The fourth grade teachers at my school were starting a little differently than the rest. They found a set of lessons the help ease their students into Lucy Calkins Units of Study in Writing that explored some different topics they would need to understand in order to get going with the first bend. One of their lessons taught the students about observations and how to use them in their own writing. They talked about observations and even took their classes out into the courtyard to study what they saw and heard. They found, though, that the students’ observations were lacking. There wasn’t enough description to make their writing rich and interesting.
I used part of a lesson I was taught during my Summer Leadership Institute with Illinois Writing Project. Jan Booth, the course’s main instructor, took us through a visualization exercise to help us hash out all the details from the day. I even wrote about the process and shared my final piece on this blog!
I came into the fourth grade classrooms after they had gone out to the courtyard and shared what I noticed from their work.
“I wasn’t there that day, and when writers make observations, they help the reader to feel like they were there with them. Today, we’re going to practice a strategy you can use to help you add sensory details to your writing and help your readers experience the same things you did.”
I ask students to share some of the observations they made the day before while they were outside and I make a show of asking questions: how big was it? What color were they? Where was it? Did you think you would see that? I’m trying to get them to start giving some descriptions before they go on to the next part so that their brains are thinking.
I then have them open their writer’s notebooks to the next clean page and we drew a four square box on the paper. In the top left box, they wrote “see.” I also included a quick picture of an eye on the page in order to help English language learners make some connections.
“Now writers, I’m going to have you put down your pencil, close your eyes, and imagine yourself back in the courtyard. I want you to look around. What are all the things you see? What’s the smallest thing you see? What’s the largest thing you see? What colors do you see? What is something that you expected to see? What is something you saw that surprised you? How could you describe those things for you reader who wasn’t there with you? How could you make your reader feel like he or she was with you in the courtyard that day?”
I walked around the room as their eyes were closed and spoke in a calming voice to help them focus on the moment. There were quite a few students who were moving their heads around as if they had virtual reality goggles on looking for every detail in the scene. It was great! After a few moments, they opened their eyes and got started writing.
“If you run out of things to write down, feel free to close your eyes again, take your mind back to that day in the courtyard, and write down all the details you see.”
I asked them to choose their best description and share with a partner. I had some students share out and I recorded those on the teacher I was using. We go through this same process with hear, smell, and feel (for feel I ask them to list both what they could physically touch as well as what they were thinking and feeling in the moment).
When students are done, they have a list of great descriptions to include in their writing and a strategy to use in the future to add details to their work. I know these students will be working on small moments soon, so I and their teachers can refer back to this strategy in order to help them work on adding sensory details to grow their writing.
I was actually surprised by how effective this was with some students. I could see them getting into closing their eyes and imagining themselves back in the courtyard. They were trying to impress me with their detailed descriptions and I got really excited when they did. I would celebrate students’ ideas by sharing them with the group and talking about how I had a great picture in my mind. I thanked each writer for helping me to feel like I was there with them.