Teaching about Literary Symbolism in the Online Classroom

Certainly you remember the Lit Professor in college who saw symbolism in everything?

White was for purity and innocence. An owl referred to wisdom. The forest was “The human subconscious.”
Sometimes, literary analysis is a bit silly. Sometimes, though, the symbolic representations are clear and obvious to an experienced reader. How do we help young readers to see them?

In my physical classroom, I talked. I would simply tell the kids, “In literature, an apple is often a reference to the forbidden fruit in The Garden of Eden,” or “In Shakespeare, the person without eyes is often the most able to see.” I would use an expression, joke, or gesture to help the information stick.

The talking head, though, just doesn’t work in the online classroom.

How can we, as teachers in both online and traditional classrooms, get children to think about a symbol and understand what it might refer to?

I am teaching a course on The Giver, which is a Newbury Award winning piece of adolescent fiction by Lois Lowry. The book is full of symbols. Minor things that happen to the main character, Jonas, often foreshadow other events. For example, Jonas starts to see the color red occurring in odd ways. These strange experiences often happen to him just before he is about to interact with a girl that he has a crush on. He also has light-colored eyes, which is unusual for members of his community. At one point, the color red is flashing to him on an apple. He steals the apple, which he knows is against the rules. It was too tempting for him to resist.

The references to the apple as the forbidden fruit of The Garden of Eden are reasonably clear. While some astute young reader might figure this out by themselves, a suggestion is very helpful.

I have been making quick slide show collages on Animoto and PhotoPeach to define and suggest symbols to my students.

It is really easy. I capture images with an image capture tool such as Jing or I choose images from the libraries that are associated with the slide-show creation websites. I choose appropriate music and add some text. With some exploration, you can find music that supports the idea that you want to convey.

Here is the video that I made on “The Eyes in Literature” in Animoto.

Here is a video I made to convey the importance of the color “Red” on PhotoPeach.

These videos are meant to be a quick, cute, suggestion for the students, not necessarily a thorough explanation of the symbol and everything that it could mean. They lead to conversation and examination, while allowing the students to do some discovering themselves.

When and How to Use these Videos:

In the online classroom: Videos such as these are also helpful to schedule into a class to give you a second to breathe or organize your thoughts.

In the flipped classroom: You could assign several videos to be watched before the next class and then discuss them during class.

In the asynchronous classroom: These videos could be part of a student’s lesson.

As independent work: A teacher could assign students to make their own videos exploring the same or similar themes. The software is easy to use.

Go Explore!

NOTE: Animoto, Masher, and Photopeach are all great places to begin. They are free or really inexpensive, and they offer great deals for teachers.


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at www.onlineclassesforgroovykids.org.

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