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Sunday, September 3, 2017

How to Not Beat a Dead Horse when the Sky Continuously Rains Cats and Dogs (and other Worn-out Phrases)

Does your head spin after reading four out of five essays in which a student claims they are able to "run as fast as a cheetah"? Does the phrase "It's raining cats and dogs" play in your head like a broken record? Do you feel like pulling your hair out when you hear similar expressions?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, this blog may be right up your alley.

Here are five insights from my own teaching experience that will help you avoid beating a dead horse and keep learning fun and relevant.

1. Add sparkle to creative writing experiences.

At the beginning of the year, I had my creative writing students brainstorm a list their favorite expressions, namely idioms, on individual strips of paper. The idioms were added to the mix of other student created prompts and placed in a shoe box dubbed our class "prompt generator".

It never failed for the worn-out expression "raining cats and dogs" to make the list. The day the prompt was selected, I felt a twitch forming in my left eye. Lo and behold, one of my students, Jared (not his real name) did something so creative!

He fused the prompt with a previous prompt and drafted a story titled: The Day it Rained Cats and Dogs was the Day the Animals Escaped from the Zoo! Jared collaborated with a first grade classroom who then illustrated the story! Jared shared his story with his elementary illustrators on World Read-Aloud Day using Skype.

2. Ditch idioms from the stone-age and teach in context. 

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, pop artists like Taylor Swift's mega-hit, Shake it Off, or Justin Timberlake's Can't Stop the Feeling contain a plethora of figurative language expressions. If you're in need of a fun and relevant activity, I suggest creating a Scavenger Hunt, old school style, and have students work in teams to find these jewels tucked away in their favorite songs.

Another activity is to have students collect phrases that have emerged in their lifetime. I had a middle schooler explain to me what a person meant when they used the expression, I can't unsee it. Online Memes are also popular for holding modern day phrases.

During book clubs or when teaching poetry, my students would play "I spy". During read-alouds, my students knew to be listening for figurative language expressions. We would add these expressions to others on a word wall. The expressions had meaning and context and students were able to access and include these phrases in their own writing.

3. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

One year I had my middle school students work in small groups to  investigate the origins of an expression or develop their own theories. Idioms such as when pigs fly and don't let the cat out of the bag have fascinating histories!

I got the idea after an art student gave me a coffee mug he had designed in art class that showed a pig flying. It was one of my favorite mugs, until he shared the gruesome story involving pigs leaping to escape from being slaughtered!

I began challenging my students to investigate the history of idioms. They discovered that some of our common figurative expressions date back as far as 397 A.D. If my students were unable to find the origin of a expression, they were encouraged to generate a hypothesis. It proved to be a productive way to get my students researching and reporting their findings.

Hint: I found that my middle schoolers (especially boys who were gamers and liked gore) would hit the pavement running if I said something to the effect, "Be careful sharing these stories with others who have a weak stomach."

4. Step out-of-the-box and create opportunities to celebrate diversity.

Students who come to us from different cultures have their own figurative language expressions. I suggest giving students who come to our school from other countries, the opportunity to share expressions unique to their culture (and in their first language).

This is an awesome way to celebrate our differences and learn from one another.

Here is an example. Create a template that include these questions:
1. What is the saying?
2. What language or dialect?
3. What is the literal English translation?
4. Is the saying a proverb? If so, what is the lesson?

A fun extension activity is to play pictionary or heads-up and include the expressions.

5. Keep an open mind to new interpretations.

One year I was assigned a social skills class for middle school students on the autism spectrum. My students took words and phrases literally which presented unique challenges. One of my students, Kristy (not her real name) was especially puzzled by the idiom "it's raining cats and dogs."

Kristy showed me a picture she had drawn of a landscape  with soft, squiggly lines falling from the sky.

I thought, "I've really blown this lesson!"

I stopped and asked Kristy to describe her drawing.

She pointed to the squiggly lines and explained matter-of-factly, "Oh, instead of raining cats and dogs...I changed it to know, just in case it's only sprinkling."

Have a great 2017-2018 school year and go break a leg!

Confession Reflection:
  • How does figurative language enrich our oral and written language? How are these expressions reflective of  history and diverse cultures?
  • Why would it be important to teach these expressions in context rather than in isolation? (Worksheets, multiple choice, matching activities).
  • Are there some figurative language expressions that we should abandon? Why or why not?
  • How many idioms can you spot in this blog? 
figurative language (n.) language that uses words or expressions with a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation.  Idioms are under the umbrella of figurative language and include English colloquials as "hold your tongue" or "easy as pie."

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