English Language Arts, Reading Literature
Material Type:
Lesson Plan
High School
  • Grade 11 ELA
  • Motif
  • Short Stories
  • Symbol
  • Themes
  • Vietnam War
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial

    Symbol and Motif

    Symbol and Motif


    In this lesson, students will begin the short story “The Swimmer.” As an introduction to the story, they will also read the myth “Echo and Narcissus,” considering Narcissus as a way to view the protagonist of “The Swimmer.”


    • Read the lesson and student content.
    • Anticipate student difficulties and identify the differentiation options you will choose for working with your students.
    • If Internet connectivity is not available, provide students with dictionaries so they can look up unfamiliar terms in these readings.
    • If you decide to put students in small groups, plan the assignments ahead of time.

    Success Quick Write

    • Students will explore the use of symbol and motif during their reading of “The Swimmer.” Cheever's story is rather accessible on the surface, but students need to be reminded to look beneath the surface for meaning.
    • The “Echo and Narcissus” myth will serve as a lens through which the students can view the character of Neddy Merrill, reinforcing the timeless quality of particular themes. You can, again, remind students of their study in Unit 1 on the American Dream and the ideas they developed in the previous lesson.
    • During the discussion, ask students to think about how success can be both positive and negative and to come up with examples of each. ELL: Students might have broadly differing concepts of “American society” and what it means to be successful. Encourage the full range of views and perspectives.


    • In our American society, what does it mean to be successful?
    • Is the pursuit of success selfish, or can success come with benefits for the common good?

    Open Notebook

    Share your thoughts with the rest of the class.

    Echo and Narcissus Annotation

    • This is a short reading; if appropriate, have students work in small groups. They may wish to read aloud, but be sure all students are annotating.
    • Have students annotate and reflect in the text itself for easy reference later.
    • During the discussion, revisit the ideas from the last task about success in terms of selfishness and the common good.
      • ELL: One way to help students connect to the myth is to show a picture of a narcissus plant, and discuss how its habit (its flowers face the ground) may have inspired the myth.

    Work Time

    Read and annotate “Echo and Narcissus.”

    As you read, answer the following questions.

    • What makes this story tragic?
    • Explain the importance of the water. In what ways might it be symbolic?

    Share your responses to the questions.

    The Swimmer Annotation

    • Have students annotate in the text itself for easy reference later.
    • As they annotate, encourage students to note any words they don't know.
      • SWD: One method for including students who may have trouble with longer text is to have them create and share a list of words that they don’t know (or suspect others might not know). You can then write these words on the board and assign volunteers to look up definitions and share findings with the class.
    • Have students try to define unfamiliar words in context; if that isn't possible, they can look them up.
    • Students may find it helpful to create a simple graphic organizer, listing the different symbols and motifs in the story such as water, weather, and time.

    Work Time

    Begin reading and annotating “The Swimmer” by John Cheever.

    Read the first five paragraphs, ending with the paragraph that begins, “The only maps and charts he had to go by…”

    As you read, consider these questions.

    • What role does water play in this story (so far)?
    • What is your initial reaction to the character of Neddy Merrill? Choose two or three lines from the text to support your ideas.

    The Swimmer Class Discussion

    • Encourage discussion about Neddy's character. Do the students like him thus far? Why?
    • Have students define the terms symbol and motif. Most students will be able to define symbol; motif may be more difficult.
    • Prompt students to refer back to the text to explain their opinions.
    • Remind students of the use of repetition to create a thematic effect in the poem they read earlier, “We Wear the Mask,” and explain that a motif is the repetition of a symbol to create a thematic effect. Ask students to identify motifs in popular culture, if they can.

    Work Time

    Share your written responses with the class. Then, answer the following questions with the class.

    • What is a literary symbol?
    • What is a motif?

    Swimming Home

    • If time permits, have students share their predictions for the rest of the story.
    • Encourage them to use evidence from the text to support their ideas.
    • Students can answer the question in annotations.

    SWD: More visual students may be able to help the class here by making a map or diagram of how someone might “swim home” through a suburban neighborhood in which most houses have a pool.


    Consider this question.

    • Neddy has decided to “swim home.” How do you think this will work out?

    Discuss your ideas with the class.

    The Swimmer Reading

    • Ask students to annotate for words that create tension and suspense.
      • ELL: For students who may have difficulties finding their own words, you can provide examples of words that create tension and suspense.
    • Remind them to continue annotating in the text for easy reference later.


    • Finish reading and annotating “The Swimmer” for homework.