Last week, my students went on a nature walk on the trail behind my school. Their assignment was to use their senses to observe their surroundings, and periodically we’d stop for them to jot down descriptive words or phrases about what they had seen, heard, smelled, pretend tasted, and felt. We’ve been talking about adjectives, and this seemed like an interactive way for us to practice using adjectives and the five senses to color our writing. The students knew that after the nature walk, they’d be taking their charts to help them write a descriptive paragraph or poem.
They were all fairly engaged on the nature walk, and several of my students had wonderful descriptive phrases on their papers. Some of them, however, could not get past writing phrases such as, “The air smelled good” and “The trees are tall.” I encouraged them to think about how else they could describe the air and trees, but for some of mine, this was still a challenge.
The next day, we took our charts, and wrote descriptive paragraphs or poems about our nature walk. As I expected, the students who had more descriptive details on their chart had a much easier time crafting their piece. However, as I was walking around the room, I noticed that all of my students were starting their sentences with: “I saw…..”; “I heard….”; “I felt….”; etc.. When our writing block ended, I had them put it away, and planned to do a mini lesson on sentence variety the following day. I realize that next time I do this activity, I should change the chart. The chart is set up with rows, where they jotted down their notes, and each row starts with an “I” phrase followed by one of the senses. I wonder if this visual makes it harder for them to get beyond the concrete.
The next day, I modeled many different sentences for them. I read descriptive poems and paragraphs from previous students. I wrote a paragraph like the ones I was seeing and we talked through alternate ways to start our sentences, so we could describe our senses without using similar phrases each time. They were throwing out ways to change the paragraph I had written, and I walked away from the mini-lesson thinking my students grasped it.
As they transitioned into writing, all in different stages in the process, as they finished their drafts, I encouraged them to read over it and think about how they could write two of their sentences differently like we had just worked on. Yet many of them were still stuck. I began pulling them one at a time and helping them brainstorm, and also giving them ideas for phrasing. I wish I hadn’t done this as most of them chose to use the phrasing I was brainstorming out loud in their new sentences. Thus, their paragraphs sound more like me than them.
I feel a bit stuck as to how to teach sentence variety differently. I know the way I taught it didn’t transition well to their independent writing, but I’m not sure what to do differently. How can I help them learn how to vary their sentences for descriptive writing? What are ways that you teach your students sentence variety? I’d love your insights as to how to help my students grasp this concept and begin using variety on their own!