Although I certainly teach structure and revision and all that important stuff, much of what I do in class involves writing exercises or games. Above all, writing is supposed to be fun.
This exercise is to help hone descriptive skills. A lot of times my students have fantastic ideas, but aren’t able to view things from a reader’s perspective and successfully transmit what’s in their head. (“I know you know that Mindy is a dog, but you never actually write that Mindy is a dog.”) At the start of this exercise, I tell them that a good writer can take what’s in his or her head and project it into a reader’s mind, so that the reader sees the same thing.
This project has four parts, and can be done over 1-2 days.
I tell the students to visualize a wrapped gift sitting on their desk. I actually have them stare at their cleared desks and not look at me while I ask them some questions (this is particularly fun if your principal walks in the room while you’re doing it—everyone looks crazy). How big is your gift? How much does it weigh? What color is the wrapping paper? What does it feel like when you run your hand over it? I like to do these visualization exercises with my students because so much of writing is taking the time to picture things in your head, and a lot of times they skip this part and go straight to writing.
After this, I hand out pre-cut squares of construction paper and ask students to draw the present on their desk, exactly as they saw it in their mind. If you have writing offices, it’s a very good idea to put these up so the students can’t peek at each other’s work.
Once this drawing is done, I ask students to describe the gift with just the right details, so that another person would be able to picture the exact same gift in his or her mind. They write this description on a half-sheet of lined paper (if you want to use some kind of fancy paper, or the back of wrapping paper, more power to you—I’m pretty simple when it comes to the crafty portion of these exercises). I might model this part for them first, writing a description with the class based on a common gift shown on the overhead/SmartBoard.
When they’re done, I collect everything, putting the drawings and writing in two separate piles.
Depending on the age of your class, this is where you might stop work for the day.
Keeping the drawings hidden, I pass out the descriptions randomly, making sure that no one has his/her own work. At this point, students have to draw a new gift, based solely on the description before them. If they find that there’s not enough information to do so…too bad. They cannot go and ask for clarification (in fact, the best way to do this is Secret Santa style with numbers or something so students do not even know the identity of their partner).
This is the really fun part. My kids love this.
Lay out the first set of illustrations across a large table. Students should take their new illustration and try to find its twin, without consulting anyone else. It’s a sort of assessment. If the description was well written, the two illustrations can sometimes look eerily similar, even though they were drawn by two different students. If there was not enough detail in the description, the writer will know it, because the gifts won’t look the same.
Allow students to mill about and share for a bit—they’ll be excited to compare their illustrations. Afterward, however, have a brief discussion about which descriptions “worked” and which did not. Ask students what they could have added to their descriptions to create a better image in the reader’s head.
That’s pretty much it! The thing I like about this activity is that it’s repeatable (with a different object, that is—pumpkins and houses work well). The second time you do it will be much faster since the kids already know the score, and they will be so excited to do it again, which is always a plus. You can also use it as a center (the first week they draw the illustration and describe it, the following week they are given an illustration to describe).
Besides being fun, I find that this activity helps kids with the concept of “Just because it’s in my head doesn’t mean it’s on the paper”—and that’s an important one!