When it comes to complex characters that undergo significant changes, I notice my students struggle with identifying what motivates these characters and why they morph into better (or sometimes worse) versions of themselves. And yet, it is these very characters my students seem to identify with and connect to. As a first-year National Board candidate last year, I realized I needed to incorporate other mediums like drawing to allow my students to deepen their understanding of these very complex characters.
My PLC and I completed a Book Study for Kelly Gallagher's Deeper Reading. Within Chapter 7: Using Metaphor to Deepen Comprehension, Gallagher explains John Powers' "iceberg" metaphor. After reading this chapter, I realized I'd found a strategy I could model for my students that just might lead them into the deeper comprehension Gallagher speaks of and my students so desperately need.
Modeling the “Iceberg” Drawing
At the time I implemented the “iceberg” lesson, my students were working in Book Clubs (each group was comprised of at least three students with at least one male and one female, no two groups used the same novel). I framed my lesson by explaining that during my reading conferences, I noticed they were struggling with questions I asked about character motivations, behaviors, the reasons for their actions and why these characters were undergoing change. In a whole-class setting, I solicited a list of nouns and adjectives we could use to describe our characters and wrote these on my smartboard (I asked my students to copy these down in their Readers Journals).
Once we had a nice-sized list, I drew an “iceberg” on a new screen. I explained that characters are like real people, they’re complex beings. They may present themselves one way on the outside, but below the surface, they may be secretive, sophisticated, and the people around them might not know their struggles--sometimes the characters themselves may not recognize what’s going on below the surface. And as good readers, in order for us to have a strong understanding of these characters, we need to identify and analyze what they’re like below the surface.
At the time, I was reading How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. I chose Yolanda “Yo-Yo” for my “iceberg” and wrote her name at the top of my “iceberg” drawing. Above the surface on the left side of the iceberg, I wrote: creative; on the right, I wrote: loving. Below the surface on the left, I added: insecure; on the right, devastated. I explained that Yo-Yo is creative because she is a poet and loves language, even if her English isn’t perfect. I then explained she’s loving because she loves men too quickly and they often take advantage of her, or don’t feel the same way. As for insecure, I explained that Yolanda doesn’t believe that she’s a good writer and she’s often insecure about speaking/writing in English. I explained that she’s devastated when she’s heartbroken after a break-up and, as a result, has a complete mental breakdown.
I then asked my students to draw their own “icebergs” on a new page in their Readers Journals and asked them to write one noun or adjective in each quadrant to describe what their characters were like above and below the surface. Once students finished, I had a few come up and share their “icebergs” under the document camera. These drawings served as our foundation for further metaphorical thinking.
Breaking Surface-Level Thinking
Once we had this foundational step complete, I drew a second “iceberg” and explained that now we needed to represent our characters’ personality traits through drawings represented in metaphors. In place of creative, I drew a pen and a journal with lines that looked like stanzas of poetry. For loving, I drew a picture of Yolanda with a big heart and her arms stretched out. In place of insecure, I drew a fence that was cracked with pieces falling out. And for devastated, I drew a rain cloud with drops of rain forming into a pool and Yolanda drowning in it. I explained each of my metaphors in detail and asked my students to do the same, doubling the work time for this step.
As students worked on their “iceberg” metaphor drawings, I walked around the room checking their understanding and asking open-ended questions to those struggling with what they might use to represent the words they’d chosen in their first “iceberg” drawing. Many students caught on quickly and helped their peers come up with ideas for their “iceberg” metaphors.
Again, I asked a few students to share under the document camera, but advised them not to explain their drawings. Instead, for each “iceberg” metaphor, I asked the rest of the class what these drawings might show about each character. For each quadrant, students made inferences and checked in with the presenter to see if they were right. When they were, we moved onto the next quadrant of the presenter’s “iceberg”. When students were off, the presenter explained his/her metaphor and the character traits he/she chose to represent.
In this step, students enjoyed the challenged of “breaking the surface” with their “iceberg” metaphors. They came up with some incredible symbols for their characters’ personalities and even better reasons for why they’d chosen to draw such symbols to represent their characters’ personality traits above and below the surface. But, we still had more work to do.
Deepening Comprehension with Further Metaphorical Thinking
The final step in our “iceberg” metaphor work involved explaining our metaphor drawings by writing metaphors. This late in the school year, we’d practiced writing metaphors in a variety of pieces so my students were experts at creating them, but applying this skill in a different context with our “iceberg” drawings would give them further practice and would help me determine whether or not they had a strong understanding of the characters they were analyzing.
I drew a final “iceberg” and in the upper left quadrant, using metaphor I explained: Yolanda is a creative pen that bleeds poetry. For the quadrant below this, I wrote: Yolanda’s insecurity is like an old brick wall, cracked and falling apart. I finished the remaining quadrants in my “iceberg” and then asked the students to follow my lead. Because this step requires the most critical thinking, I tripled the work time for my students and reminded them about our earlier work in the semester using Gallagher’s tangible and intangible metaphor exercise.
Initially, students struggled in this step, but as they used Think-Alouds in their Book Clubs to discuss their characters, they began to catch on. Many students made several attempts and revised their metaphors because they knew they could do better. Again, I walked around the room observing and offering support as needed. For those students who needed additional time, I allowed them to compete this step for homework. Like before, I had a few students share and we evaluated which metaphors worked well and which metaphors could be improved.
The Benefits of Extending Metaphorical Thinking
This was the first time I taught my students the “iceberg” metaphor, and I will continue to use it with future students. Because I scaffold my instruction by teaching students how to identify and create metaphors for a variety of purposes and writing pieces previous to this lesson, many were successful and many accepted the challenges in each step with great enthusiasm.
By implementing the “iceberg” lesson into my instruction, my students were able to:
- work at their pace and ability level
- combine previous learning to new learning
- analyze the characters within these novels
- use their “icebergs” as prewriting for a character analysis essay
- self-assess their understanding of these characters
- compare their metaphors to those of other students
- deepen their comprehension of the novels they were reading
Incorporating strategies like the “iceberg” metaphor allow me to differentiate my instruction to better meet the needs of my ELL students and those students who have difficulty representing their ideas in words—students who, prior to this lesson, hadn’t always been successful in analyzing the characters within the novels they’d read. It was their “icebergs” that impressed me most.
Gallagher, Kelly. Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. Portland, ME:
Stenhouse Publishers, 2004.