Symbols and Metaphors

  1. Introduction
  2. Teach It 
  3. Dig Deeper


This segment is about how artists and writers rely on symbolism to help convey their ideas. The Narrator walks the viewer through a symbolic analysis of a photograph by Wang Fen, “On the Wall: Haiku 6.” Playwright Fateh Azzam discusses the symbolism in his work.

Time: 45-50 minute period


  • Students will recognize the use of symbols in art and writing as a method to convey ideas.
  • Students will examine a work of art and identify how the artist used symbolism to convey an idea.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts:

  • W.CCR.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • W.CCR. 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.
  • W.CCR.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • W.CCR.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Segment Vocabulary:

symbolism, metaphors, contemporary, modernization, interpretation, exodus, dichotomy
Word Wall

Teach It

Prior to viewing:

Students will need to have a general understanding of symbolism before viewing the segment.  Introduce or revisit the idea of symbolism by showing common symbols, such as those for your school, first aid, bathrooms, breast cancer awareness, etc. and ask the class to define “symbol.”  Next, show them an image of or display an American flag.  Discuss how, at the most basic level, the piece of cloth is intended to represent the United States.  Then, ask students to think about how different people would likely interpret the flag in different ways, a veteran vs. a terrorist, for example. Ask students to write a few sentences about what the flag means to them, their personal interpretation.

Next, tell students that they will be watching a segment about symbolism in art and how writers, too, use symbolism in their work to communicate ideas.

Writing Through Art Activity

Display the image(s) students used to construct paragraphs in the previous segment. Ask them to evaluate the image and write their answers to these questions:

What do you think is the main idea that the artist is trying to convey?

Describe the symbolism the artist used to help convey the idea. What did the artist do or include in the image to help get the main idea across to the viewer?

Symbols and Metaphors

Dig Deeper

Note: If students created a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast art and writing in the first segment, revisit the diagram and make any necessary additions or corrections based on this segment.

Display an image from Bates Museum of Art and ask students to create a story based on the picture. Their story should be supported by the elements of the image, yet the idea would be for them to use the image to write a creative piece. Other options could be to create a dialogue between two subjects or objects in the image or compose a monologue for a single subject.

Creating a story based on a painting

To provide students with an opportunity to practice their analysis skills, display an image from Bates Museum of Art and walk the class through how to search for symbols within the image. Ask them to state what they think the main idea of the piece is and what caused them to come to that conclusion. Discuss various interpretations of the piece.

An activity to assess main ideas in writing is to show students a word cloud created from text. For example, create a word cloud for the text of the Declaration of Independence.  Begin by showing students the word cloud and asking them to scan the collection of words to determine the document represented by the word cloud.  Students should note that “people,” “laws,” and “right,” are among the most prominent words and convey the important ideas in the Declaration.  (Alternatively, this activity would also work with creating a word cloud for a student handbook, code of conduct or classroom rules.)  Ask students to use the online tool to create a word cloud for a piece of their own writing.  Does the word cloud display what the student thought was the main idea of their work?

Link to teacher inspired lessons: