Let’s Have a Heart to Heart

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When my daughter comes home from school on Valentine’s Day with cards from friends and candy in her backpack, I can’t help but greet her big smile with one of my own. But the teacher in me also can’t help but think, “Boy, do I have a few other ideas for how this day could go.”

At West Buncombe Elementary School, in Asheville, N.C., where I was a reading specialist and now consult on curriculum implementation, the 4th grade team teaches a series of lessons focused on the many aspects of heart. The concept of “heart” is perfect for deepening students’ understanding of literal and figurative language, a key college and career readiness standard. At West Buncombe, teachers introduce that standard at the start of the year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t revisit it, or even teach it,  around Valentine’s Day.

Here’s how the heart lessons look. Teachers start by sharing two quotes about the heart with students – one literal and one figurative.

They are: “It is infinitely better to transplant a heart than to bury it to be devoured by worms,” said Christian Barnard, the first cardiovascular surgeon to transplant a human heart. And: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart,” said Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Then students talk about the quotes’ meanings and describe which “heart” is literal and which is figurative.

Figurative language first appears in the standards during fourth grade, and it’s not an easy concept for most 9- and 10-year olds. I worked with one teacher last year who was so worried her kids would never grasp the concept. They did. By taking a topic like the heart and using it as an anchor to deeply explore literal and figurative language, students become experts in how words and expressions can have meaning beyond their literal interpretation. One teacher told me her students “have come to really understand that figurative language paints a picture for better understanding and visualization of stories and ideas.”

Once students understand the difference between literal and figurative hearts, we study each in more detail. To learn about the literal functions of hearts, we read The Circulatory Story, by Mary K. Corcoran, a wonderfully illustrated picture book full of scientific knowledge about the inner workings of a strong, healthy heart. Even in this scientific text, however, the author uses lots of figurative language, such as comparing the blood’s flow through the heart’s chambers to passengers streaming through Grand Central Station. That always leads to an interesting conversation about the power of figurative language to explain complex ideas.

After building knowledge of the literal heart, our students to delve into the figurative heart by reading. For example, students read Love that Dog, by Sharon Creech, a short novel written in free verse. Students are drawn into the story of a boy who finds his voice by examining his broken heart and experiencing a great change of heart.

You can explore the literal and figurative heart with so many texts. At West Buncombe, we read short online biographies of Anne Frank, Helen Keller, and Clara Barton, as examples of people with figuratively great hearts. We build scientific knowledge by watching educational videos like “Exploring the Heart” from About Kids Health, while students listen for more figurative language describing the actual heart.

There are also opportunities to explore the aspects of heart outside of books. For example, parents often volunteer at schools for Valentine’s Day, particularly in elementary schools. Perhaps one of those volunteers is a nurse or doctor. How about asking that person to share tips on how to stay heart healthy? You can also team up with the school nurse or physical education teacher to discuss the effects of exercise and nutrition on the heart. And art and music teachers always have something to share when it comes to matters of the heart – be it an anatomically correct drawing of the physical heart, or a love song celebrating the power of the figurative heart.

I’m not arguing against giving your kids heart-shaped cookies on February 14, but why not serve them up with a healthy discussion of the heart, both literal and figurative? I think your kids will still go home with big smiles on their faces – plus some big ideas in their minds.


Lorraine Griffith was a reading specialist and classroom teacher at West Buncombe Elementary School in Ashville, North Carolina for27 years. Until recently, she was a board member of the nonprofit Great Minds and continues to serve as Content Architect for the nonprofit’s Wit & Wisdom curriculum, from which many of these ideas are adapted.

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