Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: English–Language Arts
Time Required: 3–5–Part Lesson
2-3 class periods
Author: Steven Gee, English Teacher, Fairfax Senior High School Magnet Center for the Visual Arts, Los Angeles, with J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom

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Lesson Overview

Students define metaphor and discuss its use in writing and visually. Students develop a personal metaphor and use it to write about their own experience.

Learning Objectives

• Students will define "metaphor" and discuss examples of it in writing.
• Students will look carefully at a photograph by Dorothea Lange and discuss its relationship to the concept of metaphor.
• Students will write effectively about their own experience, picking an object to serve as a personal metaphor.
• Students will produce a work of art that expresses visually what they expressed in writing.
• Students will orally present their personal metaphor and discuss how it reflects who they are.


Writing paper
11-x-14-inch paper for artwork

Lesson Steps

Day 1: Have a ten-minute discussion to define the terms "metaphor" (a direct comparison of two unlike things) and "symbolism" (for example, an object or person that stands for or represents something else and often can express multiple meanings), providing examples from current classroom reading. The discussion should focus on how a metaphor is a descriptive symbol for another thing. Ask students for other examples they are familiar with. Even if students are already familiar with the term, have this discussion so that comparison can be made to Lange's use of metaphor in a visual form.

Using the photo-analysis questions below, students discuss the Lange photograph Indonesia, considering both the image and the title, to explore how the image is a metaphor.

• What do you see, think, and feel when you look at this photograph?
• What sort of response do you think Lange wanted you to have?
• How did Lange "frame" her picture of these children?
• What patterns or repeating motifs can you find in this picture?
• Why do you think that Lange included only her subjects' feet in this picture?
• What can you say about the people in this photograph just by looking at their feet?
• What is the relationship between the feet and the title of the photograph? What do the feet tell you about Indonesia?

Provide information on Lange's life from background material (page B1). Why do you think she might have been especially interested in feet?

What elements make feet either an accurate or an inaccurate gauge of who someone is?

Have students discuss the differences and similarities between written and visual metaphors. Is one more telling or powerful than the other, or do they both have unique strengths? If they were going to express Lange's metaphor in words, how would that read?

Day 2: Have students write for ten to fifteen minutes to begin to develop a concept for a personal metaphor. Students may write either in journals or on single sheets of paper. Questions to get them thinking include:

• What hobbies do you have?
• What items or objects do you collect?
• What events in your life have had a profound effect on you?
• To what things in your life do you feel a special connection?
• Pick one object to stand as a metaphor for you and write about why this object symbolizes you. Or pick an event in your life that you can represent metaphorically.

Have students read what they wrote and discuss their responses.

Day 3: Give students an 11-x-14-inch sheet of paper and explain that they will visually express the personal metaphor they previously developed.

Give students the option of finding ready-made imagery by clipping or photocopying from a magazine, newspaper, Internet site, photograph, or book, or by drawing their response using pastels or colored pencils (if available).

Ask students to arrange and affix the images to the paper, and include a title written directly on the collage/visual. Have them think creatively about how to include the title. It may simply be a caption in the corner, or it may be incorporated into the image in some way.

Have students write two to three paragraphs that answer some or all of the following questions:

• Why does this object represent you or the event in your life?
• How did you decide to choose this particular object or group of images?
• Can you pinpoint the exact aspect or quality of the object that compels you?
• What emotions do you feel when you see this object?
• How long has this object been something you relate to?
• Is there any past experience or event in your life that gave this object special significance?
• What might this metaphor tell others about you?

Have students make an oral presentation about their work of art and their writing, discussing how the two things relate.

Indonesia / Lange
Indonesia, Dorothea Lange, 1958. © Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland


• Teacher observation of student discussion and work.
• Students should demonstrate ability to discuss Lange's photograph in relation to the concept of metaphor.
• Verbally and in writing, students should be able to define and give an example of metaphor, creating their own work of art that expresses this concept.


• Have students interview others to find out what they consider to be their personal metaphor/symbol.
• Have students research a historical or contemporary figure and create a visual metaphor/symbol for that individual.
• Have students find a metaphor in a poem or other literary work and have them draw on one side what the writer/poet is trying to express and on the other side what the statement would look like if it were to be taken literally.
• Have students clip print ads or record commercials and have them explain how advertisers compare qualities of certain objects/images to their own product.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–12

Text Types and Purposes
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

English-Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 6

1.2–Identify and interpret figurative language and words with multiple meanings.
3.7–Explain the effects of common literary devices (e.g., symbolism, imagery, metaphor) in a variety of fictional and non-fictional texts.

Grade 7
1.1–Identify idioms, analogies, metaphors, and similes in prose and poetry.

Grade 8
1.1–Analyze idioms, analogies, metaphors, and similes to infer the literal and figurative meanings of phrases.
3.6–Identify significant literary devices (e.g., metaphor, symbolism, dialect, irony) that define a writer's style and use those elements to interpret the work.

Grades 9–10
1.1–Identify and use the literal and figurative meanings of words and understand word derivations.
2.5–Extend ideas presented in primary or secondary sources through original nalysis, evaluation, and elaboration.
3.7–Recognize and understand the significance of various literary devices, including figurative language, imagery, allegory, and symbolism, and explain their appeal.

Grades 11–12
Listening and Speaking
1.3–Interpret and evaluate the various ways in which events are presented and information is communicated by visual-image makers (e.g., graphic designers, documentary filmmakers, illustrators, news photographers).

National Standards for English-Language Arts

Grades K–12

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language. (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).