In My Mind's Eye: Descriptive Writing Lesson

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Objective

SWBAT begin narrative writing by writing effective description.

Big Idea

Writing stories is as old as dust: we join our human history when we write narratives!

Unit Introduction

Why narrative?  Something amazing happens when students write stories, and I have seen students become incredibly engaged when they have created fictional characters who surprise them and readers with inventive actions, layered characterization, and figurative descriptions.  It is my hope that this unit will help you teach your students to write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences (W.9-10.3).  And I know that along the way, you'll be able to leverage these insights into the reading of literature, in particular, the analysis of character (RL.9-10.3) and figurative language (RL.9-10.4). 

Observing and Writing.  Many of the lessons in this unit have an experiential component to them.  So often, we are very upfront with our teaching, "Today, you will learn about point of view when we..."  In contrast, many of these activities make very clear sense to the narrative/dramatic-based minds of adolescents, so I tend to front load my lessons much less than I typically do, and jump right into the experience of writing--of re-creating for the reader something in our mind's eye.  The students very quickly get the bug for this and look forward to the next activity with a bit of anticipation and expectations of being surprised.  In this way, they will still learn the techniques (W.9-10.3b) that they need, but they will do so in a surprising and deep way.  The result is joy for writing! 

Sequencing.  After a lesson to get the students aligned to this experiential mode of learning in which their own inquisitiveness figures central in the writing process, I focus on character first, then story.  I happened upon this approach about 15 years ago and have been experimenting with it ever since.  It seems that literature is often character driven (RL.9-10.3), and to create a realistic character with real desires and obstacles is to create a more emotionally sensitive story than to simply tell students to generate a plot.  Thus, you'll see the opening lessons focus on character and description, then dialogue and scene, finally writer's workshops for revision, and finally publication, including a technology enhanced digital recording of their work!

Video.  There are many writers who have influenced my thinking here such as George Hillocks, Peter Smagorinsky, Elizabeth Kahn and Tom McCann.  I would like to cite George Hillocks' book on Narrative Writing (2006) as an inspiration here.  

Fists of Fire

20 minutes

Why Description?  This lesson segment effectively announces that our current  unit will be different than anything else that we do.  It's the teacher's job to absolutely sell this as Different is Better :-)   This lesson segment and the next segment focus on helping students to use narrative techniques, description in particular (W.9-10.3b) as well as beginning to engage in precision in the words chosen to convey a mental picture onto the page: using precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters (W.9-10.3d).  

Plus, students find it to be fun! 

 

Here is what I do (large group activity):

1.) Have students create a very tight clenched fist with their non-writing hands.

2.) Hold this for a minute.

3.) Hod this even tighter for 30 seconds.  

4.) See if any students are sandbagging it and not really participating...lean on them.  If they don't actually participate here, the writing exercise will flop for them.

5.) Tell the students to release their fist's grip in slow  motion and pay attention to the sensation that goes along with this.  Most of the students will be astonished and cry out that the now have a robotic hand, rusty fingers, etc.  (Of course, these are all metaphor-based descriptions, but don't tell them that yet!)

6.) Ask the students to write a short paragraph relating the experience so that a reader can see what you saw and feel what you felt.  The focus is on using words to re-create the sensation.  [Re-load, for the one or two students who did not do the actual activity or for whom it did not work, you can allow a re-do of the fist clench.]

7.) Share what you wrote with a partner, and have him or her underline your best phrase, that is the phrase that best re-creates the experience for the reader.

8.) Share these underlined  parts out (we are beginning to form a writer's workshop here). 

9.) I will usually respond positively or get the class to respond positively to the use of sensory detail and figurative language that invariably attends these short exercises, but more than that, it's the enthusiasm for re-creating an experience that I want to make sure dominates this activity. 

Writing with Detail: a sample for discussion

15 minutes

Model for Writing/Discussion.  In this brief discussion episode, I show the students two contrasting examples (see resource below), one that re-creates a scene with very little sensory detail (W.9-10.3b) and another that does so with more realistic detail.  I do this so that they can begin to understand how much the words can help the reader to see the scene and experience the thrill of the described moment vicariously (W.9-10.3d).

I will ask:

1.) What added details occur in the second piece (RL.9-10.4)?

2.) How do these help create a stronger experience when you read it (RL.9-10.4)?

3.) How  can YOU keep this in mind when you are writing for someone?

4.) Can you think of an author that does this well?

 

Again, the main point here is to brew up some enthusiasm among the students that describing is fun, real, vital, and purposeful.  The technical aspect of this lesson segment could be expanded, but I tend to focus on the basic understanding here, that story is king and a well-told story is the crown!  (--Or some other metaphor that pops into my head!!)  

Creative Prompt: Who are you as a writer?

15 minutes

Who are you as a writer?  I cue the music for The Who's classic song, "Who are you?" just sort of cranking in the background while I ask them to consider Who are you as a writer.  The point of this activity is to set the stage for the unit, one that will ask them to engage authentically in using their powers of imagination and re-creating on paper the mental images for a reader!  It's an exciting process and one that comes from a personal wellspring of sorts. Thus, we address their writerly identities--in a fun way!  (W.9-10.10)

I will ask:

1.) Who are you?

2.) Who are you as a writer?

3.) What kind of power do you have as a writer?

4.) As a writer of stories?

5.) When you help someone re-create an experience through the power of your words, how does that give you purpose as a writer? 

 

Metaphor!  Think of an object to compare your writing to.  In this example (see resource) the student writer compares herself to a tornado!  How exciting!  Are you more measured and deliberate, like a chess match?  or Like a kid learning to ride a bike?  Write a paragraph to turn in that gives me a sense of how you feel about your writing.

[Tomorrow, I will ask a couple of the writers to showcase these metaphors, as I know that many of them will be amazing, but I want to vet them a bit overnight so that I can sort of manage the affective domain here.]