Teaching and learning really come down to connections and re-connections, and metaphors are wonderfully apt in creating those bridges in kindergarten, special education, gifted education, ELL classes, elementary/middle/high school, and at the university level. It’s such a commonly occurring yet powerful force in learning, we really shouldn’t leave it to chance or occasional attention.
NBCT and Disney Teaching Award winner Rick Wormeli began his writing and professional development career more than a decade ago, drawing on his many years of practice as a middle grades teacher in Northern Virginia to produce two “classics” for novice middle school educators, Meet Me in the Middle and Day One and Beyond. Wormeli, a long time member of the Teacher Leaders Network, has gone on to write other books about key aspects of effective teaching, including Differentiation, Fair Isn’t Always Equal (assessment), Summarization in Any Subject, and most recently, Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject.
In a recent interview with fellow TLN member Elizabeth Stein, herself an NBCT (literacy) and special education teacher in New York, Rick explains his own fascination with the power of metaphor and analogy to increase student learning — and extends the discussion with insightful opinions about the need for teachers to take full ownership of their own professional growth and to resist the anti-intellectualism that Wormeli sees as a significant barrier to advancing the teaching profession.
We have to convince teachers that intellectual and professional explorations are positive things, directly benefiting them. Teachers who question policies, offer new research to consider, share compelling professional reading with others — who post regularly on professional listervs and networks and think critically about teaching and assessment practices — should be affirmed and supported, not made to feel like the goody-goody at the front of the room keeping everyone from recess because they are excited about amphibians and have one more question to ask about tree frogs in the Amazon.
At the end of the interview, Rick Wormeli invites anyone with an interest in pursuing these ideas to get in touch. We tell you how.
Elizabeth Stein: Rick, your idea for a book about teaching with metaphors was extraordinary, and I wonder why no one had written such a book before. Did you get any strange looks from your fans, colleagues or publisher when you proposed it? And how has it been received?
Almost everyone wondered how I could make this into a full-length book. Just like a lot of ideas in education, however, once you start going down the path, you see these other branches in the path. Then, suddenly, one path connects to a parallel path, but the two of them lead to an even greater route, and you have an “A-ha!” moment.
My publisher was supportive, but definitely wanted a fleshed out chapter outline just to make sure there was plenty of “meat,” and to make sure the content wasn’t just a re-statement of old ideas in new skin. I agreed with this — I hate to waste educators’ time with things they already know. There are some things in the book that many teachers understand, but I believe there is plenty of new thinking or alternative perspectives that can ignite novel applications.Today, when most people hear of the book, they nod politely and think they know basically what it is – another tool for teaching metaphors in English or Language Arts class. While there’s plenty in the book that will help English and Language Arts teachers do that teaching, the majority of the book is for teachers of all subjects and grade levels. In fact, one of the nicest and most accurate commentaries I’ve seen about the book came from a technology blogger who applied the ideas to technology education. And Marsha Ratzel, a well-respected math and science teacher, wrote about how she was excited about all the science applications. Yes!
When I explain the book’s premise to teachers and administrators, they get very interested, noticing the same opportunities and connections that I saw when writing. They are curious about the practical applications, especially when so much of the book’s material helps teachers differentiate instruction and integrate many of the 21st century skills so often cited as necessary for students’ success.When you researched other writing about teaching with metaphors, what did you find?
Before I began, I wondered whether anyone had written a book about this topic, too. When I dove into the research, I found a paragraph, a page, or a chapter in many different books where authors alluded to the possibilities, but nowhere did anyone flesh out metaphor applications across the disciplines to make them doable in daily planning, or to extend the possibilities into differentiated instruction.
There are several terrific books on cognitive linguistics, the larger domain in which metaphorical thinking and writing resides, but these were mostly research and analysis about the nature of the human mind. Not much was practical or inspiring for the educator. When I went back through my old lesson plans and saw all these metaphors in the lessons that were successful, I realized there was a missing bridge between the esoteric thinking about metaphors and real classroom application, and I became excited about the potential for the book.
When Kelly Gallagher, someone I respect very much, came out with his wonderful book, Deeper Reading, he had a great chapter in there about the power of metaphors in teaching. Though he wrote mostly about literature and character analysis, my mind was making connections to science, law, physical education, technology, religion, foreign language, politics, math, drama, art, music, and much more. I almost couldn’t finish reading his book; I was so excited about the possibilities for metaphors. That week, I wrote the first outline for the book.You clearly express that it's time to "bust metaphors out of solitary confinement in English classes. Shackles off, metaphors are ready to serve any teacher of any subject in any grade level." In your experiences are there any limitations? Is there a type of teacher, subject, or grade level where the application of metaphors is more successful than another?
Great question. When someone like me speaks in seeming hyperbole, it’s reasonable to start looking for a limitation or catch. But I have yet to find a general exception. From the earliest learning experiences to the most advanced, whenever someone struggles to convey an idea or skill to someone else, they think of something familiar for the intended learner and try to map similarities between the new idea and the familiar frame of reference.
It’s amazing how quickly teachers and non-teachers alike pick up on this technique. I’ve seen sports coaches, CEO’s, dental hygienists, pharmacists, auto mechanics, heater repair personnel, landscapers, lifeguards, and many more professions use analogies and metaphors readily to explain something or to make an emphatic point, and I’ve seen it even more so since doing the intense research for the book
This quick resort to metaphors on our part is probably in our nature to some degree, as humans are consummate learners: The brain is wired for ceaseless learning. We quickly develop tools for making sense of the world, and one of the primary techniques is comparing new concepts to something we know and noting the differences and similarities. We constantly seek meaningful patterns: think of how many people look at the physical geography and shadows on one spot on Mars and see a human face, but it’s really just that geography and shadows, nothing more.
Teaching and learning really come down to connections and re-connections, and metaphors are wonderfully apt in creating those bridges in kindergarten, special education, gifted education, ELL classes, elementary/middle/high school, and at the university level. It’s such a commonly occurring yet powerful force in learning, we really shouldn’t leave it to chance or occasional attention. Hence, the book.