Mini-Lesson Monday: This lesson stinks, literally.  Teaching Sensory Details in Narrative Writing.

FullSizeRender-1I, like many of my students, am a kinesthetic learner.  Not only do I learn by doing, but for many tasks, I require a hands-on approach to fully grasp the complexity of a concept.  Yet as a teacher, applying kinesthetic techniques to English concepts can be somewhat challenging.  While we write and read and physically play with words, I try to create simulations and activities that allow my students to experiment with writing in unique ways.  This activity, which is one of my favorites of the year, uses students’ olfactory sense to stimulate sensory detail writing within their personal narratives.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will identify personal memories associated with unidentified scents.  Recalling prior and newly acquired knowledge, they will translate their observations into descriptive writing by constructing sentences that rely on sensory details.  Finally, students will apply their understanding of descriptive writing to their own personal narratives.

Lesson:  This mini-lesson takes preparation, but students’ responses are worth the extra time.  First, collect the following supplies: Plastic cups (I use blue Solo cups), a permanent marker, tinfoil, a toothpick, rubber bands (optional), and a variety of objects that have a scent.  This year I used lime juice, perfume, scented wax blocks from Walmart, BBQ sauce, apple cider vinegar, garlic, mint extract, crayons, and Play-Doh.  Every year is different though and I typically rely on what I have around my home.

I put the scented sauces, liquids, and objects in each of the cups, cover the cups with tin-foil, and wrap a rubber band around the top to secure the foil.  I label each cup with a number and poke holes in the tin-foil with a toothpick.  Next I place the cups around the room. After taking some notes on the concept of “show don’t tell,” students walk around the room smelling the contents of each cup.  They must not peek (believe me they will try)!


My students were convinced I had a tiny Abercrombie and Fitch model in this cup. In reality, it was a block of scented wax from Walmart.

I provide each student with a grid in which they fill in the cup number, adjectives to describe the scent, and personal memories the scent conjures.  They must then write a two-to-three-line story or scenario in which they describe the scent without identifying what the scent is.  By the end of the activity, when we come back together as a group, students excitedly volunteer to read their sentences in order to reveal the contents of the cup.

Follow Up:  Following this activity, we identify sensory details within our independent reading books and take turns discussing these details within our groups.  Finally, during workshop time, students add sensory details to their personal narrative rough drafts, in turn “showing” images rather than “telling” them.  The process of digging into their narratives and writing in the margins reinforces the messy, step-by-step process of revision that many of my students struggle to grasp.  If time allows, students partake in a whip share in which we each share one line from our narratives that includes sensory details.

What are some untraditional writing activities you use? How do you get your students moving around the classroom?


Tagged: , , , , ,

3 thoughts on “Mini-Lesson Monday: This lesson stinks, literally.  Teaching Sensory Details in Narrative Writing.

  1. Amy October 20, 2015 at 1:58 pm Reply

    Jackie, I used to be a fun teacher like you. I am grateful for your reminder of some of the clever activities I used to bring into the classroom to help students think. I don’t know what happened, but I’ve become quite dull. Thanks for sharpening my planning.


    • jackiecatcher October 23, 2015 at 11:11 am Reply

      Thank you Amy…I think it all depends on your audience too. I teach freshmen, which means they require a bit more “entertaining” to a certain degree. My AP Literature kids, on the other hand, get a kick out of analyzing literature and reading. Discussions are engaging enough oftentimes. It’s refreshing in a different way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] have to get out of the way and let them write.  I have mini-lessons planned on pacing, setting, sensory details, and characterization.  But I’m finding beautiful writing already extant in their […]


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: