Matriculation and Metaphor: The Mother of All Core Skills

I had a lovely Mother’s Day, thank you.

A word root for “mother” is embedded in much language surrounding education: matrix, matriculation, alma mater. To begin to reflect on this phenomenon, one must retreat into a bit of metaphorical thinking. A student is born into a school system, and it becomes her soul mother.  Curious metaphors: they bear more exploration.

And yet the vast majority of my sophomores aren’t quite ready for that kind of thinking. They comprehend familiar metaphors, but when asked to examine more complex metaphors the process becomes murkier. Ask them to create metaphors, and too often they are baffled, or they retreat into the familiar. As do we all most of the time. I’m working on strategies for this. It’s a gap that I’m just realizing could be essential.

Metaphors are important. Metaphors are often the only hope we have of processing the tangled strands of data we encounter each day. (Hence, possibly, the popularity of infographics.) In addition, the ability to see things metaphorically gives us the tools to explore our humanity. Many linguists and literature professors would in fact argue that language itself is metaphor.

Here’s a poem I wrote during the state testing this year:


I am sitting in a biology classroom
watching sophomores take a math exam.
The ferrets are scratching
to get out of their habitat.
This is not a metaphor;
mammals plead in the
cabinet behind me,
and a slowly urgent snake
noses the glass above.

The ferrets are a metaphor.
Of course they are.
And the nosy snake.
The trees we use to trace our families.
The up we go when we improve.
The concept of progress.
The mountains we climb;
the molehills we build
as we ferret our way through
each obstacle.
Or fall flat on our faces.

The scratching of the literal ferrets
doesn’t bother me.
I worry when,
back in my English classroom,
I ask my students to create metaphors,
and they peer about the room
as though there might be
one lurking in the corners.

I believe that metaphorical thinking is a core skill. It is not mentioned in the Common Core standards half as often as it should be, but when the standards are unpacked it is clear that we must encourage this kind of fluid movement among the empirical and the imaginative, the abstract and the concrete, between what we know and what we are learning.

I offer you this crumb as something to chew on.



Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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