Descriptive Writing Unit
GOAL: Developing student writing that is original, image-driven, and specific.
PURPOSE: After seeing examples of strong imagery from two works of literature, students will use photographs as the starting point for their own descriptive writing. They will then meet in pairs to discuss these descriptions as well as to see the variation that can come in writing even when the original source is the same. This lesson is often a starting point to a larger assignment, such as a short story or a poem.
1. Opening discussion: What do students already know about imagery, figurative vs. literal language, sensory details, and concrete vs. abstract writing? What is the advantage of showing details rather than telling the reader information? Are there any stories, novels, or poems that still have images you cannot seem to forget? Which ones?
2. Descriptive writing models: Read selections from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” Students should be active readers, highlighting details that create vivid mental images. After each selection is read, have students cover the passages and share strong examples of imagery just from memory. What makes them stand out even after just one reading? As students look at the selections again, ask key questions. Are all five senses represented? Are there similes and metaphors? What was the strongest line of all and why? Which passage was more interesting to you?
3. Writing warm-up: I’ll begin with something bland that tells the reader information and students must in one sentence show the reader with strong description instead.
It was an amazing car.
She/he was the oldest woman/man I’d ever seen.
The day was perfect.
4. Student samples: Now that students have seen two examples of strong descriptive writing, they must show that they can create something that is unique and memorable as well. Pass out one photograph for each student. Students should free-write for ten minutes. Ideally, students should not edit themselves. They should write continuously for the full time with the understanding that not all of their sentences will be perfect. The goal is to describe the picture in precise detail, so that if the picture were taken away, the words would be enough to convey its essence. Do not try to tell a story. Just describe. After ten minutes, students should highlight their five best sentences or phrases; then find a partner and switch photographs. Repeat the free-write exercise. Next, each group should read aloud the two descriptions for each photograph and then pick one photograph to focus on for the rest of the assignment. Using both first drafts, students should work together for fifteen minutes on one ten-sentence (minimum) description that captures the essence of the photograph. One student will read this description as the other holds up the photograph for the audience.
5. Discussion: How would this lesson work at various grade levels? What was effective about it? In what ways could it be improved? Have you done anything similar? What might a lesson like this lead to in terms of a larger assignment or product? What would be an effective opening hook to this lesson so that students would be immediately engaged?
Accompanying activities: After the group draft is created, lead a discussion about the types of imagery: sensory details, metaphors, etc. Also start a list of powerful words and combined sentences.
Larger Product: Do several descriptive writing assignments throughout the beginning of the year, as well as a character sketch, a free-write on place, etc. and eventually all of these will be used to create an original short story.