Teaching Symbolism to Middle & High School Students

February 21, 2021

Use these ideas for teaching symbolism to middle and high school students with any short story, novel, or drama.

While symbolism is a higher level concept that some students can struggle with, it is also such an engaging concept to teach because symbolism is all around us: in songs, movies, commercials and on posters and billboards. I detailed the many ways I introduce and reinforce symbolism in this previous blog post and you can find even more ideas below.

Build Students' Background Knowledge
Symbolism can be a fun literary conversation, but students don't always understand the concept. To ensure that students are able to analyze symbols, you will want to explain colors, everyday gestures, common symbols, intangible symbols, and weather. With these tips for talking about symbolism, teachers can find a successful way for talking about symbolism with secondary students. You can read more about these tips here and as extra help, I've included a free download of 101 activities for literary analysis. . . with an entire section devoted to symbolism.
*Recommended by Lauralee, Language Arts Classroom

Use these ideas for teaching symbolism to middle and high school students with any short story, novel, or drama.

Play Symbolic Pictionary
Before playing the game, you will need to create a slideshow with an abstract noun on each slide (you could also use concrete nouns, specially people or places). Some ideas include determination, power, speed, intelligence, violence, and peace. To play, first break your students up into teams and make sure each team has drawing supplies (whiteboard and markers, paper and crayons, etc). Once a word is revealed, teams begin discussing and drawing a possible symbol. After the allotted amount of team, each team reveals the image that they have drawn and points are awarded. You can read more about the rules of play here.

Introduce The Symbolic Arc To Create Layers Of Understanding
The first arch of the symbolism arc is filled with an object's concrete details (what is looks, smells, sounds, tastes, feels like). The second arch of the symbolism arc is filled with an object's abstract traits, the associations we make with the object because of society, culture, tradition, etc. In the third and final arch of the symbolism arc, students make connections between the concrete details and the abstract traits to determine a possible symbolic meaning. You can read more about this strategy here.

Use Music Videos To Look For Symbolism
Before students dig into printed texts to look for symbolism, start them off with symbols they can actually see. While there are so many choices for music videos, it is often best to use something students are already familiar with (and obviously school appropriate), Musical numbers from Disney movies work well. This blog post from Lit LearnAct describes using "Let It Go" from Frozen to note important objects, describe their purpose or function, and then consider a possible symbolic meaning.

Keep An Eye Out For Objects Of Importance
When you do begin to look for symbols in printed texts have students look for references to concrete objects, especially objects named in titles, and consider whether they could be symbols. Students should also pay special attention to objects or places that are repeated or described in detail. When analyzing a short story or part of a novel or play, assign each student or group of students a page number and ask them to list any objects mentioned. Ask students to share out what they found to create a class list, tallying the number of times an object is mentioned. Beginning with the most frequent mention work down the list discussing the meaning this object might carry with it.

Use these ideas for teaching symbolism to middle and high school students with any short story, novel, or drama.

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