see it as an excuse to be silly.

Ideas are the bread and butter of an essay. Without ideas, we are stuck. I think using metaphors is an approach to develop thinking and extend explanations.  All this will be a lesson I share with my Year 11 class next week. I will probably follow it up with using personification and similes in essays:

Sheila is like a crying jelly trifle.

Thanks for reading,


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