Rhetoric and Composition/Teacher's Handbook/Description

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Teaching the descriptive essay offers the opportunity to address concepts like word choice, figurative language and detailed writing that students often find troublesome. The descriptive essay also allows the students to write with their own voices without relying on research to support their ideas, which lessens the intimidation that many students feel in writing classes. The descriptive essay works best when it is taught early in the semester.


Objectives for the Unit

1. Students will recognize effective word choice, and will begin to demonstrate the ability to employ the best words in their own writing.

2. Students will be introduced to figurative language as used by professional writers and they will model the use of figurative language in their own writing.

3. Students will incorporate sensory details into their writing in a meaningful fashion.


Lesson Plans

These lesson plans are designed for a four credit class that meets two days a week (class length of approximately 1:40).

I. This activity is designed to focus on writing descriptions using sensory details. Provide each student with a pickle and instruct them not to eat them until given permission to do so. Have the students write a visual description of the pickle. Instruct the students to write in paragraph form and give them between five and ten minutes to complete the task. They should focus on writing concrete descriptions, and avoid abstract terms. Once they have finished choose four or five students to share their writing with the class (assuming the class has no more than 25 students, every student should be able to share his/her writing during this activity).

Repeat this activity writing descriptions of the pickle’s smell, feel, taste and sound (taste should precede sound so the students can write about the noise the pickle makes when it is bitten and chewed.) Following the final round of shared writings, have the class identify the descriptions that they found particularly interesting and segue into why those descriptions are so effective.

Note: Several different items can be used rather than using just one (the pickle). This allows the instructor to customize each sensory description.

Following the discussion of the effective descriptions, move on to the idea of abstract descriptions. Post a “cute animal photo” (a puppy or kitten or something like that). Have the students jot down an abstract term that describes the photo. Ask a few of the students to share the words they wrote down. Next, have the students write explanations of why they chose the words they abstract terms that they did. In other words, what makes the photo “cute,” or “precious,” or “disgusting,” or whatever else they wrote.


II. “Introduce” the students to figurative language. Most college students probably already have a basic understanding of the terms, so a question and answer format may be the best approach (“What is a metaphor?” “Who can give an example of personification?”). The exact terms used will depend on the instructor, but simile and metaphor are “musts.” As the terms are introduced provide examples, or better yet, have the students provide the examples.

Provide the students with copies of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe and, working in pairs, have them read through the first paragraph. As they read have them identify as many examples of figurative language as they can find. The identification should include the term, a quote and an explanation. Then, read the opening paragraph aloud, pausing whenever appropriate for students to share what they have found. By reading through the introductory paragraph aloud the instructor can point out any examples that the class fails to identify.

Following the “House of Usher” activity, assign Annie Dillard’s essay “The Stunt Pilot” and instruct the students to find an interesting example of figurative language from the essay. After reading the essay, the students should write a 300 word description of a their writing processes in which they mimic Dillard’s use of figurative language. These will be shared in class.