Write a good simile for me.
Go ahead; I’ll wait.
Not so easy, right?
You can come up with a bad simile in a minute or two or rattle off a dozen cliches with no problem, but writing a simile that’s fresh and interesting is a much more difficult task, which makes it all the more impressive when we come across one. We encourage students to use similes in their writing to add detail and style, but in addition to strengthening writing, similes can help students analyze, make connections, and look at things in unexpected ways.
Let me start by saying that students will write a lot of bad similes before they strike gold. And that’s okay; it’s all part of the process. To give students practice, I regularly invite them to play with similes during notebook time. In Write Like This, Kelly Gallagher recommends using the board game Imaginiff for writing prompts, which are perfect for helping students write similes and provide choice and structure. Here’s an example:
If your best friend were a fabric, he/she would be
because . . .
These prompts are quick and fun, and because of the choices, no one can say that they can’t think of something. The key piece is the “because” portion of the statement, which requires the student to truly show the connection between the two seemingly unrelated items. When asked to compare a teacher to a zoo animal, here is an example Tanya wrote about me:
Mrs. Schroeder is like a lion, claiming books as her own and devouring literature. She springs on creativity and playfully bats our imaginations through her class.
Sometimes I need to reinforce the fact that a simile is figurative and connects two things that are fundamentally different. For example, when I asked students to write a simile explaining the relationship between George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, I got a few responses like this:
The relationship between George and Lennie is like two friends.
The relationship between George and Lennie is like a caregiver and his ward.
Just having the word like in there doesn’t make these similes; George and Lennie literally are friends and have a caregiver/ward relationship. To reinforce this concept, I gave students a list of intangible items, such as love, commitment, and anxiety, and a list of tangible objects, such as a backpack, CD, or cell phone. Students had to choose an item from each list and explain the connection with a simile. This activity emphasizes how the two items in a simile should be fundamentally different. Kyla wrote this:
Commitment is like a CD because it’s good at the beginning, but once it gets scratched up, you can never use it again.
After this exercise, we returned to our George and Lennie similes with greater success.
The relationship between George and Lennie is like a bee and a flower. One does the heavy lifting while the other provides for the group entirely. —Kelsey
Lennie is like a river. He can be soft and gentle or he can be unpredictable and dangerous. —Steven
These examples illustrate how similes can be used to look more deeply into characters and relationships in the books we read. I could have simply asked students to write a paragraph describing the relationship between two characters or to give a character analysis, but asking them to write a simile requires them to carefully examine qualities and traits while connecting them to something unexpected. It is more succinct, but requires higher-level thinking.
Using similes to analyze literature can have two benefits. For example, while reading The Great Gatsby, students wrote similes throughout to deepen their understanding of character and relationship, but when it was time to write our final essay, many students also used one of their similes as an interesting lead. You can see how Trenton, an average writer, used a simile to create an interesting lead for his essay:
The relationship between Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby is like a tire with a hole in it. The relationship is full of life and air at the beginning but soon dies off by the end of the book. You can see how Daisy slowly starts to fade away from Gatsby as the air slowly leaks out of their relationship.
The simile required him to really think about the course of Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship, but it also became a writing tool that he could use to write a really strong lead for his essay.
Because good similes are so memorable, they can be used to help students understand and remember difficult concepts. For instance, to review vocabulary words, we often play a game of Categories. I have a basket filled with strips of paper with different categories, such as a plant, NFL team, or movie theater food. A student volunteer picks the category, which we then use to create a simile for a chosen vocabulary word. The category was “item found in a classroom,” and the vocabulary word was forthright; here is what Natalio came up with:
“Forthright” is like a clock because it never lies, but presents information clearly for all to see.
And Isaac wrote this:
“Forthright” is like Go Guardian [our online monitoring program] because it shows you that you’re being watched without trying to hide it or beating around the bush.
One of my favorite things about using similes in the classroom is having students share them. Students tend to be shy at first, but once they’ve written a clever simile, they’re dying to share. The inevitable declarations of “Ooh, that’s a good one!” or “I never thought about it that way!” not only show that my students are thinking creatively and making deeper connections, but also provide motivation for other students to keep trying to strike that simile gold to get the same reaction.