Posted by: jockmackenzie | July 5, 2009

“Poetry and Song” – ENTRY 6 – The Cliché

Author’s note: The following sentence has been pasted from my recent rejection letter from Pearson Publishing – At this time, this manuscript does not fit the scope of our professional learning publishing plans over the next few years.

“This manuscript” is, in part, before you below. If this is your first time to this blog, let me explain. I have written a teacher reference book that I call “Poetry and Song.” It is intended for middle school/junior high teachers and includes practical ideas and activities for, you guessed it, writing poems and songs. I am offering snippets of the book so that classroom teachers can use the information I provide while leaving the lion’s share for an actual book. Please comment if the excerpts are useful. Thanks!

The Cliché

A cliché is a phrase or expression that is worn-out or stale from overuse; it has lost its effectiveness. No longer effective? Well, that’s what I used to think. In his book The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch, a college professor, talks about clichés being new to even his post-secondary students. It’s like the old jokes that our students tell us. To them, the joke is brand new and so are many clichés.

That might be a bit of a stretch – to say that our middle school students use clichés assuming that they are brand new. Clichés have become so embedded in our language that the student is almost certain to be repeating an expression that may be offered unconsciously. He has heard that something is “flatter than a pancake” and feels this is an apt description.

My point is that I will no longer discourage students from using clichés. In the same vein, I do not discourage the reluctant reader from spending time with almost anything that gets him reading. To get the young writer to paint word pictures is an important beginning. If the paintings are “paint by number,” well, it’s a start. And, like the “conscious competent”, if the student intends to use the cliché, then that’s even better.

Nevertheless, I do see a need to explain what clichés are. In a sense, they are the winners of the Paint A Word Picture Contest. Everyone has jumped on the bandwagon and wants to be unique – just like everyone else. Just how sharp was it? Sharp as a tack. And how wise? As wise as an owl. And so on.

To make my point, I do a survey in my language arts class. Students have small sheets of paper on which they write responses to my unfinished offerings. E.g. It was an old as ______________________, He was as deaf as ____________________,

She was as skinny as ________________________, It was as white as ____________.

Students simply complete the comparisons and then we compare answers. In this instance, hidden behind the overhead screen or already written (but now shown) on my interactive white board, I have what I know will be common responses: the hills, a post, a rail/toothpick, snow/ghost.

Surprisingly, to me at least, many students are surprised. They seem unaware that their responses are so predictable.

The next step is to offer them the opportunity to be creative, to paint a more vivid and, especially, more personal response. My experience has been that there is considerable pride in having invented a brand new comparison.

Using the same trite, hackneyed (time for a mini-lesson on vocabulary) expressions, students are asked to suggest new alternatives. I often let students work with one partner if they so choose – but also offer the opportunity for what I call the “very small” group – a group of one.

Here’s a sample exercise, followed by some suggested alternatives:

Cliché Exercise                                                 Name(s) __________________________

Each of these clichés is as old as the hills. Try to create a new, more creative picture.

1. as old as the hills _______________________________________________________

2. as sharp as a tack _______________________________________________________

3. as wise as an owl _______________________________________________________

4. as deaf as a post ________________________________________________________

5. as skinny as a toothpick __________________________________________________

6. as white as snow ________________________________________________________

7. as sweet as sugar _______________________________________________________

8. as deep as the ocean _____________________________________________________

9. flatter than a pancake ____________________________________________________


Possible alternatives:

1. as old as my grandmother’s grandmother, the principal’s jokes

2. as sharp as a marshmallow stick, a rose thorn

3. as wise as a Mensa’s mentor, a guru

4. as deaf as a teenager at suppertime, shell-shocked soldier

5. as skinny as an underfed thermometer, a gossamer thread

6. as white as a Crest smile in a coal mine, life’s exit light

7. as sweet as a baby’s smile, a sugar-coated candy cane

8. as deep as a volcano’s basement, Shakespeare

9. flatter than a beach at low tide, a Bowflex tummy


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