Theory and practice: The analogy


Recently, engineering PhD candidate and educator Daphne Chery posted her student’s comparison of electronegativity to R&B crooner Trey Songz. The Instagram post went viral, but a closer look reveals that it is so much more than just a funny answer.

Chery, who teaches one period of high school chemistry has said that she encourages her students to “think of associations from their lives that would help them understand the concepts they are learning better.” In other words, create analogies that will allow for better comprehension of the subject matter.

By definition, an analogy is the comparison of one thing to another to provide an explanation. It makes the unfamiliar familiar. Christopher Emdin, who teaches science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and did research on culturally relevant analogies in the science classroom, found that analogies allow for better comprehension of subject matters and places value on what students bring into the classroom. By using life experiences, students are also able to merge their identity with what they are learning. Those who were once reluctant and unengaged can now negotiate their participation and become more motivated and engaged.

Chery teaches at a predominantly Black charter school in New Jersey and values the culture students bring into the classroom. This culture is hip hop culture and it has its own discourse.

There are actually two discourses in the explanation. These discourses are identified as primary and secondary. According to sociolinguist James Gee, the primary discourse is attached to a person’s first social identity. It is the first language and symbolic expressions that a person learns when growing up. The secondary discourse is learned when people become part of a social group after their home experience. English Professor Jon A. Yasin of Bergen Community College assess that hip hop is the secondary discourse for the pioneers who created it. For the millennials and the generation after, however, hip hop is their primary discourse. The back and forth use of the discourses is called code switching. Peep the scenario.

The analysis:

“Yea I’m getting this 5 pts!”
The young scientist displays braggadocio, a common tool used in hip hop culture to express the prowess of one’s capabilities.

“To properly articulate what electronegativity is, I would like to draw your attention to Trey Songz aka Mr. Steal Your Girl.”
The student then switches to the secondary discourse to set up of the analogy between electronegativity and Trey Songz. The sentence also shows the mastering of the secondary discourse.

“You see Trey has no chill, he’s a killer, a savage. He steals other men girls without any remorse.”
The description of Trey’s qualities that supports the analogy is written in the primary discourse with Trey having “no chill.”

“Electronegativity is a concept with a lot of Trey like behavior.”
The bridging of the two concepts.

“It’s the ability for an atom to take another atom’s electron.”
The description of electronegativity in done in secondary discourse.

“With Fluorine being the OG Trey Songz because it has the highest electronegativity out of all the elements. Straight stealing them.”
The student effortlessly concludes the analogy while code switching.  The use of “OG” as a superlative adjective is consistent with  Fluorine having the highest level of electronegativity and also a term in hip hop that signifies status ranking.

“(That’s an A+ answer, Ms. Chery)”
The young scientist makes a pre-emptive claim about the answer. This is another braggadocio comment, but done in their secondary discourse.

Nothing speaks of agency like a declaration with an exclamation point, which is also an expression of heightened emotional energy. As Emdin explains, “heightened levels of emotional energy, synchrony and interest are achieved when analogies that are culturally relevant are enacted.” I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the post is actually an interaction between educator and student. Chery responds to the young chemist’s energy with a “LOL” and commends the answer with an exclamation point, and stresses on “funny” and the full five points.

Emdin argues that when culturally relevant analogies are used educators should understand the subject matter and have the same familiarity with topics relevant to the students. Chery has both understanding and familiarity. Emdin has found that analogies improve classroom interactions and has the ability to change students’ view of their educators. The post illustrates the social capital that Chery has in the class which allows her to enter their social network and be an effective teacher.

Extra Credit:

Results from Emdin’s study also found that what makes a rapper a good emcee are the same qualities that makes a good teacher.

 A Good Emcee

“Making you feel like they know where you come from”
“Having sick similes and metaphors”

A Good Teacher

“Understanding where the student is coming from”
“Having good examples in class.”

Class dismissed.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: