I believe most lesson plans can be tweaked to fit writers at all levels. This idea came to me a decade ago while getting an MFA in Creative Writing.
During a workshop, Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter, gave us a writing prompt and quickly added: “Don’t forget to use descriptive detail. Appeal to all five senses.”
I found her words humbling, because hours earlier I’d conveyed them to twelfth graders. Yet the message can’t be repeated often enough as many writers, young and not so young, often share only what they see, omitting the other senses.
Fast forward to today, and I just finished teaching the use of sensory details to second- through fifth-graders whose skills vary depending on their age and placement in general education or a gifted and talented program.
The challenge: How to adapt one lesson plan to fit many needs?
With younger students (say first- through third-graders), I suggest spending a lot of time brainstorming, followed by creating a group description of their classroom.
As inspiration, I offer passages from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings.
I then ask students to write a description of a place they know well.
“Your goal is to be specific,” I explain. “Don’t just say the cafeteria is noisy. Who makes the racket? What exactly do you hear?”
Here’s a second-grader describing Jamaica:
“I hear the birds chirping nice and loud and sometimes the rustling between coconut trees. Also, I hear the nice orange rooster crowing in the early morning when the sun starts to come out.”
Younger students may need a second session to polish their portraits of a place. It’s an opportunity to encourage them to include details they left out.
With older students (fourth grade and above), I go deeper, using their descriptions as a jumping off point. Writers compose descriptions of places for a reason—to create a setting that will frame, if not drive, a story. Isn’t the Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter series the perfect setting for learning wizardry?
During this second session, I ask students to use their descriptions as the setting of a story, whether true or make believe.
I use an excerpt from James Baldwin’s short story “The Rockpile” to show how a hill of rocks evolved into a story about a boy forbidden to play there.
Here’s a fifth-grader describing her tomato garden: “I can hear the bugs eating a spoiled tomato as they buzz by racing to it. Starvation in their eyes. Thanks to some magic water, one stalk grew sky high.”
A fourth-grader transports readers to a basketball court: “You can hear sneakers squeaking from running on a silk floor. You also hear basketballs dribbling up and down the court….One day, a boy shot a ball and it grew arms….”
I encourage students to take a closer look at their world, sharing its sparkle and bumps, rhythm and scents, and whatever they feel.
Linda Morel is a nonfiction writer and T&W teaching artist. You can read more about Linda here.
For a sample of student writing that came out of this exercise, go here. Continue to check out our tumblr page at teachersandwriters.tumblr.com for more student writing from Linda's residency, as well as other student writing from other T&W writers' residencies, too!