Powerful Descriptive Writing Rich with Voice and Style

May 20, 2013
Posted by: Joshua

Voice is important; like any skill, it must be taught.

    Recently, I had the privilege of attending the Plain Talk about Reading conference in New Orleans, LA where I had the pleasure hearing Anita Archer present on scaffolded writing instruction. Too often, I think we as teachers do what Archer refers to as “Bless You Writing,” where we give students a writing task and then say, “Write, bless you!” and don’t build in scaffolded instruction or give any feedback or time for practice during writing. Anita Archer followed up her comment about “Bless You Writing” with a powerful maxim, “Writing is not caught; writing it taught.” Students won’t magically write with voice or use interesting elaboration unless we teach them the craft.

    It’s with that in mind that I am emphasizing the importance of good mentor texts and giving time for plenty of practice on the skill/craft we want students to use. If we don’t scaffold in practice, we won’t see mastery or that skill nor will it transfer to other types of writing.

    Because of  a teacher culture of “bless you writing”, students understandably often struggle with style, voice, and craft because it hasn’t been taught to them. I find this especially true with descriptive  and informational writing in my own classroom, and my fifth grade special education students usually produce some seriously perfunctory descriptive writing that looks like this,

My House
    My house is little and has windows and doors. It’s green and yellow, and there’s a front porch. Inside there are rooms and stuff. Stuff like chairs and beds. It smells good in my house. I like my house.

    While I understand that for some struggling students, a piece of writing like that may show a lot of growth and be a huge step (in fact, this is a step up from where this particular student started), I believe in holding my students with special needs to high expectations, pushing them as much as I can.

“My Toes” is a powerful mentor text for voice and style.

    Lashanda Anakwah’s text, “My Toes” (2012), is a strong mentor text for descriptive writing because she avoids the usual pitfalls of descriptive writing where a student rambles through the five senses and then says, “I’m done.” Instead, she takes an entirely different route. She begins with a bold statement about her opinion of the object in question (she denounces her toes), followed by wildly comparing it to absurd and hilarious things (“a shriveled sausage” to start). This is preferable because the reader can still picture the object being described (we know her toes are wrinkly, chubby, and stubby like sausages) without her having told us directly. It’s interesting it’s funny, and it’s loaded voice. Coupled with that, “My Toes” is not just a descriptive composition. Ms. Anakwah uses her toes as a way to get to the heart of her identity and who she is, and what seems like a humorous, quirky description of her toes becomes a piece where she places herself in the world.

I’m building a unit on “My Toes” and identity based on something with which I’ve had success.

    I taught a descriptive writing unit earlier this school year where I introduced comparison as a much more powerful tool for description as opposed to listing basic sights and sounds. During this unit, I wasn’t able to find an authentic, student-written text, so I had to use my own exemplar I’d written. The results were still powerful, which gives me even more hope for the potential of using “My Toes.”
    My fifth grade special education students were describing famous landmarks in Paris. One student describing the gardens at Versailles described them as “a maze” and wrote, “The garden looks like a giant puzzle I could do with my friends.” A student describing the Eiffel Tower called it an “upside down ice cream cone,” and a student describing the Arc de Triomphe called it a “table for giants.”
    In order to achieve these colorful descriptions, my class and I went through a simple process. We took our topic, the Eiffel Tower, for example, and then listed the important features it had we wanted to describe (tall, metal, wide at bottom, narrow at top, brass/brown in color, lit up colorfully at night). Then we all agreed NOT to use those words in our writing. Instead, we had to find a way to compare it to something else. In this instance, the student working on this Parisian landmark (who just happens to have a learning disability) decided he would liken it to an “upside-down ice cream cone” and said it “was a Mardi Gras parade lit up at night.”

“My Toes” will serve as the mentor text for a “This is me” unit on descriptive writing and how it relates to identity.

    Knowing the power of comparison in descriptive writing from my “Trip to Paris” unit, I am going to use “My Toes” as a mentor text for a descriptive writing unit called “This is me” where we continue building in the idea of using comparison (metaphor) to describe, but we make it more personal by describing a key feature of our appearance to explain and convey our identity, who we are. In this unit, we’ll build even more upon the idea that powerful descriptive writing lies in the world of wild comparisons and put the fallacy that descriptive writing should be based on listing adjectives based on the five senses to bed.

    Below is a five-step outline I’ve laid for the basis of the unit; the beauty of the steps in bold is that they really can apply as the framework for any writing unit—especially for students who struggle and who need multiple exposures to a skill and lots of practice.

1. Anchor the unit with the mentor text.
    We will begin the unit showing Lashanda Anakwah’s text as a model going through the text one comparison at a time discussing its meaning and the root of the comparison. We’ll also discuss and note how she uses these comparisons to tell the story of her identity.

2. Model the skill you learned from the mentor text.

    We will then engage in modeling followed by shared/guided writing where we describe my hair (my students are always commenting on my hair’s ability to stand up on its own whenever it wants so I anticipate we’ll be able to collaboratively say quite a bit about my hair). I’ll begin modeling and thinking like Lashanda: choosing a physical feature that speaks to my identity;for me it is my hair. It’s thick like my mother’s. It full like the mane of a horse; I did grow up on farm. I’ll ask my students to choose their own physical feature (and provide guidance to help them connect it with something that’s important to who they are: their mom’s eyes, their dad’s smile).

3. Use 2 good doses guided practice* for students to really get enough exposure to the skill you’re asking them to use in their own writing.
    Students will then jump in and help write our collective piece on my hair. (Sentence starters or ideas of potential topics to compare to may be helpful.)  We’ll start by describing my hair using the old automatic way: brown, wavy, has a mind of its own, stands up, messy, thick/full. We’ll then each contribute to taking one of those perfunctory descriptions and making it better.
*I know it may sound like a long, tedious process of modeling followed by two rounds of guided practice, but this really only translates to 3-5 class days—and from my experience throwing in the second round of practice before asking students to do it on their own really increases students’ mastery of the skill.

4. Students write independently.

    After two rounds of guided writing, my students will write independently and describe one of their physical features that speaks to their identity (which they’ll have already chosen). Even though they’re writing independently, I’ll continue to imbed with teacher conferencing and feedback during the process to support and scaffold and set them up for success.

5. Assess the skill with a cold write.
    While the identity piece is the capstone of the unit, to assess my students’ writing cold and see if this skill has become habit, I will finally ask students do their own descriptive writing on a topic of their choice without guidance. And of course if it doesn’t, we’ll do that critical thing special educators and all teachers do tirelessly, give it another college try.

I want to hear from you!

    Do you have any tips or ideas that have been powerful for teaching descriptive writing or voice? What’s worked for you in helping reach struggling writers while still holding them to high expectations? Please leave your comments!