Putting your thoughts down on paper is like catching a firefly at night. You can see it clearly, but when you reach for it…well…it does not turn out as you would have predicted. All the more true for Middle Schoolers who are just beginning to articulate themselves fully in writing. Here I want to explain a method to help young students write descriptions. The secret is to use your eyes instead of your hands.
First and foremost, I provide a picture of a scene. At a young age, visualizing everything in your mind distracts from trying to write. You ask for a lot of juggling. I like to use scenes from Disney films because they are very recognizable and the student already knows the story.
Secondly, I break down what I want to know. Over the course of several lessons, I would devote a lesson to each of these:
Actions: The literal actions that take place in the scene.
Standing, running, holding, laughing, looking, etc.
The people themselves and their appearance:
Woman or man? Young girl or teenage boy? What color is her hair? What type of shirt is he wearing? How big are her eyes?
Does her red hair connect with his red hair? Could they be related? Why is she looking at this? Does her expression explain how she feels about the painting?
Thirdly, I will ask them to make a list for each category. I am very serious about making a list. I do not want them to attempt to write a paragraph too soon. When we read young people’s writing, too often it resembles: “she looks sad. she is in a dress. It is sunny. she…. it….” This is because our brains naturally wants to just process the information. Young students (and many adults) cannot articulate themselves at the same moment they are digesting the information. Thus, I separate the steps.
Lastly, we write the paragraph! Since everything is processed and organized, the student writes with more confidence. Everything has come from the student; I have not fed them the lines. Moreover, they have arrived to it in a way that does not overload or pressure them.
The result, the paragraph itself, depends on the student. We may then talk about combining smaller pieces of information or about the order of ideas. The main outcome is that we have something to work with and we can keep our discussion firmly rooted in writing instead of juggling mental images and overwhelming number of ideas.
Here is an example.
- An older woman stands at the door.
- She is holding a key.
- The young woman gasps.
- She holds a scroll.
- She turns around.
- The women are looking at each other.
- The older woman is the stepmother. (It is not wrong to add plot points taken from the film itself because the picture is just there to help stimulate the student.)
- She has dark hair, probably grey.
- Her whole appearance is cast in shadow.
- She is wearing a dark magenta dress.
- The magenta dress is very long. It goes up to the neck and down to the wrist and ankles.
- The other woman is younger.
- She is Cinderella.
- She is very pretty.
- Her hair is strawberry blonde and short.
- Cinderella is wearing a dress, blue and brown, and an apron, white.
- Her eyes are very large and blue.
- He mouth is opened very wide.
- The room itself is hardly seen.
- There is a door, table, and mirror.
- The mirror is large, but slightly broken.
- Cinderella has big eyes and an open mouth because she sees her stepmother at the door.
- Her big eyes and opened mouth show that she is shocked.
- The step mother is holding a key because she wants to lock the door.
- The scroll invites Cinderella to the Ball.
Summary paragraph: Cinderella is a beautiful young girl with blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair. She is holding an invitation to the Ball. Her stepmother clutches the key ready to lock her into a room. Cinderella gasps at the sight of her stepmother because she is shocked.
No, this inevitably would not be what an 11 year old would write. I wrote it to demonstrate the concept. However, I have seen that, with this exercise, the student writes more than usual. He feels more comfortable. He does not feel as overwhelmed or pressured. With clear steps and a fixed image, the student is freer to write and I, as the teacher, can focus my time on productive comments about that writing.