While I was assessing my student's descriptive sentences last night, I realized that many of them are falling into a bad descriptive habit. They are taking a bland adjective like "pretty" and switching it out for a better adjective like "gorgeous", and in reality, the sentence isn't much more descriptive afterwards. They've just used a bigger word. I want my students to describe what pretty looks like, the old show not tell needs to be revisited!
In the Great Source Six Traits student book, there is a great exemplar about Leonardo Da Vinci where the author uses examples and descriptive phrases to explain to us that Leonardo was clean, handsome, and funny.
I started with this passage. I read it aloud and asked my students to highlight any parts that they could really picture in their minds. After reading, I realized that the students were so engaged in the writing that many of them had not highlighted, so I gave them a few minutes to go back and choose some very descriptive parts. I had them share these with a partner sitting at their table.
Next I had them choose the 2 parts that they thought were the absolute best and record them in their writing notebook. I asked students to share these examples with the class. We discussed what exactly made them good. I heard the same responses over and over again. The author gave examples and used precise words. No one even mentioned substituting a boring adjective for a slightly jazzed up word!
Next I asked, "What if the author would have just said that Leonardo was clean, handsome, and funny? What's the problem with that?"
The students knew it was a problem because the writing wouldn't be descriptive. They said it was boring and they wouldn't be able to pay attention. As the bearer of bad news, I explained that many of them wrote just that way! (gasp!) They write in generalizations, and I want them to be clear and specific.
In order to show students how to become clearer and more specific, I came up with a couple of sentences for them to record in their notebooks.
First I used:
1. The dog went down the street looking out for different things.
I posted the example on the board and had circled the words or phrases that were too general.
(dog, went down the street, looking, different things)
Next I showed them a revised sentence. Instead of dog, I said "The neighbors chocolate lab, Chico. Instead of "went down the street" I said "darted down Union Hills Road." Instead of "looking out for different things," I said "dodging traffic and avoiding cars."
The finished product: The neighbors chocolate lab, Chico, darted down Union Hills Road dodging traffic and avoiding cars.
My next sentence was:
2. The flowers in the window were pretty and unique.
We went through the sentence as a class and circled the words that were too general. Everyone agreed on flowers, in the window, pretty, and unique. I warned students that subbing pretty with beautiful and unique with unusual would not make a better sentence. Still, many did not heed the warning...I reminded students to explain what a pretty and unique flower might look like instead. I turned the students loose and let them create their own sentences. They were eager to share with the class, and I offered praise and constructive criticism as well, especially to those who told me about lovely and odd flowers!
For the third sentence, I let students circle the general words on their own and also revise on their own. I was a little nervous.
The original sentence was:
3. The tree moved in the wind as we looked at it.
I was very happy with the way students carefully chose general words and changed them to be more specific. It seemed like almost every student in every class wanted to share their example.
They were ready to take it to the next level!
I reminded students of the exemplar passage we started the day with. It was a description of Leonardo Da Vinci that showed what he was like. I asked the students to think of a person that they could describe. I modeled this by talking about my daughter Haley. I explained that she is a really funny girl, but I know that I need to show you what that is like. I wrote a few sentences about Haley's funny dancing style. It went something like this:
Haley loves to dance and perform for my husband, Mason, and me. She prefers songs from Teen Beach Movie, especially "Crusin' for a Bruisin'". She leaps onto our low, square-shaped coffee table and pretends that it is her stage. She jumps and grooves like a swarm of mosquitoes is attacking her. For the grand finale, she blows kisses and bows as she awaits mad applause.
I like to tell stories about my own life as much as possible. I think it really engages students and keeps them listening. They also tend to remember these stories and consequently, remember the lesson!
Instead of just telling them that Haley was a funny dancer, I tried to show what that looked like by using descriptive phrases, strong verbs, and specific language.
I challenged my students to do the same for a person that they knew. Most students chose to write about a friend or family member, but some wanted to use a famous person. I insisted that it must be a person, not a pet, since I have a few that will only write about their pets. Here is a student work sample.
This was a quick write, so I gave them only about 15 minutes. My goal was that they practiced this technique before they left for the day. With my class this year, I think that practice will be the key. I need to make sure they are writing something each and everyday, so that they can keep practicing the skills they learn.