List Making & Sensory Imagery

by Karen Finneyfrock, Nathan Hale High School & Blue Heron Middle School

Teaching creative writing in ninth grade classrooms leads often to the same raised hand connected to the same question. “What do I do if I don’t know what to write about?”

The best tool in my belt for fixing this particular leak is List Making. Many of my writing prompts begin with the phrase, “Make a list…” If a student is stuck in the middle of writing, I say, “Make a list of things you might want to include in your poem.” If a student is stuck searching for a last line, I suggest, “Make a list of lines you might end with.” I have found in my own writing that if I have to make a list of 10 ways to solve a problem, I’ve generally solved it by the time I hit #7.

Recently in Mr. Sylver’s ninth grade class at Nathan Hale High School, I invited students to make a list of five smells they hate and, after that, five smells they love. We all know that smell is closely linked to memory because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system. In the process of making these two lists, students are activating memories.

I give students a time limit for the creation of their lists (about 2 minutes for each list) and I always say, “Don’t worry if you didn’t get all the way to 10, because you will only need 1 for this writing prompt.” Next, I ask students to chose the smell that is most linked to a particular memory in her mind and circle it. Then, I give students ten minutes to write a poem describing that memory and I ask them to be sure and include the smell in the poem.

This exercise engages students in using sensory imagery to depict a scene.  The following poem by Andrea S. arose from the exercise. 

by Andrea S.
The tulips weren’t blooming,
it was too muddy outside.
So we explored.
It was an Earl Gray day.
We ventured into the shop,
rose wood floors and crowded shelves.
Your mom was outside.
We walked carefully through
the crowded, quiet shop,
touching the trinkets we passed,
looking for something to do.
The bottle was just sitting there.
Its faded “sample” label temping us,
squeezing the soft white lotion
onto our hands.
They were smothered.
A muted brown sugar
broke the dim.
The smell that was left after
the cookies had been cooked
and eaten,
the smell of an Earl Gray day.
And holding hands, we left
the shop.

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