Using Art to Teaching Descriptive Writing

When I first started teaching junior high students, I noticed a trend among my reluctant writers. They’d sit and stare at the page, and when I asked them why they weren’t writing, they’d said, “I don’t know what to write.”

My reply would be something ultra helpful along the lines of “Just start writing.”

Wow, what stellar guidance that was, no?

I’ve learned a few things over the years, and one of those things is that kids are used to STEPS. This led to my development of the “beginner baby steps” of descriptive writing. We start with a painting. I explain to them the reason for describing a painting–it’s so we are all looking at and talking about the same thing. When we write narratives, real or imagined, the writer has the scene in their head. The struggle is getting that scene on paper in a way that allows the reader to visualize the same scene. This past week, my sixth graders worked with Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun by Van Gogh.

Here are the steps:
1. Write down all of the objects you see (or features if you are describing a person/animal).
2. Brainstorm a list of words and phrases to describe each object. Then, refine/improve your list, using a thesaurus or other tools.
3. Write an interesting sentence about each object.
4. Combine your sentences into a paragraph containing a main idea.

EVERYONE can write down the objects they see in the painting (sun, sky, trees, mountains, ground). EVERYONE can write a few simple words to describe those items, and EVERYONE can write one sentence about each object.

Then, I challenge them to make their subjects work (switching from passive to active voice). Instead of saying, “The sun is yellow, hot, and burning,” they would make the sun “work” by having it do something. When asked what the sun DOES, they can usually come up with things like resting shining, burning, glowing, watching, etc. The new sentence could be something like, “The hot yellow sun watches the land below.”

It’s still not stellar. As a part of this descriptive writing unit we go over the “Write like Judy Schachner” writing strategies that I’ve written about before. I then ask them to add a writing strategy to their sentence. They might write something like, “The hot yellow sun watches over the land below like a guard of a kingdom.” Still not completely impressive, but 10x better than what they come up with on their own. And they are often so proud of these sentences! The thing I like the most about the “beginner baby steps” is if they are stuck, they have something to do. Sometimes it’s like “priming”–they just need to get started and then ideas start flowing!

This year I combined this peer sharing activity into the unit as another way to practice writing descriptively. Our final step will be to come back to personal narratives that we’ve been working on and add at least one very descriptive scene to them.

How do you get your middle school students to write more descriptively? Help me out! I’m always looking for new fun things to try. If you try this idea, let me know how it goes!