I had the pleasure of teaching a third grade class this week. A friend and colleague invited me to do a poetry lesson with her students. She expressed concerns about their ability to use descriptive language. I thought a poetry lesson was just the prescription for such a problem and we got to work. I was reminded of the two column exercise I had tried out myself just a few weeks earlier. I thought this would be a great launch pad for descriptive writing and help students to put on their binoculars and make their writing visible.
I started by sharing a poem by Jane Yolen, Crayons: A Rainbow Poem
I first read the poem by omitting the descriptive details and only read the color words. It went something like this:
This box contains blue
Orange and red.
I continued to read the poem in this way. I asked them what they saw and they remarked on the colors, like a box of crayons. Then I read the poem line by line, drawing attention to the descriptive details given to each color:
This box contains the wash of blue sky,
Spikes of green spring…
As I continued to read the poem I saw their gaze deepen a bit and they could really see the colors. We talked about this. Seeing the color “for real” as opposed to just looking at the color was different. These words were coming alive with description! Just as looking at a brown cabinet was different from really seeing the striation of the grains in the wood and the variation of the browns and golden colors that were embedded in the door frame. We talked about details and how to see them and how to get your reader to see them.
I showed them how to make two columns and we went outside. I asked students to look for general items and write down what came to them. Then we gathered back together for a moment and I asked them to go back to each item, really look it over, and find out what made it unique and interesting. They wrote this description in the second column.
We came back inside to share some of the descriptive word choice we found while roaming the playground. Here’s what one student had to share: Starting with the word fence, he described it like, “Silver, shiny metal tied together.”
Another student described a play structure as “mustard yellow.”
I showed the students how to make decisions about their lines. We talked about omitting some of our ideas from the final poem. Also, adding ideas or thoughts as we wrote was fine. Best of all, the poems didn’t have to rhyme!
The students wrote and we shared afterward. This student started out describing two different items, a tree and a bird, but then decided to put it together into one line because he liked how it sounded.
“Home to bugs, a feathered flyer.”
Not only did words come alive during this lesson but little poets did too. Many of them had not written much poetry, so this was a new experience. I felt like everyone was successful in using some descriptive language and we talked about how this could be useful in any kind of writing. All of our eyes were lit up by the end of the hour and the prize was a little poem to hold on to the memory.
Daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, and writer.