In an Intro to Literature class, I recently had a college student ask why we should bother looking for symbols in a text. Why, he argued, can’t writers just say what they mean? Several other students concurred. This began a class-wide, in-depth exploration of symbols, one surprisingly similar to those I’ve shared with elementary school students.
The short answer is symbols are everywhere. From red lights to valentine hearts to emojis, we interpret and respond to symbols every day. They can be found on streets, on tee-shirts, and in movies. The longer answer extends to the richness of language and depth of understanding. When writers use symbols, they help us tap into a larger database of association and knowledge. The more we read, learn and experience, the more likely we are to be able to identify and interpret symbols.
When introducing the concept for younger students, it is helpful to point out common symbols and ask them to provide meaning. Some are so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that every student in class should be able to arrive at the same conclusion: Hearts are equated with love, flags with countries, and thumbs-up with acknowledgement of a job well done. This discussion lends itself to an array of larger topics. In Kindergarten, students learn about community and often create symbols to signify the differences between schools, hospitals, grocery stores and fire stations. Patriotic symbols become a focus in first grade. Students must recognize and understand the significance of the Stature of Liberty, Uncle Sam, the Liberty Bell, and the bald eagle. Most symbols endure because they make sense. The Statue of Liberty lights the way for those seeking equality and freedom, the bald eagle soars free above the clouds, and so forth.
In addition to their use as signifiers, symbols punctuate the poetic nature of literature. Fairy tales, for example, are chalk-full of rich symbols. It is difficult to imagine Little Red without her hood, Hansel and Gretel without the candied house, or the Rough-faced Girl without her scars. If students learn the logic of symbols (instead of just memorizing them), they are more likely to be able to identify and read symbols in less familiar contexts.
By the time they are reading chapter books, students should be trained to automatically look for symbols alongside themes, character traits and main topics. An excellent example can be found in Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. In this book, the astronaut helmet profoundly informs our understanding of Augie’s plight. Not only does it conceal his face, but it also keeps people as a distance – gives him space. As an astronaut, he is isolated from the dangers (or cruelties) which might threaten him. Were he merely to cover his face with, say, his hair, we would miss out on seeing how truly alone he feels.
When students learn to recognize and construe symbols, they are invited into a larger context of knowing. Symbols – both cultural and universal – inform our brains and our hearts, and heighten our awareness of implications, poetic imagery, comprehension and connections.