According to one innovative teacher, it most certainly can–thanks to the value of up-close personal experience. I met Chiara, a fourth grade teacher, on a recent visit to Kyrene SD, just outside of Phoenix. She shared a terrific writing lesson with me–but it’s so much more than a lesson. It’s a whole way of thinking about writing. We sometimes underestimate the value of personal, hands-on experience, Chiara notes–and sometimes we give students prompts or assignments that take them well beyond the boundaries of what they know first hand: best vacation, special day with the family, place you’ll never forget, favorite pet. “For some students,” she notes, “these things are not part of everyday life. But sometimes, you can bring the experience to them.”
At this time of year, many children are traveling to pumpkin patches to choose a pumpkin they will carve at home. Later, some may write about this. But not every child gets to visit the pumpkin patch–and some have never carved a pumpkin. Chiara decided to do something about that. She brings her own pumpkins into class, where students who may never have handled a pumpkin can do just that. “Lift it,” she tells them. “See how heavy it is. Notice the color. It’s orange, right–but it isn’t just orange is it? Then feel it carefully. Run your fingers over the surface. Where is it smooth? What else do you feel? Touch the stem, too. What words would you use to describe that?” She has them look at the pumpkin from all angles and asks the important question: “Where should we carve the face? Every pumpkin has a ‘best’ spot. Let’s try to find ours.” The students draw before the carving even begins so they can think how to make the most expressive face possible. “I usually do the actual carving,” she explains (noting that she uses special carving tools, not knives), “but they direct me at every step. It’s definitely their project.” As Chiara works her way through everyone’s favorite part–removing the stringy, slimy insides–she has students watch, touch, and–yes–sniff. They brainstorm words to describe what they are experiencing. Chiara often collects the pumpkin seeds, takes them home to toast, and brings them back to class so students get the taste of the pumpkin, too. The whole experience, she explains, not only expands vocabulary but provides an easy bridge into writing because the sensory experience is so immediate and vivid. “It is,” she told me, “one of their favorite fall writing activities because the firsthand experience has made them feel like experts.”
You might think about doing some pumpkin carving of your own this fall and/or imagine other ways in which you can bring sensory experience into the classroom not only now, but throughout the year. When writers feel comfortable about a topic, ideas explode and voice soars. Just take it from the teachers of Kyrene. Thank you, Chiara. And happy carving!