After Shane Cucksey’s seventh graders returned to Corte Madera School after a trip to Yosemite, their classroom swirled with conversation about their jaunts through forests, climbs to awe-inspiring panoramic views, and challenges overcome. The kids were proud of their feats: some crawled through the cold, dark spider caves. Others trekked a steep, dizzying hike to Vernal Falls. And some troops came face-to-face with a stealthy coyote in a serene, misty meadow, with the granite behemoth of El Capitan looming 3,000 feet above them.
Yosemite National Park pulsates with life, from its vistas of towering mountains, sounds of crunchy gravel on trails, scents of fresh grass, tastes of edible wildflowers, and textures of smooth, untouched sand along riverbanks. The countless letters, essays, and books of John Muir recount these sensory layers, particularly within Yosemite Valley.
Before their trip, the students read excerpts of Muir’s writing, and when they returned to class, they were asked to write a descriptive essay about an experience in this vast wilderness. I met with each student, read their rough draft, and then discussed how to expand it by sprucing it up with details that tickled their reader’s senses.
Most fourth to eighth grade writers rely on sight to breathe life into a description of a place, person, or object. Interestingly, current research in neuroscience shows that smell and scent, not sight, induce more vivid memories in one's mind. Most students also lack details that evoke a particular mood, as well as reflections about how they feel at a certain moment. (Some kids are so used to being told not to use “I” in other assignments, so when it comes down to tackling a descriptive piece, they hold back!)
Writing a descriptive essay may be challenging, but children have the material, in their memory and imagination, to create a successful one. Writing a descriptive essay is an important skill that will last a child through college and beyond, and opens creative portals that will invigorate your child's writing and make them more perceptive about the world around them.
Let’s say your child is writing a descriptive essay on their descent into the spider caves of Yosemite. Sounds frightening, doesn’t it? Well, some of Cucksey’s seventh graders feared this activity on the itinerary, even though they were told they wouldn’t encounter any creepy arachnids. After the experience, the kids described the journey as adrenaline pumping, terrifying, yet rewarding. I knew, then, they had the potential to evoke this place.
Before picking up a pencil, however, your child should consider these questions to figure out the essay’s mood and purpose.
- What place will I describe to my reader, who probably hasn’t been there?
- Why am I choosing this place, and not another?
- Where is this place? How did I get there?
- Does it remind me of other places I’ve been?
- How was I feeling? Did I feel different at the end of the day?
- Have I felt this way before? If so, where? Can I make a connection to both places?
- What do I want my reader to feel after reading my essay?
When creating description, students should primarily write from memory, but add details from research of the place they visited – specifics they may not have known, like the length of the caves from its entrance to exit, for instance.
After they pen a draft, the fun begins. Teachers show how to beef up descriptions in various ways, but one method is using a sensory checklist. Since many students rely on what they see to describe something, they can use these steps to “dress up” each sentence they write.
Consider this sentence: I crawled through the spider caves.
Let’s take it through the sensory stages to expand it:
The Sight Step: What can I show my reader? What did I see?
I crawled through the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands.
The Sound Step: What did I hear that isn’t obvious to my reader?
I crawled through the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands, and heard the breathing of my classmate in front of me.
The Scent Step: Could I smell anything?
I smelled dirt as I crawled though the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands, and heard the breathing of my classmate in front of me.
The Tactile Step: How I can make my reader touch what I touched?
I smelled dirt as my skin grazed the ground as I crawled through the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands, and heard the breathing of my classmate in front of me.
The Taste Step: Did I taste anything that I could share with my reader?
I smelled dirt as my skin grazed the ground as I crawled through the pitch-black spider caves, seeing only my hands, and heard the breathing of my classmate in front of me, who kicked dust from his shoes into my mouth.
Passing every sentence through this process may take time, but students can use it as a preliminary way to bulk up sections of their work. It may be difficult to incorporate all five steps into a single sentence – it’s not impossible, though young writers may be more comfortable with expanding a sentence into several.
In the new, detailed sentence about the caves, there's an air of mystery and apprehension. If your child pays attention to these sensory details, their emotions – and the overall mood of the essay – will emerge naturally into a descriptive journey for reader and writer alike.