Metaphor Making with Elementary Students: Letters and Numbers
by Kathleen Flenniken
One of the most direct routes to poetry for children is through metaphor. Experience has taught me that making metaphor is a developmental stage, just like walking and talking, and that by third grade most—though not all—students can make marvelous, inventive, witty metaphors. The stragglers will come along by the end of fourth grade.
Letters and numbers make wonderful subjects for poems. The symbols are familiar to writer and reader alike, so there’s no need to set up the metaphors–a simple list can work. There is also the possibility of including associations with those letters and numbers—it’s the first letter of my name, or it’s the age I was when I lost my front teeth, or it sounds like an engine starting. Mostly, though, we focused on what the letter or number looked like.
In order to get the lesson started, I wrote an example poem for our discussion. I include it here, but between the group poems and the exemplary student examples provided below, I don’t think my original poem is necessary anymore.
by Kathleen Flenniken
It’s lucky, they say in Las Vegas.
George on “Seinfeld” wanted it
for his first child’s name.
When it’s the number of children in your family
it means you drive a nine-passenger car.
It’s the number of wives the seven brothers needed.
But to me it’s a cliff overlooking nothing
where I’d be afraid to stand in the wind.
Or it’s the nose
of a great perfumer who has learned to combine
spring flowers with river with wild blue yonder
and pour that scent in a bottle shaped like the moon.
Or anyway it’s a protuberance, an angle,
a check mark, an almost arrow, a gash, a pointy tooth.
It’s the corner where a little boy
sits in time-out for refusing
a plateful of lima beans and liver.
Seven is telling me which direction
is the right direction. “More, not less,”
seven is saying. I wish I knew if seven knew.
We talked about the different ways the poem describes “7”—associations (personal and cultural), and ways to describe 7 visually.
Then I choose a number or letter and write it up on the overhead and we begin a collaborative poem. Below are a few examples, each line donated by a different student in various third grade classes. Occasionally a student will suggest an idea and it doesn’t go quite far enough. For example, “T is a telephone pole.” That’s a great idea… but where do you imagine the telephone pole? “On a country road.” I remind students over and over to “complete the image.” I push a little to help them remember to push themselves. As we write I also try to point out that varying the construction of the sentences can be more interesting than starting each line with “T is.”
Group Poems/Third Grade
5 is a waterslide on a hot summer day, the loopiest and scariest water slide.
It’s a unicycle with an unfinished wheel.
It’s a snake looking out of a hole.
It’s two shelves of Magic cards facing opposite ways.
It’s a wheelchair zooming down the halls of View Ridge Elementary.
When you look at it upside down it’s a not-quite-finished “g” and a backward “?”
Sideways it’s a pizza cutter in a thick slice of pepperoni pizza
or Michelle Obama’s open necklace.
K reminds me of my favorite teacher, Ms. Kwok.
K is a balance beam for room 16.
It’s a bridge crossing a river on Mount Rainier.
It’s a curved V or a water pipe.
I check a box on a multiple choice question.
It’s an arrow crashing into a brick wall.
It’s a bee sting bump and medicine on top of it.
It’s an upside down pyramid, balancing on its point.
It’s a water slide at Wild Waves.
It’s a teeter totter for Izaria and Will.
J is a cool day in January.
It is a fishing line plopping into the deep blue sea.
It’s the first letter in Jamba Juice, JarJar Binks, Judge Judy.
It’s a one-sided anchor dropping into the Pacific Ocean.
Watch out for the rusty bent nail!
It’s T with a bent tail.
It’s Sadie Jane with a bent leg.
It’s Jack in June on the last day of school.
Writing those metaphors together as a class seems to open the students up to adventurous possibilities. I let them choose whichever number or letter they like and they launch their own. Here are a few examples.
O, O is the start of my brother’s middle name. it’s the purple polka-dot on my underpants. it is Mickey Mouse’s ears. It is the race car track in LA. It is the secret of my number.
But to me O is friends with zero the hero the O in opera sung in an oval orphanage. It is notes in music. It is also a Q without any lines to poke you. It is the middle of Mom and start of “of.” O is a story to tell.
O is the surprise of everything you love and see. O I think is everything.
O is optimistic. It is a hole with nothing except the oval rock. It is a puddle or a lake with endless water.
It’s almost a double digit: 9. I can’t draw it right when it’s right side up.
Nine is the monster in my nightmare.
It’s a giant boulder from Indiana Jones
rolling down a hill.
Nine’s a telescope poking out of the water. Nine’s a six upside down.
Nine always puts down, yawning,
and sad, and all it does is complain.
Nine is a person stuck in an infinite labyrinth.
M is the first letter of my first last name. It is married
to W always (they are together on their upside down thrones).
M is two mountains separated by a valley between. It is an eel’s open mouth with no teeth. It is the tooth no tooth fairy will take because of a crack.
It is the alarmed horse’s ears standing up because it sees the jaguar’s ears moving through the split rocks.
M is when the roof of the tepee caves in like a bird’s beak fishing for a worm in dirt.
W is an M in disguise
It looks like a mountain with snow-covered peaks
It’s a bowl of fruit with a pointed bottom
with too tall sides
It is a baby bird
with her beak wide open trying to be
the one that gets the worm
I is a cold, sad, lonely letter.
I is an icy stare
that can stare through anything.
I can be terrible.
It can be a glass wall between two loved ones.
I is a way to let bad glints out.
I won’t get into trouble.
Poems won’t either.
With I around you can be bad.
I is four cliffs waiting to fall.
You would only stand there
on an I kind of night.
I kind of nights are
cold clear nights where the stars shine bright.
I has no friends, family,
or anything to love.
Maybe if I had a friend
it would own a smile,
not a frown.
3 is a butterfly wing
3 is the first digit of never-ending pi
3 is a mustache,
a lucky number,
the top of a heart.
3 is the top of a bunny’s ears
and an Easter egg cracked all the way apart
3’s like a doodle of a flying bird
3 has a lot to offer so come give it a try
2 is a big bump chair
2 is the front of a super charged boat on water
2 is a half balloon with a sideways string
2 is half a plum person’s head with no mouth, eyes, or nose
2 looks like a one dimensional noodle on a flat plate
2 is a half moon above a half horizon
2 is like Florida on a map
2 is like a bloody cut of fingernail
2 is like a wheel well on a Hummer Marauder
T is a stamp in the president’s hands, ready to proclaim a new law
T is an arrow smashing into a tree trunk startling all the birds and squirrels
T is a person under an umbrella trying to find his way home in the rain
T is the strong man at the circus who lost his head because he dropped his weight
T is the diving board I used when I was five, now it’s lonely because I swim somewhere else
T is the Indian woman balancing a rolled up carpet on her head
T is the crane downtown that I wish would go away because it is so ugly
T is the table at my sister’s school that never holds anything, just sits there
T is a cactus with two arms
T is a tree stump in the ground of Washington
9 is an upside down 6 who is only friends with 9’s.
9 is an upside down lowercase b.
9 is a flower with no petals, just one leaf.
9 is a road with a quiet wheel.
9 is much more than a slide with a loop-de-loop,
it’s an orange still attached to a branch.
It is a deep pocket on a girl’s dress.
It is an ear from a lazy old panda.
It is totally a mark for the wonderful Disneyland.
It is a big hot bowl with short handles on its side.
It is a helmet for the people who get dirty digging deep holes underground.
It is an old harp with a sad face because it only has one string.
It is a bow with no arrow and cannot shoot its enemy.
I Know What C Is
Do you know what C is? I do.
C is an unfinished moon, so sad and lonely with no friends, poor moon.
C is a mouth begging for more food.
C is where I like to relax and be by myself, it is hard to get inside the small hole.
C is a snickerdoodle cookie with a big bite out of it.
C is an unfinished O.
S is waves on a dark stormy night with my sister rolling around in her bed screaming for my mother
It’s a roller coaster in Disneyland with me and my family screaming so hard when we get off we all have sore throats
Sometimes it’s popcorn rolling around in my dad’s popcorn machine
In the jungle it’s a snake slithering across the ground
It’s a rest in music getting ready to roll up in a ball and end the song
screaming, shouting, Sally’s school, sounding, Santa, scaring, stool, shrieking, saying, “very cool.”
It’s a wave of my hair when my mom curls it with the curling iron
And don’t forget it’s also the start of my name!
It’s a snake slithering to catch its Pringles.
When S is spinning
it’s a working fan on a hot summer day.
It’s a newt crawling for its life
because an eagle is close.
L is a right angle with perfectly straight lines.
L is half of a rectangle
and a wall of a house.
L is a partial 4-way stop with cars backed up for blocks.
L is my arm bent writing a letter, a secret letter.
L is my desk.
I dive off L. It is a diving board.
L I see as a corner, I turn slowly, and cautiously.
I see L as a chair, a chair with no legs.
L sideways is a tent where I sleep in the mountains.
L is the base of a building.
L can be a road to nothing, or a road to something amazing. Impossible, beautiful.
So there you see, that is L.
0 is a chocolate doughnut missing its hole
0 is a dragon’s egg just waiting to hatch.
0 is the big ball of fire we know as the sun.
0 is a bumble bee’s body missing his head, stripes, wings, and stinger.
0 is a shiny, slimy snake’s scale.
0 is Lake Washington rippling in the wind.
0 is a sparkling rock glistening in the sun.
0 is a platter covered with crispy bacon
It’s a fan whirling round and round.
It can be a lovely mirror with a beautiful design.
So you see even though zero is nothing in numbers it really is something in pictures.
H is a sideways I and a bar stool.
It’s a short maze with ice cream stands at every corner.
It’s a star wars ship owned by the emperor.
It’s a broken ladder that will never be fixed.
Upside down it is a H clone
and a weird hat.
When H is on the beach it is two palm trees
with a hammock between them
Q is a stick man sleeping.
Q is a moon with a regrown leg.
O is asking Q, Do you have a cut?
It’s one stick in its whole lonely circle.
The only tree in the whole alphabet
and the royal queen of the whole kingdom.
Mountain of mashed potatoes with a melting
soft stick of butter in it.
A compass pointing to the cold north.
But it’s just meant to be regular boring Q