Lesson Title: Home Is Where the Hurt Is: Denotation, Connotation, Tone, and Imagery in “How I learned to Cook,” “Every Little Hurricane” and “My Papa’s Waltz” Course and Grade

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Lesson Title: Home Is Where the Hurt Is: Denotation, Connotation, Tone, and Imagery in “How I Learned to Cook,” “Every Little Hurricane” and “My Papa’s Waltz”

Course and Grade: Sophomore English, 10th

Generalization: The main idea here is for students to be able to compare themes, and gain an understanding of connotation, denotation, tone, imagery, in both prose examples (and the example poem) on similar themes (that alcoholism destroys lives, dysfunctional families hurt, struggles with father leave deep psychological wounds). This lesson is important for students to learn because it will help those who have dealt with abuse to know that they are not alone, that others have gone through it and survived; that writing about it can be therapeutic. It will help those who have not experienced these things to understand this is a serious issue and to consider that not all families are as happy or as functional as their own. Also, students need to be able to ‘read between the lines’ and make inferences, and identify basic literary conventions like the use of powerful metaphorical language, imagery, and using the connotations of certain words to establish a tone. All this will help them become better writers.

Learning Targets:

Concepts: connotation, denotation, tone, imagery, metaphorical language (metaphor and simile).

Skills: EL’s: Reading 2.3e apply information gained from reading to give a response and express insight

1.4a identify literary devices (exaggeration, irony, humor, dialogue, devices that develop characterization, tension, and mood)

1.4c analyze literary elements (plot, characters, setting, theme, point of view, conflict, resolution)

2.1c use prior knowledge of issues, characters, events, and information to examine texts and extend understanding

2.1d synthesize ideas from selections to make predictions and inferences about various texts

2.2a critically compare, contrast, and connect ideas within and among a broad range of texts.

Materials: Lesson plan, copies of “Every Little Hurricane” and “How I Learned to Cook,” copies of “My Papa’s Waltz,” paper, pencils, pens, chalkboard, chalk.

Anticipatory Set: Commonly confused and misused words, Word of the Day. “Does anyone know the number one reason why women are admitted to emergency rooms in our nation? I’ll tell you this: it’s not childbirth, suicide attempts or accidents.” (Call on students.)

“The number one reason women are admitted to emergency rooms in this nation is domestic violence. More than car accidents, accidents in the home, muggings, stranger-attacks, more women are admitted to emergency rooms because their boyfriends, husbands, or girlfriends or wives, have beaten them, than for any other reason. Families are often the places where we as human beings learn about love. But they are also the places where a lot of people learn about pain. There is a flip side to the traditional Ozzie and Harriet, Beaver-Cleaver American family that is our ideal. In reality, there is a lot of pain in a lot of families, and sadly, that is also part of our national experience and part of the heritage that too many of us share. Domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse: these are issues that affect all types of families, crossing boundaries of race, ethnic background, religion, income level, or family structure; whether you have two parents or one, whether there are step-parents or not, or a child being raised by grandparents, or whatever. It affects all types of families regardless of race, religion, family type, income level, whatever. Today we’re going to get some different perspectives on fathers, dysfunctional families, alcohol, from three different authors: one who is Native, two who are white. Two pieces are prose, which is any writing that’s not poetry, one piece is a poem.”

Context and Purpose: “Today what I’d like for you to be able to do is to compare the themes, imagery and tones of these pieces; also, I want for you to know and be able to tell me in your own words the definitions of these terms: connotation, denotation, tone, imagery, prose, poetry, metaphor, simile, and to be able to give me examples.”

Instruction: Read “How I Learned to Cook” aloud. Then discuss.
“Someone please summarize for me the basic plot of this piece in thirty seconds or less.”

Answers will vary.

“Who are the main characters?”

The dad, the mom, the narrator and his brother John.

“What type of metaphorical language does the author use to describe the father’s anger?”

He describes his father’s anger as being “like a big boat or train” because “Once it got going, it could take miles to stop.” These are similes.

“What is the tone? Why? What does the author use to establish this tone?”

Answers will vary, but may include: sadness, confusion, loss, anger, violence. The author uses metaphorical language to describe powerful and out-of-control things like runaway boats and trains or severe storms.

“What are some other examples of metaphorical language here?” (Have students say what type each example is: simile or metaphor.)

‘The things he’d say were like the storms that kick up on a summer afternoon’ is a simile.

‘One moment there was sun, the next the clouds were rolling in so black, it looked like night, and the trees were bending in impossible arcs and the first heavy drops were falling. And we could all feel the electricity in the air and would wonder who would be struck. Mom was pretty much always the lightning rod. He wouldn’t stop until she cracked’ is all metaphor.

‘She took up the burdens again that she always carried for the rest of us’ is a metaphor.

‘Then it was like a miracle’ is a simile.

‘Quick as it had come, it was gone and the sun came out again. Only the leaves on the ground and sometimes a broken branch or two would testify anything had ever happened. And these were easily cleaned up’ are all metaphors.

The main metaphorical language revolves around his father’s anger being like a storm.

“Why did the author choose those particular metaphors and similes, and do you think these are effective for the author’s purpose?”

Answers will vary, but may include that these metaphors and similes do a good job of conveying his father’s anger: out-of-control, scary, overpowering, almost like forces of nature; there is nothing to be done but to ‘weather the storm’ until it passes. They could no more stand up to their father than they could stand up to a hurricane and lightning storm.

“Which metaphors or similes struck you as most powerful?”

Answers will vary.

“What are some of the connotations of Stalin? What do you think of when you think of Stalin?”

Answers will vary, but may include: dictator, powerful, evil, controlling.

“Why does the author mention him?”

Answers will vary but may include that his father was the dictator of his house; they all feared him the way the Soviets feared Stalin and his wrath; both characters are seen as all-powerful dictators who abuse their power.

“Why mention this in a story about one’s parents?” (Look at last line of paragraph that mentions Stalin.)

Answers may vary but may include some of the above items and that if they did not stand so in awe of their father’s power they might feel the need to stand up to him and tell him he’s wrong.

“What are some of the connotations of the images and words: storm, train, etc.?”

Answers will vary, but may include: out-of-control, reckless, unpredictable, scary, powerful, deadly, overwhelming.

“What did you all feel, emotionally, in response to the piece?”

Answers will vary.

“Who can provide me with some specific examples of images that appear in the piece that the author probably chose to get just those emotional reactions?”

Answers will vary.
“What are the major themes of the piece?”

Answers will vary, but may include that dysfunctional families and angry/violent fathers can leave scars on their children forever; that a long-suffering wife may eventually get fed up and decide she’s had enough when her husband won’t stop being such a jerk to her; that there is only so much any person can stand; that uncontrolled anger breaks apart families.

“What did the protagonist and his brother and his father lose?”

Answers will vary, but may include: the boys lose their mother, their innocence, their respect for or faith or trust in their father; the father loses his temper, the respect and trust of his sons, and his wife.

“What did they learn?”

Answers will vary, but may include: the boys learned to cook and fend for themselves; they learned that being angry and emotionally abusive will drive people away from you; that everyone has a breaking point when they decide they’ve had enough; the father learned the same things.

Read “Every Little Hurricane” aloud. Discuss.
“Someone tell me the basic plot of this piece in under thirty seconds!”

“What is the hurricane of which Victor speaks: is it literal?”

No, the hurricane is not literally there. It metaphorically represents the repressed anger, disappointment and bitterness of the people on the reservation.

“At what point do you realize that the hurricane is an extended metaphor?”

Answers will vary.

“Who is the main character or protagonist?”


“Who are the two people fist-fighting each other?”

Adolph and Arnold, Victor’s uncles.

“What inferences can you make about Victor’s family situation?”

Answers will vary, but will probably include that his family is dysfunctional and has problems with alcoholism, abuse; they’re very angry and take it out on each other.

“Why does the author say that Adolph and Arnold loved each other because strangers would never want to hurt each other that much?”

Answers will vary, but may include that people don’t usually care what strangers think of them, but the opinions of their relatives and loved ones do matter to them. An insult from a stranger might hurt a bit, but not as much as one from someone whose opinion matters to the person towards whom the insult is directed. Likewise, with physical, violent attacks, a punch in the face from a brother may hurt worse (for the betrayal) than that thrown by a stranger. The intensity of attachment and emotion make it more heart wrenching than a mere brawl between strangers.

“Why does he say that even if one of them killed the other, it would remain a misdemeanor?”

Because in comparison to the history of the genocide directed towards their people, one death is a drop in the proverbial bucket.

“What kind of economic situation does Victor’s family face, and how do you know this?”

They are extremely poor. Evidence to support this conclusion includes Victor’s father’s ritual of looking into his empty wallet to ‘will’ money to appear in it; the lack of food on their shelves; their inability to buy Christmas gifts, and the general sense of hopelessness and anger.

“What ‘magic’ does his mother do?”

She is able to use scraps to make clothing and make fry bread with very little in the way of ingredients; she finds ways to stretch their resources and make do with what little they have.

“What memories do Victor’s parents have?”

Victor’s father remembered the time his own father was spit on as they waited for a bus in Spokane, and Victor’s mother remembered how the Indian Health Service doctor sterilized her moments after Victor was born.

“How does the tone change or intensify as the story progresses?”

Answers will vary, but may include that it gets more intense, more out-of-control, violent, chaotic, and sad.

“What powerful images does the author use throughout the story?”

Answers will vary.

“What evidence do we have that alcohol is a problem for Victor’s parents and many of the other characters?”

Several of the characters are described as drinking or drunk (sometimes getting into fights or otherwise endangering or hurting themselves) at the party. His parents are passed out, asleep, and the author describes how they’re sweating though the room is cold, and when Victor kisses their skin, he can taste the alcohol in their sweat and get drunk off it to help him sleep, and he describes their snores as alcoholic. In Victor’s memories, they also are often drinking or drunk.

“What are some similar themes between this piece and the other one?”

Answers will vary, but may include: some common themes are: that family dysfunction can emotionally scar the members of that family; that emotional or physical abuse can drive away people and interfere with closeness and intimacy.

“What do both protagonists, or, main characters—Victor and the anonymous protagonist of the first one—have in common with each other?”

Answers will vary, but may include: both bear the burden of being without two loving parents who are consistently there for them (the anonymous protagonist’s mother leaves, while Victor’s parents are both often too drunk to care for him); both know the pain of out-of-control anger and emotional abuse within the family; both have to learn to be independent and take care of themselves at a very young age. Alcoholism touches both; the anonymous protagonist’s brother becomes an alcoholic later in life, and Victor is surrounded by alcoholics, including his parents.

“What are some examples of metaphorical language in this piece?” (Have students specify each one as either metaphor or simile.)

A hurricane dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare. Metaphor.

Adolph and Arnold call each other “you damn apple.” Metaphor.

Victor’s father is yelling so that “his decibel level rising to meet the tension in the house.” Metaphor or arguably personification (‘meet’).

But it was strangely quiet, like Victor was watching a television show with the volume turned all the way down. Simile.

One Indian killing another did not create a special kind of storm. This little kind of hurricane was generic. Metaphor.

Victor imagined that his father’s tears could have frozen solid in the severe reservation winters and shattered when they hit the floor. Hyperbole—exaggeration.

Sent millions of icy knives through the air, each specific and beautiful. Each dangerous and random. ‘Icy knives’ is a metaphor.

During all these kinds of tiny storms, Victor’s mother would rise with her medicine and magic. She would pull air down from empty cupboards and make fry bread. She would shake thick blankets free from old bandanas. She would comb Victor’s braids into dreams. The storms are metaphors. The rest are arguably either metaphors or hyperbole.

Rain fell like drums into buckets and pots and pans. Simile.

In fact, he felt his own interior sway, nearly buckle, then fall. Metaphor.

Victor could hear that near-poison fall, then hit, flesh and blood, nerve and vein. Metaphor or hyperbole.

Maybe it was like lightning tearing an old tree into halves. Maybe it was like a wall of water, a reservation tsunami, crashing onto a small beach. Maybe it was like Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Similes.

During those long drinks, Victor’s father wasn’t shaped like a question mark. He looked more like an exclamation point. Similes.

Sudden rain like promises, like treaties. Similes.

But the storm that had caused their momentary anger had not died. Instead, it moved from Indian to Indian at the party, giving each a specific, painful memory. Metaphor or arguably personification (the ‘anger had not died’).

This pain grew, expanded. Metaphor.

Victor was back in his bed, lying flat and still, watching the ceiling lower with each step above. The ceiling lowered with the weight of each Indian’s pain, until it was just inches from Victor’s nose. Metaphor.

The voices upstairs continued to grow, take shape and fill space until Victor’s room, the entire house, was consumed by the party. Metaphor.

Hello, Uncle,” Victor said and gave Adolph a hug, gagged at his smell. Alcohol and sweat. Cigarettes and failure. The smell of failure is a metaphor.

The house “was like a maze for little Victor.” Simile.

“Are these examples of metaphor and simile in any way similar to the metaphors in the other piece?”

The metaphorical language in Alexie’s piece refers repeatedly to the anger and sadness as a storm-like force, a hurricane. This is similar to the way that the anonymous protagonist describes his father’s anger as being like a severe storm with thunder, lightning and rain. The anonymous protagonist also compares his father’s anger to a big boat or train that took time to slow down and stop; in Alexie’s piece, the anger and pain of Victor’s parents (as well as everyone else in the house on the New Year’s Eve party) becomes a force that gains momentum and becomes difficult to stop. Also, in “How I Learned to Cook” the author/protagonist compares his father’s power in their household to Joseph Stalin, while Alexie compares the impact of Victor’s father’s drinking vodka (on an empty stomach) to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, both allusions to immense pain and suffering suffered on a huge scale by many, many people in the WWII-era.

“What are some of the connotations of, or mental associations that you have with, these words: storm, rain, thunder, snow, all these weather-words?”

Answers will vary.

“What is the tone of this piece, and is it similar to the tone of the other one?”

Answers will vary, but may include: the tone is downtrodden, depressed, sad, angry, bitter, chaotic, violent, bittersweet and hopeless.

“What did Victor lose in this story?”

Answers will vary, but may include: his innocence, his faith or trust in his parents, his respect for them (or for all adults), hope, the attention of his parents (when they become too drunk to pay attention to him).

“What life lessons, if any, did he learn?”

Answers will vary, but may include: that life is tough and unfair; that one has to look after one’s self; that adults are fallible and flawed; that the pain of Indian people on the reservation does not matter to those outside the reservation; that injustice is a way of life; that many people deal with pain and suffering and oppression by destroying themselves or each other and/or giving up.

“Okay, now we move from those two prose pieces to our last literary piece, a poem.”

Read the poem “My Papa’s Waltz” two different ways: with a light tone, then a darker tone.

“What are the two major ways in which you could interpret this poem, and how might the tone in which you read it influence your interpretation?”

Either the father really is literally dancing with the protagonist/poet, or, he’s actually harming him, probably beating him: in either case, while drunk. The tone might influence one’s interpretation because if read in a light, silly manner (with no sense of irony), a listener might be more likely to perceive the poem in the first way. If, however, the poem is read with a more serious or dramatic tone, the alternate meaning may appear more likely to a listener.

“Show of hands—how many of you, when you read this poem last night, interpreted it with the lighter tone? And after we looked at the short stories, how many of you began to re-evaluate the meaning of this poem? And how many of you ‘got’ the second interpretation only after I read it in the deliberately darker tone?”

“Now, what is the main, central metaphor of this poem, and what is the metaphor actually describing? That is, what is probably actually going on here, spoken of in euphemistic terms?”

The father is most likely beating his son, or maybe just carousing carelessly and recklessly with him around the kitchen.

“The difference between the dictionary definition or denotation of ‘waltz’ and the connotations it has here form the basis for this poem’s central metaphor.”

“Why would his right ear scrape a buckle every time his dad misses a step?”

Because the son is not nearly as tall as his father, and his head is probably level with the waist of his father; also, the father may be very careless when he ‘waltzes’ with his son. The two things together mean that the boy’s ear is scraping the buckle of his father’s belt (that is about level with his ears) every time the father stumbles and misses a step.

“So, from that, about how old would you say this boy is?”

We can infer that the boy is relatively young, perhaps between ten and thirteen.

“What are some of the connotations of the word ‘waltz’ in the context of this poem?”

Answers will vary, but may include ‘beating, fight, abuse, reckless, careless, damaging.’

“What are some of the connotations of the other words in this poem, like ‘buckle,’ ‘beat,’ ‘romped,’ ‘battered,’ ‘dizzy,’ ‘scraped,’ ‘whiskey,’ ‘dirt’, ‘death,’ ‘clinging’ and so on?”

Answers will vary, but may include that the words all have negative connotations, and tend to be words we associate with desperation, abuse, violence and dysfunction.

“Which words or phrases in this would you say have the most negative connotations?”

Answers will vary.

“So, what does this protagonist, this main character, have in common with the other boys?”

All three protagonists have experienced the damaging and scarring effects of dysfunctional families, abuse, and alcoholism, all centered around parents (with particular emphasis on fathers).

“Again, what are the major themes of this piece, as well as the other pieces?”

Answers will vary, but may include that dysfunctional families and angry/violent fathers can leave scars on their children forever; that uncontrolled anger breaks apart families, drives away people and interfere with closeness and intimacy.

“What inference can you make about the socio-economic status of this boy’s father, and how can we make this inference?”

We can infer he is poor from the battered knuckle and palm that is caked with dirt. He is probably a blue-collar worker who works with his hands at some job that is dirty and strenuous.

“How do you think the mother feels watching this?”

Answers will vary, but may include that she feels helpless, horrified, angry, bitter, or sad.

“Why would the pans slide from the kitchen shelf?”

Because the ‘waltz’ is so out-of-control that the father is banging into things and knocking things over all around the kitchen.

“Do you think it’s possible that maybe the father is actually literally waltzing this boy around the house?”

Answers will vary.

“What did this protagonist, this main character—the little boy—what did he lose?”

Answers will vary, but may include: he lost his innocence, perhaps respect for his father.

“What did he learn?”

Answers will vary, but may include: he learned that he is helpless against his father’s power and that his mother won’t or can’t help him; he learned that life is unfair and scary and painful.

“What is the significance that the boy is still clinging to his father’s shirt at the end?”

Answers will vary, but may include: it might signify that the little boy still trusts his father, or loves him, or just feels the need (instinctually) to cling to one of his parents when he is afraid or hurt, even if that parent is the reason why he is afraid or hurt. It shows the strength of the natural parent-child bond, despite the parent’s being abusive. Some abused children still love and ‘cling’ to their abusive parents, and many would not choose to leave their abusive parents even if they had the chance to do so, because that bond overpowers their fear for their own safety.

“What did all three main characters lose, and what did they learn?”

Answers will vary, but may include: they all lost their innocence, they all may have lost respect for their parents or adults, or trust in them; they all learned that life is not fair and that they have to learn to endure hardship, pain, and look out for themselves.

Closure: “A mediocre writer can tell an audience it’s raining; a good writer can make the reader feel, hear, taste, and sense the rain; to experience it mentally. Strong images, metaphorical or figurative language, with all their connotations, can really help create a tone that helps a reader experience a scene, not just witness it or be aware of it, but to live inside it, to be drawn in ... All three writers, I think, do a good job with this. I hope by the end of this year you will all also be able to achieve this to your own level of satisfaction, to create pieces that readers will ‘inhabit’ and experience. Take a minute or two now to write down the most important things you learned or got more practice with from today’s lesson—facts, or big ideas, or reading or thinking skills—and then I’ll randomly call on one or two of you to share what you’ve written.” Have students write for a minute or two and then call on one or two to share what they have written, and then thank them. “Tonight, write brief personal connections to all three pieces on the ‘Personal Connections to the Literature’ worksheet.”

HW: Write brief personal connections to all three pieces on the “Personal Connections to the Literature” worksheet.

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